Sunday, August 26, 2018


Thomas F. King
August, 2017


Its 80th anniversary in 2017 witnessed an explosion of media interest in the 1937 disappearance of aviation pioneers Amelia Earhart and Fred Noonan – perhaps most vividly reflected in a short-lived History Channel documentary (c.f. and the popularity of podcasts in the “Chasing Earhart” series (

In 2018 I published a novel about the disappearance and its aftermath – Amelia Earhart UNRESCUED (King 2018; – that is, about how I envision them.. UNRESCUED and its 2009 sequel, Thirteen Bones (King 2009;, are fiction. Well-grounded fiction, I think, and entertaining fiction, I hope, but fiction nonetheless, not fact.

Facts are rather scarce about the Earhart/Noonan disappearance. It’s well documented, though, that on the morning of July 2nd, 1937, nearing the end of their record-setting flight around the world near the equator, they took off in their Lockheed Electra 10E aircraft from Lae, New Guinea. They were set to land over 2,000 nautical miles to the northeast at Howland Island, a tiny raised coral island in mid-Pacific, half a degree north of the equator and four degrees east of the prime meridian. There they were to refuel and fly to Honolulu, then on to California.

It’s also well documented that they never arrived at Howland, and a vigorous search turned up no trace of them (See Gillespie 2006). What happened to Earhart, Noonan, and their Electra has been described as one of the 20th century’s greatest mysteries. Many hypotheses – that is, semi-educated guesses[1] – have been advanced to solve the mystery.
In this paper I’d like to summarize and compare some of the most widely believed-in hypotheses.

How I Came to the Earhart Mystery

My father, the late U.S. Navy Cdr. T.T. (Ted) King was in military government in the Pacific during World War II. He’d go ashore once the Marines had more or less secured an island and oversee setting up arrangements for the local people and captured Japanese military personnel. He was on Kosrae, Pohnpei, Chuuk, Guam, and Saipan, among other islands. So he brought home stories about Amelia Earhart, who he said he regarded as a “dizzy dame” who’d gotten lost and no doubt gone into the drink. He discounted stories he’d heard about her being captured by the Japanese.

I didn’t pay much attention; I was a kid, with other things on my mind.

In 1977, I went to Saipan as “Consultant in Archaeology and Historic Preservation” to the High Commissioner of the Trust Territory of the Pacific Islands. I was based on Saipan, but my beat was the rest of Micronesia, helping set up what would become the historic preservation programs of Palau, the Federated States of Micronesia, and the Republic of the Marshall Islands. Like my by then deceased father, I heard Earhart stories, but didn’t attend to them much – my business was helping build programs that Micronesians could support, to preserve Micronesian history and culture, not stories about lost American flyers. And the Marianas, where Earhart stories were thick on the ground, weren’t my responsibility.

When my time in the islands was done, I went back to the mainland and spent ten years with the Advisory Council on Historic Preservation, which advises the U.S. president and congress about historic preservation matters. Toward the end of my tenure there (I survived the Reagan administration, but not that of GHW Bush), I met Ric Gillespie and Pat Thrasher.

Ric and Pat are the creators and leaders of TIGHAR – The International Group for Historic Aircraft Recovery, a non-profit organization dedicated to preserving historic aircraft and researching aviation history. About the time I was leaving the Advisory Council, Ric contacted me about a project TIGHAR was taking on – investigating the hypothesis that Earhart and Noonan had wound up on Nikumaroro, an uninhabited atoll in the Phoenix Islands of Kiribati. To make a long story short, I joined TIGHAR’s first expedition to the island in 1989, and got hooked on the Earhart mystery. Pursuing an answer to it has been my hobby for the last 30 years. I’ve been to the Phoenix Islands eight times and done research in Fiji as well as in various U.S. locations. I’ve co-authored a book and a summary article about our work (King et al 2004; King 2012), as well as two novels based on it (King 2008, 2018). I’ve contributed quite a few postings to TIGHAR’s website ( and maintain my own “Amelia Earhart Archaeology” blog (

All this has led me to learn a lot about Earhart, Noonan, their disappearance, and the various hypotheses that purport to account for their disappearance; that’s the basis for what I’ll share here.

The Hypotheses

Setting aside propositions like alien abduction and passage into another dimension[2] (which might be correct, but how would we find out?), there are five or six semi-testable hypotheses about what happened to Earhart and Noonan.

The “Crashed and Sank” Hypothesis

The “Crashed and Sank” hypothesis is a popular one, presumably because it seems conservative – and perhaps because it offers the possibility of recovering Earhart’s Electra from the ocean bottom, maybe with its crew’s remains still inside. Several investors over the years have put a lot of money into searching the sea bottom for the plane (cf.

