Vintage View: Photo offers new evidence in the Amelia Earhart story

Kya deLongchamps explores new evidence that may solve one of the 20th century’s greatest mysteries.

THE uncovering of a grainy photograph from a trusted archive; a haunting mystery; a beautiful celebrity pilot — the finding of new evidence in the Amelia Earhart story has the world spellbound.

However, the word “proves” has been thrown around by newspapers in Europe and the US with little more to go on that a soft, degraded black and white photograph, with the principal subjects at a considerable distance from the taker.

Found at the US National Archives, there’s the suggestion that the photograph was discreetly filed away after it was taken by an American spy in 1937, and subsequently gathered home by US intelligence agents.

If true, clerical error or deliberate concealment back in the States may have directly shuttered the disappearance of the glamorous and daring Earhart in tantalising mystery.

However, the case is far from firm. Earhart was always going to get a big play in the media — her allure lasts even today. It’s hard to imagine the excitement she created, crossing the Atlantic single-handedly in 1932.

The fame and respect afforded her for even attempting to circle the world in her Lockheed Electra, echoes down the years in the history of eminent women, in particular and in the accomplishments of humanity.

The newly revealed picture, which appears to be Jaluit Harbour in the Marshall Islands, displays three areas of interest. It’s really a view of a dock with figures, but if it was executed as espionage, it could have been shot from a small concealed device.

First of all, there’s the possible figure of Earhart herself. Now, despite what you may think from watching early episodes of MacIver, it’s extremely difficult and highly suggestive to improve on the existing resolution of a photograph.

There is of course dedicated software and genius professionals who work in forensics who can attempt it, but it remains an imperfect science. Resolution is the tiny particles that make up the perceptible images.

Blow something up — and you can do this by simply hitting CTRL and + on your keyboard — and it shows an image in a higher resolution, but with many picture, it will instantly start to soften the quality of what can be seen.

The resolution of most film in the 1930s would be extremely low by modern standards of 5-6mb . Bring it up to examine detail and it simply explodes in a blur.

Centre right on the quayside inage, on her hunkers is what appears to be a female figure in trousers with short tousled hair. “She” appears to me (given the setting), to be adjusting a line. Based largely on her fuller hair, this is said to be Earhart who favoured pants over skirts for obvious reasons in the cramped, physically demanding quarters of the cockpit.

Her head is turned to the right and in the distance, we can see the second fascinating moment in the shot, a barge with what might be the fuselage of a small aircraft being towed by the Japanese ship, Koshu Maru, up along the far quay.

She, if it is Earhart, could be looking with concern towards the wreckage of her own plane. Finally, a man that could be her navigator Fred Noonan, stands at the front of a group of figures closer to the lens. His image is more leading, as his hairline has been compared to substantiated pictures of Noonan using modern facial recognition technology, and is said to show a close match to the man. The face is in shadow.

Previous to this find, in a “top secret” folio of documents (that term gives me pause), Earhart and Noonan were supposed to have perished near Howland Island in the Pacific on July 2, having become disorientated in poor weather and running out of fuel before they could land at the designated refuelling station.

This was not an uncommon end for pioneering aviators of the time. Bones were found and later dismissed as being those of Earhart in a piece of jungle in the area of Kiribati Island.

HOWEVER, curious artifacts have been recovered during archaeological investigations including the zipper of a flight-style jacket. Richard Gillespie, who leads the US-based International Group for Historic Aircraft Recovery, suggested in an interview with National Public Radio (NPR) that in the Jaluit picture, Earhart’s hair is actually too long for her crop as pictured days earlier. The Marshall Islands were also a whopping 1,000 miles off course.

A documentary on the History Channel will nonetheless expand on the new evidence proposing that the pair were captured by the Japanese and died in custody within a short time, something the Japanese government claim there is no paperwork to defend or deny.

Still, it was wartime, and confusion and blank denials were not uncommon then or today. The programme makers go on to suggest that not only did Earhart and Noonan ‘land on water’ (aviation code for crashing), near the Marshall Islands, but that the US Government knew of their predicament and did nothing to interfere.

Here’s where my nonsense-antennae starts to vibrate. Government collusion, a beautiful daredevil made a political sacrifice, hidden “top secret” files discovered by a retired US treasury agent.

It’s all rather Dan Brown, all blazing gratuitous headlines and just too good to be true. As a history graduate, I don’t like add-water-and-stir answers. Hanging an entire case on one picture, on the hairline and hooked nose of Noonan, it’s simply not enough. The programme makers say that Noonan and Earhart died on the Mariana Islands, at a camp in Saipan, but admit they don’t know how and when.

That’s invention and conjecture, but something not unusual in revisionist history and the imaginative athleticism that has at times turned up the truth in the long term.

Still, how can they say she and Noonan travelled to their death on the Koshu without a shred of documentary evidence, other than a photograph?

The hearsay of a white woman being seen at this time, well, there were whites here and there in the area. The scene is one of jolly serenity and smiles, hardly what we expect from shaken up survivors of an air crash on their way to captivity.

We all love a resolved case, no loose ends, the unravelling of a mystery. Perhaps further investigation, along with more credible years of archival searches and slog, physical finds, primary sources and credible oral history will bring the case to a close.

Take a look at the new picture and see what you think. See: history.com; http://www.history.com/topics/amelia-earhart/videos



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