The Alleged Amelia Earhart and Fred Noonan Photograph: A Research Librarian Perspective

By Brian Simboli [contact:]

This posting concerns a short-lived but exciting involvement I had concerning the mystery of Amelia Earhart’s and navigator Fred Noonan’s disappearance in 1937. What follows is a chronology of events, then a discussion of lessons gleaned, and finally a set of resources relating to research in the National Archives potentially useful for research about the Earhart/Noonan mystery but going well beyond this topic, even perhaps to studies of coastal geology, or ethnographic and other historical studies.

It is worth noting that NARA featured Amelia Earhart on its homepage and links to various resources (see link below). Wisely, it distanced itself from interpretations of the photograph.

July 5

Upon hearing the very widely covered news about an alleged photograph of Amelia Earhart and navigator Fred Noonan, I sent the following email to two addresses associated with the History Channel, which was to air an episode covering it:

Date: Wed, Jul 5, 2017 at 6:55 PM

Having done research at the National Archives, I was very intrigued by the story here concerning discovery of an alleged photograph of Amelia Earhart and Fred Noonan:

It would be interesting to learn a lot more about the specific context of where the photograph was filed, and why the researcher, …, thought that it had been “misfiled”, per the following: “’The photograph came out of a Navy file, a formerly top secret file in the National Archives,’ says …[the researcher], during the documentary. ‘It was misfiled and that was the only reason I found it.’” [From this article]

E.g., what led …[the researcher] to believe that it had been misfiled? If this is the case, where should it have been filed, and does the latter provide the requisite context for claiming that this was indeed a photograph of Earhart and Noonan?

The photograph itself is intriguing, but without considerably more information about where this photo was discovered in the vast National Archives, I’d be skeptical about the claims about Earhart and Noonan built upon it.

From my limited experience, there is considerable artistry and tremendous luck involved in searching the National Archives. I don’t know if it is common knowledge, and perhaps it might be useful to you, but as I note in my guide to searching the National Archives, [link to guide],

It can be very helpful to locate whatever archival inventories are available for the government department of interest. You may find that they provide very helpful details about whatever government agency produced the documents you are interested in. Look in WorldCat (see the database finder off the Lehigh library homepage) for whatever inventories are available. An example of an inventory is “Preliminary Inventory of the Records of the Office of War Mobilization and Reconversion”, the National Archives, National Archives and Records Service, General Services Administration, Washington: 1951.

These inventories can provide guidance that might be missing if one relies on the large, bound indexes available at the reading room of the National Archives (at least in Bethesda).

Incidentally, the latter guides are not necessarily always helpful. For example, the economics professor with whom I did research about WWII period economic development agencies had an instinct that one indexing category that was otherwise entirely uninformative might actually be relevant. It led to a rich vein of very relevant materials. Pure luck that we found the material.

In any case, the devil is in the archival details. From what I can see, it (again) is crucial to learn more about the actual location of the photograph within the National Archives and on what basis the researcher thought it had been misfiled.

What can we learn from the surrounding material with which it was filed, or from the files in which it should have been filed (assuming it was misfiled)? This would make the story much more interesting.

I think it would lend considerable more credibility to the interpretation of the photo if this information can be made available at your website, over and above the photo off the archival record group inventory that appears at your website above.

It is not clear that this email to the History Channel went through, given that at least one of the email addresses did not work.

(The professor with whom I did the research mentioned above was Lehigh Prof. Emeritus of Economics Art King. The research concerned WWII period prototypes of international economic development planning, which will become the subject of another posting at this blogsite.)

July 7

Having come across the website for The International Group for Historic Aircraft Recovery (TIGHAR), I sent a note to its Executive Director, Ric Gillespie. TIGHAR advocates an island castaway theory about Earhart’s and Noonan’s disappearance; this view conflicts with the theory that they were apprehended by the Japanese. The website states that it explores an hypothesis—a word that expresses the entirely appropriate disposition to any historical research.

Mr. Gillespie expressed interest in visiting NARA to research the photograph, so I initiated some preliminary research. Front-ending one’s research is sine qua non for using time efficiently while at the archives. An important part of this process is using NARA’s online record group information of its archives, e.g. for Record Group 38,  as well as published inventories or indexes of NARA content (see resources below).  Incidentally, it would be good if NARA could post scans of all of the latter on its website.

I also sent an inquiry to someone at NARA who had been very helpful in prior research. The request focused on the “ONI number” that appears on the photo’s label, as a possible stepping stone to discovering a file or report that would establish the photo’s provenance; ONI presumably refers to the Office of Naval Intelligence:

I am curious whether the “ONI # 14381” number in the label on the photo has any significance.