“Crashed and Sank” assumes that Earhart and Noonan simply ran out of fuel and went into the drink. This is certainly possible, but the hypothesis doesn’t account for some important evidence – notably the fact that over 100 radio messages were received after Earhart’s disappearance, many on Earhart’s frequencies, by stations in and around the Pacific. Some were in what was identified as Earhart’s voice, and several of them were plotted by radio direction finding as emanating from the Phoenix Islands – where at the time there were no known operative radios. To broadcast at all, Earhart’s plane would have had to be on land, not sinking in the ocean (See Gillespie 2006:189-90). As we’ll see, there’s also evidence supporting alternative hypotheses.

The “Turned Around” Hypotheses

Two hypothesis currently in play have Earhart and Noonan winding up pretty close to where they started on July 2nd, crashing on New Britain (See or on Papua New Guinea’s Buka Island ( 

Both hypotheses are based on the observation of aircraft wreckage resembling Earhart’s Electra observed during World War II and/or more recently, and oral historical data.  Both assume that Earhart and Noonan realized during their flight that they could not make it to Howland Island, so turned around and tried unsuccessfully to return to Lae – or that they didn’t get too far from Lae at all.

Both hypotheses have a high hurdle to clear. The U.S. Coast Guard Cutter Itasca, lying off Howland Island on the morning of July 2nd, recorded receiving radio signals from Earhart at signal strengths indicating that she was getting steadily closer to them. One of her last such signals reported that she was “on” the island (i.e. over its mapped location) but couldn’t see it. These radio data are deeply inconsistent with the notion that she was, at the time, not near Howland Island but near New Britain or Buka Island almost 2,000 nautical miles to the southwest. Still, there might be some way for the New Britain or Buka Island hypothesis to be correct, and people are pursuing them – in effect testing them by looking for identifiable wreckage.

The “Japanese Capture” Hypothesis

“Japanese Capture” is one of the most popular of the Earhart/Noonan disappearance hypotheses. It is of particular interest to residents of the Mariana and Marshall Islands, and it’s the one my father and I caught wind of during our times in the islands.  There are several variants on this hypothesis, most of them outlined and advocated with varying levels of enthusiasm by Mike Campbell in his “Amelia Earhart: the Truth at Last” book and website (See and Campbell 2016).

“Japanese Capture” proposes that one way or another – in some versions flying there directly, in others crashing in the Marshall Islands and being picked up by a Japanese ship (and there are other variants) – Earhart and Noonan wound up in Japanese captivity on Saipan (or perhaps Tinian), and there were either executed or died of natural causes. Since neither the Japanese nor the American government has ever acknowledged that this occurred, Campbell and other Japanese Capture proponents tend to say that both governments have been engaged in a cover-up for the last eighty years.

Japanese Capture is supported by a rather large body of anecdotal evidence – that is, stories that people have told that are interpreted as evidence of Earhart’s and/or Noonan’s and/or their airplane’s presence in the Marianas and/or Marshalls. Stories have come from residents of the Northern Marianas, Marshalls, and Chuuk (among other island groups) as well as from World War II U.S. servicemen and women (including high ranking officers with access to naval intelligence[3]) and a few Japanese nationals.  Many of the accounts are second and third hand.  No generally accepted documentary or physical evidence has yet been produced in support of Japanese Capture.  Documents that have turned up have been statements of opinion, and items interpreted as physical evidence – for example a door from Saipan’s Japanese jail with “A. Earhart” and “July 19 1937” deeply incised on one side – are of questionable origin.

Several years ago, two TIGHAR colleagues and published an analysis and critique of the Japanese Capture hypothesis (See King, Roberts and Cerniglia 2012). In a nutshell, there is abundant evidence from the psychological literature that even first-hand eyewitness accounts given to trained interviewers by honest people must be taken with many grains of salt; the mind can play remarkable tricks (c.f. Doyle et al. 2013, Loftus & Ketcham 1992, Schacter 2002). In this case, where accounts were mostly gathered by untrained interviewers who very much wanted to find evidence of Earhart in the Marianas or the Marshalls, often from people who had every reason to tell their interlocutors what they seemed to want to hear, the results are not very convincing to the skeptical reviewer. 

A good example of the problem with eyewitness accounts gathered by people intent on a particular outcome is the November 1977 transcript of an interview by Fr. Arnold Bendowske with Saipan resident Matilde Fausto Arriolo (Bendowske 1977). Ms. Arriolo was one of three women interviewed by Fr. Arnold – probably an authority figure in the eyes of all three Catholic women – who were said to have seen an American woman in Japanese captivity.
Fr. Arnold begins by asking flatly for Ms. Arriolo’s “story on Amelia Earhart.” There is no evidence that Ms. Arriolo had used or known Earhart’s name, and she later denies knowing the name of the woman with whom she interacted.

