Amelia Earhart ‘survived heroically’ as a castaway, study suggests

American aviatrix Amelia Earhart’s mysterious disappearance over the Pacific Ocean in 1937 has vexed historians and fueled conspiracy theories for decades.
American aviatrix Amelia Earhart’s mysterious disappearance over the Pacific Ocean in 1937 has vexed historians and fueled conspiracy theories for decades. Library of Congress

Someday the world might solve the mystery of what happened to Amelia Earhart, who vanished in 1937 as she tried to become the first woman to fly around the world. Until then we only have theories, with one more offered this week.

The famous aviator, born in Atchison, Kan., crashed over the Pacific Ocean and was presumed to have perished.

But what if she made it safely to land? What if she died as an island castaway and her bones were actually found more than 70 years ago?

The official explanation from the U.S. government, which declared Earhart dead, was that she crashed somewhere in the Pacific and that her plane sank to the sea floor.

But that’s never been an acceptable explanation for Ric Gillespie, a pilot, accident investigator and director of the International Group for Historic Aircraft Recovery (TIGHAR).

He believes Earhart died as a castaway on a remote Pacific island.

Skeletal remains of a body were found on the island of Nikumaroro, Kiribati, in 1940, and new analysis suggests they belong to Earhart, according to TIGHAR.

Gillespie believes Earhart was stranded on the island and used the plane’s radio to summon help for nearly a week before the craft was washed into the sea, according to The Washington Post.

Eleven searches of the island by the group have not turned up her plane, but the group believes whatever remains of it are nearby.

The group has used unmanned submarines to search the ocean floor and is trying to raise money for a manned submarine search next year to find the plane.

“Until we started investigating the skeleton, we found what history knew was that Amelia Earhart died in July 2, 1937, in a plane crash,” Gillespie told CNN this week.

“But there is an entire final chapter of Earhart’s life that people don’t know about. She spent days — maybe months — heroically struggling to survive as a castaway.”

Gillespie told USA Today of at least two other common theories of Earhart’s fate. One is the idea, widely accepted by U.S. government officials, that she ran out of gas and crashed into the sea somewhere near Howland Island in the Pacific.

Others believe that she was on a covert spy mission for the government, taking photographs of Japanese operations around the Marshall Islands. The Japanese captured her, that theory holds, and she was either beheaded or she died in prison, Gillespie said.

“Again there is no evidence to support that,” he told USA Today. “There isn’t any hint of anything in Japanese records, so nothing holds together. Just a bunch of stories.”

The TIGHAR team asked forensic anthropologists Karen Burns and Richard Jantz to examine what was known about the bones discovered in 1940, which were originally thought to belong to a man.

“The morphology of the recovered bones, insofar as we can tell by applying contemporary forensic methods to measurements taken at the time, appears consistent with a female of Earhart’s height and ethnic origin,” the anthropologists said in a statement.

Gillespie has organized three expeditions to Nikumaroro since the 1990s to explore the area where the bones were discovered.

“We found records of bonfires being lit in the area where the bones were found. Based on the fish bones and bird bones found in the area, Earhart survived weeks, maybe even months, in that island,” he told CNN.

“We believe she survived heroically, and alone, for a period of time, in terrible circumstances. History needs to tell her story right.”