Amelia Earhart and her navigator, Fred Noonan, disappeared in a twin-engine plane 80 years ago this month. Since then, seemingly every piece of flotsam and jetsam in the South Pacific has been analyzed for connections to the fatal flight: bone fragments, sheets of aluminum, “ointment pots,” and scents perceptible only to dogs. In 2011, researchers announced they would harvest the aviator’s dried saliva from envelopes and use the DNA to test future bone discoveries. One of that project’s funders, meanwhile, was the grandson of the author of Amelia Earhart: The Mystery Solved, a book based on “long-lost radio messages from Earhart’s final flight.” In other words, Earhart speculation has been around long enough to become a multigenerational hobby.
This past Sunday, the History Channel aired a documentary that trumpets yet another new piece of evidence: a blurry black-and-white photograph that purportedly shows Earhart and Noonan milling around on a dock in the Marshall Islands. A retired U.S. Treasury agent named Les Kinney found the photograph in a “formerly top secret” file in the National Archives in 2012. Believers say the photograph proves the theory that Earhart and Noonan were not killed in a crash, but instead were captured by the Japanese, who controlled many islands in the area at the time of their flight. “When you see the analysis that’s been done, I think it leaves no doubt to the viewers that that’s Amelia Earhart and Fred Noonan,” said Shawn Henry, a former assistant director for the FBI who hosted the History Channel special.
Unfortunately, the History Channel’s analysis now seems to be crumbling under 30 minutes of internet research by one military history buff. Kota Yamano, a Tokyo-based blogger, found the same photograph printed in a Japanese-language travelogue published in 1935, almost two years before Earhart and Noonan disappeared. The caption underneath the photo says nothing about the identities of the people in the photograph, which apparently depicts a regular old harbor, rather than a harbor and two missing celebrities.
Yamano told the Guardian that he had never believed the theory that Earhart and Noonan were captured by the Japanese, so he decided to look for more information on his own. He did an online search of Japan’s national library for images of the Jaluit atoll between 1930 and 1940, and voila: The “lost” Earhart photo was the 10th search result. Clearly the History Channel learned nothing from Catfish: When confronted with a photo of a woman who seems too good to be true, always do a reverse image search.