The disappearance of Amelia Earhart, the first woman to fly the Atlantic, is to this day the most famous unexplained disappearance in US history. But could a secret briefcase be the key to what happened to her?
In July 1937, during an attempt to fly around the world, Amelia Earhart and her navigator, Fred Noonan, disappeared over the Pacific Ocean. Their fate is — officially at least — unexplained. I say that because there are a number of eyewitnesses who claim to know exactly what happened to them.
An eyewitness to their execution?
In 1990, the NBC TV series Unsolved Mysteries showed an interview with a woman from the Pacific island of Saipan. Saipan was a Japanese-controlled territory in 1937, but the US took control of it after defeating the Japanese at the Battle of Saipan in 1944. This woman claimed to have witnessed Earhart and Noonan’s execution by Japanese soldiers.
One of the popular Amelia Earhart conspiracy theories is that she was a spy for the American government. Her round-the-world flight was just a cover; she was actually flying a secret mission to photograph Japanese military installations in the Pacific. Wherever she landed or crashed (and her plane has never been recovered to determine this), she and Noonan ended up being captured by the Japanese on Saipan and were executed as spies.
The beliefs of Wally Earhart — Amelia’s cousin
Nothing exists to support the Saipanese woman’s claims, but Wally Earhart — Amelia’s fourth cousin — also believes that Amelia was captured by the Japanese. He said in 2009 that her plane did crash into the Pacific, but she and Noonan were rescued by the Japanese and taken to Saipan. Noonan was beheaded and Amelia died soon after from dysentery. Their plane was destroyed and its remnants were tossed into the ocean. Wally said, “There are many people, including Japanese military and Saipan natives, who witnessed all these events on the island”.
Most importantly, Wally believes that the US government is fully aware of these events and is perpetrating a “massive cover-up”. The government didn’t want the public knowing that this famous heroine was a spy, and the Japanese were complicit in the cover-up because they didn’t want to admit another war crime. It’s still being covered up in order to maintain friendly relations between the US and Japan.
The problem is, Wally doesn’t name any of his sources. Convenient.
More eyewitnesses, photos and a purported grave site
Numerous Saipanese natives claim to have seen Earhart and Noonan on the island after their disappearance. However, none of these claims have been corroborated and are generally only considered reliable in conspiracy theorist circles.
In 1987, a US Army officer, Thomas E. Devine, claimed to have witnessed the burning of Earhart’s plane on Saipan in 1944. He said it was burned on the orders of the US Secretary of the Navy. In his book, Eyewitness: The Amelia Earhart Incident, he included a letter from the daughter of a Japanese police official, who claimed her father was responsible for Earhart’s execution. But again, none of this is supported by corroborative evidence.
Over the years, photographs have surfaced, allegedly showing Earhart on Saipan after her disappearance, including one of her in handcuffs with a uniformed Japanese guard in the background. However, this photo was revealed to be a picture of Earhart wearing her favourite metal bracelet with a chauffeur in the background (!) and was taken in 1935. Similarly, other photos allegedly showing her on Saipan have turned out to be frauds or pictures of Earhart before she disappeared.
And after the end of World War II, it was rumoured that Earhart and Noonan had been buried on Tinian, an island five miles from Saipan. But an archaeological dig at the alleged grave site in 2004 failed to show up any bones.
One particularly interesting story comes from US Marine Robert E. Wallack. He was an 18-year-old machine-gunner at the time of the Battle of Saipan. He said that in amongst the rubble of bombed buildings was a metal safe. Wallack and his colleagues blew open the safe and discovered a number of items inside. Wallack picked up a brown leather briefcase containing maps, permits, passports and travel documents — which all turned out to the personal papers of Amelia Earhart.
His colleagues advised him that he should turn in the materials, so Wallack handed the briefcase to a naval officer. He was given a receipt and told that it would be returned to him if it wasn’t important. Wallack never saw the briefcase again. The receipt and other personal items were lost in battle the following year.
Wallack stuck by his story of the mysterious briefcase and repeated it many times without variation until his death in 2008, aged 83. He believed that somewhere out there, Earhart’s briefcase is sitting in storage in a US government warehouse with the words “top-secret” stamped on the box.
It would appear that much of the evidence that conspiracy theorists use to perpetuate the Japanese capture theory is unreliable and unsubstantiated. Robert E. Wallack’s story is just as unsubstantiated, yet I find something compelling about it. It’s easy for someone to say, “Yeah, I saw her!” or “Yeah, I saw both of them get beheaded/shot!” to get attention from cameras and reporters. But Wallack’s briefcase story is more complicated, more detailed, and if it is a lie, it’s quite a random one to concoct.
And if it really is true, it proves that Amelia Earhart was on Saipan, and the US government probably do know what happened to her…
Abduction by aliens?
Another theory is that an alien race visited Earth in 1937 and abducted Earhart and Noonan and 300 others and whisked them away to the Delta Quadrant to be slaves.
Oh no, wait a minute. That’s Star Trek.
Next week: a little look at the real-life mysteries and conspiracies that inspired Game of Thrones