Ignoring this, Fr. Arnold says he has already told the Navy that Ms. Arriolo had seen Earhart. He asks her in what year she did so, and before she can answer, says that it was in 1938. The interview goes on in this vein, and his interviews with Ana Villagomez Benavente and Maria Roberto Dela Cruz are similar. None of the women identifies the woman (or women) with whom they interacted as Amelia Earhart, and Ms. Arriolo describes the woman as “a little bit of a mestiza” (that is, a woman of mixed ethnicity). Fr. Arnold ignores this description, which does not easily fit Earhart.

The kind of witness-leading in which Fr. Arnold engaged is not unusual when untrained people try to elicit oral historical information, but it taints the oral historical record. Unfortunately, the stories of Earhart on Saipan are pretty largely the results of such interview tactics, so it is difficult to make much of them. The stories of Earhart in the Marshalls may be a little less impure, but most of them are second- or third-hand, which allows for a lot of ambiguity to creep in.

My guess is that an American woman was held on Saipan by the Japanese, and perhaps was executed or died there of disease, but she was not Amelia Earhart. Jesus DeLeon Guerrero, who served as a policeman on Saipan during the Japanese administration, reportedly said that a woman of mixed Japanese-Caucasian ethnicity, born in Los Angeles, was hanged by the Japanese as a spy. Through Nisei groups in California, I have made some effort to seek information about this woman, but thus far with no luck. It may be, too, that a plane resembling Earhart’s crashed in the Marshalls, but this does not mean that the plane was Earhart’s. And while Naval Intelligence may at some point have concluded that the Japanese had captured Earhart, and passed this conclusion up the chain of command, not all intelligence is accurate[4].

So I’m left thinking about the same of the Japanese Capture hypothesis as my father did, and as I did during my late-70s sojourn on Saipan. I think it most likely reflects the honest observations and conclusions of people who lived in the Marianas and Marshalls during the Japanese period, elicited and interpreted by Americans with strong interests in showing that Amelia Earhart had been executed by the Japanese. The Japanese Capture hypothesis may be the “truth” that its proponents claim, but they haven’t yet made a case that I find convincing.

I should acknowledge, though, that proponents of Japanese Capture routinely dismiss people like me as biased, and even as co-conspirators with the U.S. and Japanese governments in concealing “the truth.”

The Nikumaroro Hypothesis

Then there’s TIGHAR’s “Nikumaroro hypothesis.” Naturally, I think it’s most likely correct, though I shy away from proclaiming it – or anything – to be “the truth.”

I summarized the Nikumaroro hypothesis and the evidence supporting it in a 2012 paper (King 2012), and extensive background data are available at In essence, we think that Earhart and Noonan, unable to find Howland Island, flew south on the course Earhart reported in her last universally accepted radio transmission  -- 157-337 degrees – and found Nikumaroro (then called Gardner Island). We think they landed safely on the island’s northwest reef flat, transmitted distress calls for several days and nights (thus accounting for the signals received) but finally lost the plane with its radio to rising tides, and it broke up on the reef face. We think that Earhart and/or Noonan – probably Earhart – subsequently died at what we call the “Seven Site” near the southeast end of the island. A partial human skeleton was reportedly found in this vicinity in 1940, associated with a sextant box, a woman’s shoe, and other artifacts.

We’ve done archaeological work at the Seven Site in 2001, 2007, 2010, and 2017. We’ve turned up a number of campfire features in which someone cooked and disposed of fish, bird, and turtle remains. The kinds of remains we’ve found suggest procurement and consumption by someone not native to the islands. In and around the fire features we have found a variety of suggestive artifacts – the probable remains of a woman’s compact similar to one shown in photos of Earhart, a jar that probably contained freckle crème, two bottles shattered in what was probably someone’s attempt to purify water, a jackknife similar (but not identical) to one reported to have been aboard the Electra. Elsewhere on the island we’ve found aircraft parts that may (or may not) have come from the Electra, as well as some interesting shoe parts, and we have photographic evidence of aircraft wreckage on the northern reef flat in late 1937 and thereafter. We also have our share of anecdotal accounts, from I Kiribati, and Tuvaluan people who lived on the island between 1939 and 1963, as well as from British colonial officers and from U.S. Coast Guardsmen who staffed a long-range navigation (LORAN) station there between 1944 and 1946 (See King 2012).

Those colonists and Coast Guardsmen introduced a lot of confusion into the archaeological record, of course. We know that the Seven Site was planted in coconuts in the 1940s, and that people used to camp there while procuring turtles and birds. The site is littered with cartridges from the Coast Guardsmen’s carbines. Colonists or Coast Guardsmen could have brought in some of the odd artifacts we’ve found, though it’s something of a stretch to pin them with things like the compact and the freckle crème jar.

The Nikumaroro Hypothesis, and the evidence we’ve found on the island, form the basis for UNRESCUED and Thirteen Bones.

