On July 2nd, 1937, somewhere between Lae, New Guinea, and Howland Island, a small coral island in the South Pacific, a final transmission was sent from the pilot of a Lockheed L-10E Electra twin engine plane. The pilot of the plane was attempting an aerial circumnavigation of the world, and was apparently having difficulty finding Howland Island and the American coast guard cutter Itasca, which had been stationed there to help the plane refuel and to act as a homing beacon. The final transmission went like this: “We are on a line of position 157/337, will repeat this message, we will repeat this message on 6210 kcs. Wait.”
These were the last known words of one of the twentieth centuries most remarkable people, Amelia Earhart. Her plane, her co-pilot Fred Noonan, and her own remains have never been discovered.
There’s been a lot of talk about Earhart in the news lately. You may have heard that the History Channel, this past Sunday, aired a two hour documentary detailing ‘new’ evidence of Earhart’s disappearance. They released a photograph purporting to show Earhart and Noonan on a dock in the Marshall Islands in 1937, which was at that time occupied by the Empire of Japan. The theory, as it goes, was that Earhart actually did not crash, that instead she made an emergency landing and was captured by the Japanese as an American spy.
It took very little time for the History Channel’s evidence to be debunked. A Japanese military historian hunted down the photograph, which is probably not of Earhart at all, and found an original date of 1935, two years before Earhart disappeared. The National Archives, where the photo had been found initially by the History Channel, revealed that they had never been able to confirm a date for the photo, and just like that, the evidence for Amelia Earhart as a Japanese P.O.W. went down in metaphorical flames.
The truth of what happened to Earhart is probably much more simplistic. There are two likely explanations. One is that she crash landed somewhere in the Pacific Ocean. This theory posits that she either died in her life raft, or she went down with her plane. This has never been confirmed, since there is a vast area that would have to be covered by a search team that is thousands of miles wide by some three miles deep, although scientists believe the plane, had it survived the crash, would still be relatively intact on the ocean floor.
The likelier explanation, one posited by The International Group for Historical Aircraft Recovery (TIGHAR) is that Earhart crash-landed on a tiny Pacific Island known as Nikumaroro (at the time it was called Gardner Island). This theory states she would have been able to land the plane on a flat stretch of coral that is visible at low tide, and from there would have made one last garbled radio transmission that was unintelligible and was never confirmed to be her. Then, she and Noonan were left stranded on the island until exposure, heat, thirst, or one of a dozen other things that will eventually happen to anyone unlucky enough to be stranded on a desert island, finished them off. There are a number of factors that suggest this might be the case. Gardner Island was in line with the last coordinates that Earhart sent out. Wreckage of a type similar to that believed to have been on the Lockheed Electra plane has been discovered on the island. Also found was a shoe, dating from the 1930’s, which is of a type similar to that worn by Earhart.
Ultimately, we still don’t know what happened to Amelia Earhart. In all likelihood, we never will. This mystery surrounding her disappearance is one reason that these alternate theories surface from time to time, claiming to reveal the “true story” of what happened to Amelia Earhart. Part of this is our innate desire to find conspiracy and a complex truth in areas where the simpler explanation will suffice. Part of it, no doubt, is our reticence to accept that so famous and daring an aviator, a true modern mythological hero, could be vanquished by something so relatively rudimentary as starvation or exposure to the elements.
The disappearance of Amelia Earhart can offer a deeper lesson, however. Whether Earhart drowned, or died marooned on an island or in a Japanese prison camp, we may never know. But we do know that Amelia Earhart died in an effort to do something she loved and something in which she believed. It’s a lesson we should all heed when facing our own mortality. The question we should ask ourselves is, “If I died today, would it be doing what I believed in, what I am passionate about, and what I truly love?” Unless you can answer in the affirmative, it may be time to readjust your life, until you too can be chasing your dream the way Amelia Earhart did.