National Archives Photo - Does It Depict Amelia Earhart?

On July 2, 1937—while on the last leg of her round-the-world flight—Amelia Earhart was sending radio messages to Itasca, a seven-year-old U.S. Coast Guard cutter positioned off the lee side of Howland Island. Itasca was receiving Earhart's transmissions, but she was not receiving theirs.

Howland is a speck of land—an atoll, really—measuring about twenty feet high (at its then-highest point) and just a few miles long. It would be difficult to spot such a place in the middle of the Pacific Ocean.

At 6:14 am, local time, Earhart radioed Itasca with her position. She reported that she and her navigator, Fred Noonan, were 200 miles away. 

Flying east, toward Howland, Earhart and Noonan would have been staring into a rising sun. 

Trying to locate Howland was proving impossible for Earhart. The U.S. Coast Guard tells us how Itasca's crew tried to help:

With the plane getting closer and day breaking, Itasca commenced laying a smokescreen – a mass of dense artificial smoke to serve as a signal for Earhart. At 7:42 a.m. the plane reported their gas was running low and they had yet to spot land.

Just before 8:00 a.m. the plane radioed they were circling and requested bearings. Earhart and Noonan reported they had received the cutter’s signals, but were unable to obtain a minimum for a bearing. At 8:43 a.m. the plane reported being on line 157-337 and running north and south with no reference point given.


It was the last Itasca heard from Earhart and Noonan. With no sign of the plane, it was assumed it had gone down. Itasca got under way at full speed to commence a search, much of it dictated by Navy assets in the area as well as communications from the Coast Guard district office in San Francisco.

What were weather conditions at the time?

The ship’s logs indicate the sea was smooth and the ceiling unlimited as far as could be observed. The sun was rising clear and bright and visibility to the north and west was excellent to the horizon. But beyond that, continuous banks of heavy cumulus clouds were visible.

Earlier radio transmission from Earhart indicated they flew through cloudy and overcast skies throughout the night. Due to the conditions north and west of Howland and the fact that the plane obtained no fix during the latter part of its flight due to cloudy weather, it was assumed the plane might have missed Howland due to flying into the glare of the rising sun.

Itasca, and another U.S. ship, searched twelve days for the missing plane and its occupants. They found nothing:

Because of the reported survival equipment, Itasca searched the Pacific from July 4 to July 16 in a coordinated search led by the Navy’s aircraft carrier USS Lexington. Itasca and crew went as far west as Tarawa Island and as far south as Arorai Island.

While at Arorai, officers disembarked the ship and queried native islanders on whether they had seen anything out of the ordinary. Despite countless interviews, they failed to get any information regarding the plane from the natives.

After searching for 12 consecutive days, querying native islanders and keeping a sharp eye for any sign of wreckage, Itasca was officially relieved of search duty on July 16.

What happened to Earhart and Noonan remains a mystery. In July of 2017, however—80 years after the plane went missing—researchers claim that a photo, maintained in the U.S. National Archives, might provide a clue.

The undated photo—depicted at the top of this page—may have been taken after Earhart and Noonan's disappearance. It has this description:

PL - Marshall Islands, Jaluit Atoll, Jaluit Island. Jaluit Harbor. ONI [Office of Naval Intelligence] # 14381

The makers of a History-Channel documentary claim that an individual in this picture—seated on the dock, with her back toward the camera—could very well be Amelia Earhart. They also claim that Fred Noonan is in the picture.

Could such claims be true?

The distance between Jaluit and Howland is approximately 1,643 km (1,021 miles). Since Earhart reported that she was 200 miles from Howland at 6:14 am on the morning that she and Fred disappeared—and she also reported that she was running low on fuel 88 minutes later—it cannot be that she landed her Lockheed Electra at Jaluit.

But ... what if she safely landed someplace else (or crashed her plane but survived)? Is there any evidence to support such a theory?

Gardner Island, known today as Nikumaroro, is another atoll located about 300 miles southeast of Howland. Could it be possible that Earhart and Noonan landed there?

Although there's no landing strip on Nikumaroro / Gardner Island, a skilled pilot like Earhart may have been able to land her plane on the atoll's beach. An artifact located on Nikumaroro, in 1991, could support this theory.

The item may be part of an aluminum patch that Amelia had installed on her Electra during her round-the-world journey. The installation was done in Miami with the patch replacing a special window on the plane's starboard side.

The research group which found the item—TIGHAR (The International Group for Historic Aircraft Recovery)—has never been able to find Amelia's plane at, or near, Nikumaroro.

If Amelia and Fred did land on Gardner / Nikumaroro, could it be that a passing ship—perhaps the Japanese-owned Koshu Maru—could have picked-up the downed pilots and their plane? If so, might that explain why the TIGHAR investigators have never been able to locate the aircraft? 

Or ... is it possible that Amelia and Fred landed at Mili Atoll, which is part of the Marshall Islands? Neither the U.S. Coast Guard or Navy would have been able to search there, following Earhart's disappearance, since the Marshalls were controlled by Japan in 1937.

If so, they—and their plane—could have been retrieved from Mili and transported elsewhere (with Jaluit as a stop en route). The researchers behind the History Channel's documentary think that is the case. They point to the item being towed behind the large ship (on the right side of the photo) and assert that it may very well be Earhart's plane.

If these theories are true, where did Earhart and Noonan end-up? People have long asserted that they were sent to Saipan where Noonan was executed (as a spy) and Earhart was imprisoned (until she died sometime between 1939 and 1944).

For this to make any sense at all, we'd have to ask another series of questions. For one thing ... could it really be that the U.S. government didn't know about this? Or ... if the government did know, why was the information kept quiet?

Theorists pose this answer:  The American military was already breaking Japanese-coded messages, in 1937, so if inquiries were made about Earhart and Noonan they would have tipped-off the Japanese about America's code-breaking abilities. Earhart and Noonan were thus given-up—so the theory goes—to protect the federal government's secrets.

Of course, it's possible that the "anomoly" which the TIGHAR group has detected—at a depth of 600-feet off Nikumaroro—is Amelia's plane. There is some evidence—highly disputed, one must keep in mind—that Amelia sent-out radio distress calls after she disappeared. For her to send such distress signals, she would have had to be on land—even if that land were a narrow beach on some forlorn and isolated Pacific atoll.

The theory of some individuals, like that of Ric Gillespie (TIGHAR's Executive Director) is that Amelia's plane was on Gardner Island's beach—between the 2nd and 6th of July, 1937—before it was swept-away by the ocean.


Despite all of the theories and conjectures, it remains possible that the longstanding mystery of Amelia's disappearance will never be solved because she and Noonan did not survive whatever happened to their plane when it ran out of fuel on the 2nd of July, 1937.

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Author: Carole D. Bos, J.D. 5189stories and lessons created

Original Release: Jul 05, 2017

Updated Last Revision: Sep 01, 2017

Media Credits

Public-Domain photo, maintained at the U.S. National Archives, with this description:


PL - Marshall Islands, Jaluit Atoll, Jaluit Island. Jaluit Harbor. ONI [Office of Naval Intelligence] # 14381


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"National Archives Photo - Does It Depict Amelia Earhart?" AwesomeStories.com. Jul 05, 2017. Dec 13, 2019.
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