The Orona Hypothesis

The Orona hypothesis is, in a sense, a variant on the Nikumaroro Hypothesis. It has Earhart and Noonan flying southeast from the vicinity of Howland Island and winding up not at Nikumaroro but at Orona, an atoll about 200 nautical miles east of Nikumaroro (see The main piece of evidence supporting the Orona Hypothesis is a pattern of pixels in satellite imagery suggesting the presence of something shaped like a Lockheed Electra in the Orona lagoon. Arguments against it include the fact that Orona was occupied and being planted to coconuts in 1937, with a British overseer on station who might be expected to have seen an airplane ditch in the lagoon. But who knows? Someone needs to dive on the putative Orona Electra and see what – if anything but coral heads – is there.

Where Things Stand

All the above hypotheses continue to be the subjects of more or less active research; it is possible that one of them will be proved correct in the foreseeable future.  In 2017, the Eustace Earhart Discovery Expedition scanned the ocean bottom near Howland Island in pursuit of evidence for the Crashed and Sank hypothesis – without reported success. People are reportedly examining aircraft wreckage on New Britain and Buka Island. Mike Campbell and his colleagues continue to find anecdotal support for Japanese Capture. In 2017 we took forensic dogs to the Seven Site on Nikumaroro, recorded evidence that a human body had decomposed there, and brought back samples from which we are trying to extract DNA (See

At 75 years of age, I don’t think I’ll be going back to Nikumaroro, or to Orona – though I’d like to. So I’ve put my thoughts about what happened to Earhart and Noonan on the table in novel form. I’d be astounded if Amelia Earhart UNRESCUED turned out to be very close to what “really” happened, but it’s my best guess, embellished by my imagination. I hope you enjoy it, whatever its relationship to “the truth.”

And why does any of this make any difference? What significance is there in this quest, to which so many people have given big chunks of their lives and thinking? I confess to being, as it were, rather at sea. With all the world’s problems to whose solutions we could be contributing, why do we invest our time, money, and brainpower in looking for Earhart? I honestly don’t know, except that it’s a mystery, and mysteries cry out to be solved. I’m reminded of what the spouse of one of our TIGHAR team members said when he got on a satellite phone and called home after the 9/11/01 attacks, which came while we were on Nikumaroro. He fretted about the fact that we were where we were, while everything was blowing up at home. She told him that after all the excitement died down, people were going to need something to take their minds off their troubles, and we provided that something.

Upon reflection, I concluded that what she said made sense, and have comforted myself with the reminder that for entertainment, we’re a good deal less costly than professional football. I’ve also realized that that entertainment is pretty much what Earhart did, too. In the depths of the Depression, she took people’s minds off their troubles. And she showed people – notably women – that there were things to which they could aspire, and that the world really is a pretty wonderful place. So maybe that’s what makes it worthwhile to seek an answer to the mystery with which she left us – whether we ever find it or not.


Bendowske, Fr. Arnold
1977    Transcripts of interviews with Ana Villagomez Benevente, Matilde Fausto Arriola, and Maria Roberto De La Cruz.  Catholic Mission, Chalan Kanoa, Saipan, November 8 1977.  Copy in TIGHAR files.

Campbell, Mike
            2016 (2nd ed.)  Amelia Earhart: The Truth at Last. Mechanicsburg, PA, Sunbury Press

Doyle, James M., Jennifer E. Dysart, & Elizabeth F. Loftus

            2013    Eyewitness Testimony: Civil and Criminal (Fifth Edition), New York, LEXISNEXIS

Gillespie, Ric
2006    Finding Amelia: the True Story of the Earhart Disappearance.  Annapolis, MD, Naval Institute Press.

King, Thomas F.
2008: Thirteen Bones. Indianapolis, IN, Dog Ear Publishing.
2012: Amelia Earhart on Nikumaroro: a Summary of the Evidence. Pacific Studies 35:3:305-24, Honolulu, HI.
2018: Amelia Earhart UNRESCUED. Mystic, CT, Flat Hammock press.

__________, Randall Jacobson, Karen R. Burns, and Kenton Spading
2004    Amelia Earhart’s Shoes: Is the Mystery Solved? (updated edition) Walnut Creek, CA, Altamira Press.

__________, Thomas A. Roberts, and Joseph Cerniglia
2012:   Amelia Earhart in the Marianas: a Consideration of the Evidence.

Loftus, Elizabeth F. and Katherine Ketcham
1992    Witness for the Defense: The Accused, the Eyewitness and the Expert Who Puts Memory on Trial. New York, St. Martin's Griffin

Schacter, Daniel L.
2002    The Seven Sins of Memory (How the Mind Forgets and Remembers). Boston, Houghton Mifflin.

[1] The relevant formal definition of “hypothesis,” according to Merriam-Webster Online, is: “a tentative assumption made in order to draw out and test its logical or empirical consequences”