Aviator’s fate still clouded in mystery

She was the darling of the pioneering aviators when flying was in its infancy and an icon for women with her record-breaking exploits. But by 1937 Amelia Earhart believed there was just one more landmark to reach.

Amelia Earhart disappeared over the Pacific Ocean on 2 July 1937
Amelia Earhart disappeared over the Pacific Ocean on 2 July 1937

The Kansas-born flier set off with her navigator, Fred Noonan, to be the first to circumnavigate the world at the equator.

And with just two legs of the trip to go, she ensured her own immortality by taking off from a dirt airstrip in New Guinea and disappearing into thin air.

For the past 67 years, many have tried to determine her fate after that final take off, but none have succeeded. Until perhaps now.

Archeologists on the Pacific island of Tinian believe they may have been just inches from solving one of the 20th century’s most puzzling mysteries and will return to the archives of the Northern Marianas Islands for the final clue that will lead them to Earhart’s last resting place.

After two days scraping at an apparent grave site on the island, the scene of fierce fighting late in World War II, the archeologists and the man who led them to a hillside overlooking the ocean admitted defeat, but are convinced it is merely a temporary setback.

One theory holds it that imperialJapanese soldiers killed Earhart

One theory holds it that imperial
Japanese soldiers killed Earhart

“Look around you,” Saint John Naftel said, indicating an area that has been reclaimed by jungle growth. “I’ve talked to the archeologists and they say I could be just a couple of feet out in my estimation and we might never know.

That may be all that is separating Naftel from answering the question of what happened to Earhart, who became a heroine of the skies as the first woman to fly solo across the Atlantic as well as holding altitude, speed and distance records, when she vanished on 2 July 1937.

Numerous theories

Naftel, 82, first arrived on the island 60 years ago as a US marine and heard Earhart and her navigator, Fred Noonan, had been executed by the Japanese occupiers of Tinian, the 100 square km tip of a submerged volcano 2000km east of the Philippines. The pair had disappeared attempting to become the first to circumnavigate the globe.

There are, however, numerous theories as to their fate after they left New Guinea 67 years ago.

Some contend her Lockheed Model 10E Special Electra simply ran out of fuel and crashed into the ocean as they searched for Howland Island, their final stop before flying on to Honolulu and completing the journey in Oakland, California.

Others believe they navigated to a remote island where they waited in vain to be rescued, while a more sinister scenario is that Earhart was on a spying mission over Japanese-held islands and was captured after her aircraft crash-landed or was forced to touch down by Japanese fighters.

“[An internment camp inmate] told me he was brought here by the Japanese to dig two graves. Soldiers arrived with two civilians, a white man and a white woman, and dumped the bodies into the graves”

Saint John Naftel,
ex-US Marine

Naftel, from Montgomery, Alabama, is firmly of the belief that Earhart and Noonan were executed by the Japanese for espionage and buried on Tinian, while components of the aircraft was reverse-engineered to enable Japan, which was under a US technology embargo, to produce sophisticated engines as well as radio and direction-finding equipment for its own aircraft.

And he is not alone. At least 100 people have claimed to have seen a Caucasian couple on Saipan or Tinian in the late 1930s.

Ferrying internment camp inmates to work sites around the island after the 1944 capitulation, Naftel got talking to a slave labourer for the Japanese.

‘White woman’

“I never knew his name as all the internees just had an arm-band with a number on to identify them, but one morning he said he wanted to show me something,” said Naftel. “I could see two mounds of earth, two graves.

“He told me he was brought here by the Japanese to dig two graves,” Naftel said. “Soldiers arrived with two civilians, a white man and a white woman, and dumped the bodies into the graves. The woman had a lapel pin of a wing and he said he thought he recognised the woman.

Excavation was carried out on alikely grave site on Tinian island

Excavation was carried out on a
likely grave site on Tinian island

The man said he had once seen pictures of a woman who was planning to fly around the world but could not remember her name, Naftel recalls. “I said ‘Amelia Earhart?’ and he said, ‘That’s her!’ “

Preoccupied with his own tasks, Naftel assumed the proper authorities would hear of the graves and turned his attention to other matters. Until 18 months ago.

Approaches to the local government and US military authorities went unanswered, but were passed on to local historians, who flew Naftel to Tinian in October 2003. But once at the site, Naftel thought that something wasn’t quite right. The road he had driven along in 1944 was not how he remembered it.

After poring over aerial photographs from the 1940s, it became clear that another road had run nearby and, after clearing some undergrowth, the team finally located its general route. Not far away were two slight indentations in the ground consistent with a body being buried, decomposing and the surface sinking slightly.

Changed landscape

November’s excavation work turned up glass, ancient pottery used by the indigenous Chamorro people and shards of metal that may have been shrapnel. On one occasion, an archeologist announced he had found a bone. Upon closer examination, however, it turned out to be a piece of coral.

Archives of Northern Marianas
Islands may hold the final clue

“The landscape of the area has changed dramatically since Naftel was on Tinian,” John Joseph, an archeologist with the NMI Historic Preservation Office, said.

The plan now is to definitively locate the layout of roads, through maps and aerial photographs from the 1940s, which will be added to a database to help pinpoint Naftel’s position relative to the hillside.

“Hopefully, this will help us locate the graves at a future date,” he said. “Only a few inches can prove unfortunate in this type of recovery, not two meters.”

“Should this turn out to be the right place and we find what we’re looking for, then it will put to rest a lot of problems,” Naftel says. “But if this isn’t the burial site, I won’t be depressed. It’s a process of elimination and we’ll just have to look further afield.”

Source : Al Jazeera

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