History Channel’s Amelia Earhart Story Quickly Unravels

Internet sleuths wasted no time in debunking a now infamous photo that NBC News touted as presenting “compelling evidence” of the famous aviator’s capture by the Japanese in 1937.

Amelia Earhart
Critics and historians have thoroughly debunked an image that possibly showed Amelia Earhart alive in the Marshall Islands in 1937.Wikimedia Commons

That grainy black-and-white photo purportedly showing Amelia Earhart and navigator Fred Noonan alive on an atoll in the Marshall Islands with Earhart's Lockheed Electra being towed by a Japanese ship? Nope, not even close.

It took Internet sleuths little time to discover the very same photo in a Japanese travelogue published a full two years before Earhart and Noonan went missing on their ill-fated flight from New Guinea to Howland Island on July 2, 1937.

Scores of media outlets reported on the existence of the photo after NBC News "broke" the story last week. But it all unraveled after the History Channel aired its documentary Earhart: The Lost Evidence on Sunday night.

It immediately became apparent that NBC and the History Channel embellished the supposed “evidence” that was the basis for the two-hour special. For instance, NBC never divulged the fact that the History Channel’s facial recognition expert flipped a photo of Fred Noonan to a mirror image to make it align with the person in the “newly uncovered” photo, or that Noonan was photographed departing New Guinea in his trademark dark shirt and pants while the male figure photographed on a dock on Jaluit Atoll wore a white shirt and pants.

Amelia Earhart
The photo that the History Channel's Amelia Earhart documentary claimed offered evidence that she survived her crash was actually published in a Japanese travelogue two years before her disappearance.Flying

Could Noonan have been offered dry clothes after the pair ditched in the ocean? Sure. But extraordinary claims require extraordinary evidence, and the History Channel’s story just didn’t add up even before a Japanese military history blogger, who goes by @baron_yamaneko on Twitter, revealed that the photograph “was first published in Palau under Japanese rule in 1935, in a photo book ... So the photograph was taken at least two years before Amelia Earhart disappear[ed] in 1937 and a person in the photo was not her."

The photo book was digitized and published online by Japan's National Library. The publication date is listed in the traditional Japanese style as "Showa 10" — that is, 1935.

The blogger also identifies the ship in the image as the Koshu, which the Japanese seized in World War I, rather than the Koshu Maru, which was launched in 1937.

NBC's Tom Costello, who first reported the story last week on the Today show, told Flying NBC News is aware of the report and has reached out to the History Channel for comment.