Monday, July 10, 2017

Searching for Amelia

I have never been an aviation aficionado.  The history of World War II and the period leading up to it has always fascinated me, but never enough to generate any serious interest in the Amelia Earhart mystery.  As I suppose most people know, Amelia Earhart (b. 1897) was a famously successful American aviator, the first woman to fly solo across the Atlantic, who mysteriously disappeared somewhere near Howland Island in the Pacific on July 2, 1937, while attempting to circumnavigate the globe by air. 

Earhart was an accomplished person as well as an advocate for aviation and for women’s issues. (United Press called her “Queen of the Air,” and she was an early supporter of the Equal Rights Amendment). But she is mostly remembered less for her accomplishments and advocacy and more for her mysterious disappearance. The still unresolved story of her strange disappearance has fascinated people for decades and produced a host of theories – from the reasonably obvious (running out of fuel and crashing into the ocean, or landing on some other island and dying there) to the clearly conspiratorial (Earhart and her Navigator, Fred Noonan, as American spies captured and executed by the Japanese, Earhart as “Tokyo Rose,” even Earhart returning incognito to the US and living in New Jersey under a new identity).

Generally speaking, I eschew conspiracy theories. The more reasonable, more obvious explanations are usually more obvious precisely because more reasonable. Of course, I can understand that, when something novel or unexpected happens, it is tempting to go outside the perimeter of plausibility to concoct an explanation, But, as a general rule, such explanations are implausible for good reason. Conspiratorial explanations do seem to appeal more to some sorts of people than to others - often to those themselves in some respects beyond the perimeter or at least on the border. The danger of course, is that conspiracy theorizing normalizes such borderline thinking and breeds distrust - distrust of institutions and of each other, something we have more than enough of right now.

That said, i watched last night’s History Channel special "Amelia Earhart: The Lost Evidence," with a skeptical bias but (given how little I know about her story) with a somewhat open mind.

The program's case rests on a hitherto overlooked photo photo found in the National Archives (possibly taken by someone spying on the Japanese) that could plausibly portray both Earhart and Noonan (and their airplane) in Japanese captivity in a harbor in the Marshall Islands (then  under Japanese rule). Of course, the identification of the two and their plane cannot be absolutely certain. Nor is the photo's date definite.  The argument is that the two Americans were eventually kept captives by the Japanese on Saipan until they were executed and buried there.

Besides the photo, what makes the case somewhat compelling is the number of islanders who claimed to have seen the two in Japanese custody at various times. The belief that they landed in the Marshall Islands is sufficiently strong there to have even been the subject of postage stamps. In 1987 the Republic of the Marshall Islands issued a set of four commemorative stamps for the 50th anniversary of their crash-landing in the Mili Atoll.

The program makes a plausible case for its story. An implication is that the US knew Earhart survived but kept that secret - perhaps in order to keep secret the fact that the US had broken the Japanese Code. That latter possibility makes the whole scenario somewhat more credible - more than just the standard conspiratorial view that the US government is hiding something from us!

Why all this might have happened is what I find intriguing. It is, of course, possible that she was an American spy. More likely, she was just the victim of Japanese suspicion. Why were they so suspicious at a time when war with the US was still not inevitable? 

Like so many historical mysteries, this one may never be satisfactorily resolved. But the theory that Earhart and her companion survived a crash landing only to fall into Japanese hands certainly has credibility - and continues as a result to raise even more questions about the mysterious history of that pre-war period.

No comments:

Post a Comment