Over the years, we've followed a number of expeditions to the South Pacific in search of evidence of what may have happened to Earhart. On going searches near the island of Nikumaroro have led many to believe that she and Noonan drifted off course, ran out of fuel, and crash landed near the tiny atoll. Most think that if they did survive that crash, they probably perished there due to extreme heat and a lack of food and drinking water. But, if this photo is to be believed, the duo may have been captured by the Japanese instead.
NBC News has posted a story that offers insights into the photo, which has been annualized closely by a team of experts. They have determined that the image appears to be authentic and undoctored. It reportedly shows a woman with a short-cropped haircut and wearing pants – two Earhart trademarks – standing with her back to the photographer. A man who closely resembles Noonan is nearby, his face clearly in view.
Facial recognition specialists have taken a look at the photo and have determined that it very well may indeed be Noonan. A number of features, including a distinctive hairline and nose, match that of Earhart's navigator, who appears to be standing on a dock somewhere.
The image was discovered in the U.S. National Archive and is believed to have been taken by someone who was spying on the Japanese for the Americans back in the late 1930's. It is unclear if the U.S. government may have known about Earhart and Noonan being taken captive, but that information may have remained buried so as to not compromise the identify of the spy. Unsurprisingly, Japanese officials say they have no record of the two aviators being in their custody.
According to the NBC report, the image is labeled "Jaluit Atoll" and is believed to have been taken in 1937 following Earhart's disappearance. If she and Noonan were captured by the Japanese, it would hold true to stories that have been shared by locals for years. Natives to the South Pacific islands have long said that the duo were taken into custody by the Japanese military and spirited away. Experts for the History Channel special say they now believe that Earhart and Noonan were taken to Saipan, where they most likely died while imprisoned there.
This is another fascinating element to a mystery that continues to confound. The History Channel special should indeed be a good one to watch. Even as a child I remember hearing rumors about Earhart being captured by the Japanese, although there was never any evidence to support that theory. This seems to lend at least a little bit of credence to the idea. Here's a preview of what to expect.