- Historic Sites
Seventy-five years ago the "first lady of the air" vanished over the Pacific Ocean attempting to circumnavigate the globe. Today there may be renewed hope of solving the mystery.
Summer 2012 | Volume 62, Issue 2
Perhaps TIGHAR’s strongest pieces of evidence are to be found in a collection of nonaircraft relics discovered on Nikumaroro over the years—a thermometer, parts of patent medicine bottles, a broken pocketknife, and other small items. Special attention has been focused on the left sole, heel, and assorted bits of what they insisted was a size nine woman’s oxford of the sort Amelia wore during the flight. In fact, the initial reports from the shoe manufacturer suggested that it was either for a large woman’s foot, or a small man’s. William Foshag Jr., president of the company that manufactured the Cat’s Paw heel, described it as a unisex item, noting that “it could, have been on a man’s shoe.” Unfortunately for the “Amelia’s shoe” hypothesis, Earhart wore size six shoes, a fact confirmed by her sister, and by two surviving pairs of her shoes. Undeterred, TIGHAR measured Amelia’s foot as seen in a photograph, determining that she wore size 8½-to-9 shoes.
The list of odds and ends of American and European manufactured goods collected on the island continues to grow with each expedition. Press releases describing such objects have been distributed at critical moments to keep the TIGHAR effort alive in the media, generating continued public interest. The latest revelation in May 2012 described fragments of what appears to have been a jar of Dr. Berry’s Freckle Ointment, an American cosmetic.
TIGHAR suggests that while none of these items can be directly connected to Earhart and Noonan, their presence on this remote atoll is convincing circumstantial evidence. Consider that the island, four nautical miles long and a mile-and-a-half across at the widest point, was continuously occupied by Gilbertese natives from 1936 into the 1960s. During World War II the population of the island was supplemented by U.S. Coast Guardsmen manning a Loran navigation station. During the peak years, as many as 200 people were living on the island. We know that number included many women, and at least a few Europeans and one American. That’s a lot of people who could lose or discard the items in question, or run across evidence of the presence of Earhart and Noonan, if there was anything to be found.
But there always seems to be new evidence to keep the hypothesis alive. Early in 2012 a TIGHAR photo analyst determined that the object protruding from the water in a 1937 photo of the lagoon could be the landing gear strut of a Lockheed 10E. The State Department, which had worked with TIGHAR over the years to arrange permission for the repeated searches, was impressed. With Secretary Clinton’s blessing, Gillespie and his team will set off on their tenth expedition to “Niku” in early July. Perhaps the new expedition will uncover hard evidence, the proverbial smoking gun, and prove TIGHAR’s case at long last.
Gillespie and company now face serious competition. For most researchers, the possibility that the aviators went down at sea is still the best bet. If so, the chance of finding them has always seemed remote. In March and April 2002 and again in 2006, Nauticos, a deep-ocean search firm, set out on a 1.5-million-dollar sonar survey of the ocean bottom in the general neighborhood of Howland and Baker Islands, looking for the Electra—17,000 feet down. The group selected a search area based on Elgin Long’s research. They had swept about 630 square miles of seabed, two-thirds of their target area, when technical problems forced them to return to port. Like TIGHAR, they are raising money to complete the job and check ocean-floor anomalies discovered during the first expedition.
Only time will tell if the last resting place of Amelia Earhart and Fred Noonan will ever be discovered. As for me, I am by no means sure that I want any of the searches to succeed. For seven decades, the mystery of Amelia’s death has fueled renewed interest in her purposeful life.
I would prefer to leave her where she is, and reflect on the 1939 eulogy in song offered by “Red River” Dave McEnery:
There’s a beautiful, beautiful field
Far away in a land that is fair.
Happy landings to you Amelia Earhart
Farewell, first lady of the air.