This may be a document number of some kind. Perhaps somewhere at NARA there is a key or cross-index that provides more information about it.  Maybe it is an identifying number relating to pieces of intelligence the Navy was gathering? Or perhaps a reference to a file containing information about why ONI had this photo, or its significance?

This informal inquiry was followed by a formal request using the form at the NARA website.

July 8

Mr. Gillespie presciently remarks in an email the following: “My hunch is that the photo is actually taken from one of the many books about the islands of the Pacific written in the 1930s. That could explain why the caption is and ONI number are pasted on.”

July 9

The History Channel episode appeared. At times lurid, it used the contested photo as a “hook” to explore the theory that the aviators were captured by the Japanese.

July 10


Word began to circulate that a Japanese researcher discovered the photo in a book from 1935. Earhart’s disappearance was in 1937. The researcher claimed that it took a mere 30 minutes to do his research!

In the wake of this news, I withdrew my requests to NARA, assuming that no counter-story to the photo will materialize. There might, however, be some interest in exploring the ONI number, but this would merely be an academic footnote for someone interested in ONI or WWII history, particularly how this agency went about gathering and organizing intelligence.

Perhaps the story has been told somewhere about whether and how government investigators systematically combed through books in U.S. and other libraries to collect information about far-flung locales during WWII or in the lead-up to it. If so, this would exemplify the traditional role of research libraries in providing repositories of obscure materials available for use on an “as-needed” basis– even if they never see use!


For librarians or researchers, last week’s events surrounding the photo was a tantalizing case study about the need for thoroughness in historical or any other type of research. And the need to entertain counterarguments or counterpoint at all times, plus the responsibility to provide detailed information about one’s sources before, or as part of, the dissemination of claims about historical facts. Plus, of course, it was a useful case study in how a spectrum of media sources can lure readers by hyping claims that do not have a strong evidential base.

As relates to the work of university librarians, it is also a reminder of the need to train young people to develop hard-nosed, skeptical and critical attitudes toward informational sources, regardless their theoretical or ideological framework. This is a much-needed antidote to half-baked opinions on social media and newsbites that immediately disappear into the news cycle.

Resources for future research

To close out this brief summer saga, here are some resources for persons who want to use the National Archives, including but ranging well beyond Earhart research. Some of these resources involve inventories or indexes to NARA material. I will write NARA to suggest that the full complement of such materials be placed on their websites, in conjunction with the afore-mentioned “table of contents”.

• Lehigh University library guide to searching NARA
NARA guide to Earhart information, including location of the photo in the archives; scroll down for the image and a statement concerning the photo.
Preliminary Inventory of the Records of the Office of the Chief of Naval Operations (Record Group 38). This is relevant because the photo is in this record group; the NARA citation in the link above for the photograph is “Citation: U.S. National Archives, Records of the Office of Naval Intelligence, Record Group 38, Monograph Files Relating to the Pacific Ocean Area, NAID 68141661).
Subject Index to Naval Intelligence Reports 1940-1946
• “Preliminary inventory of the cartographic records of the Office of the Chief of Naval Operations: (Record group 38)”; see WorldCat for details.

Finally, some tentative suggestions, again for Earhart researchers but also for earth sciences, or WW II, researchers. Of course, these suggestions might already have been pursued!

1. Cartographic holdings in NARA might help establish shifting coastlines on Pacific islands. Perhaps this could be of value for persons studying the geology of coastlines. For Earhart researchers, this might help specify the historical contours of candidate islands on which Earhart and Noonan may have alighted. The afore-mentioned History Channel episode mentioned work done to trace the old coastline of one island. The advantage for archeological work is that maybe offshore shallows might have become hard turf, or vice versa. Presumably the latter has advantages and disadvantages for purposes of archeological work.

If aerial photographs are available, these might reveal anomalous details on islands that might be relevant to the Earhart/Noonan crash or landing. Or continued searching in the ONI files might reveal something not seen before.

One can only speculate what ethnographic or other geographically interesting data might be present in the archives, wholly aside from anything related to the Earhart story.

2. Also, and this is quite a stretch (but potentially fun), persons who believe that the Japanese apprehended Earhart and Noonan might find this interesting in relation to the following claim here : “During the World War II period, ONI increasingly used naval officers and civilians not designated as attaches to obtain foreign intelligence. Generally, these naval observers, naval liaison officers, shipping officers, consular agents, informants, and intelligence agents worked closely (often secretly) with the nearest naval attache. ONI operated 22 observer posts, 43 liaison office and 35 other posts during the war. These and other intelligence-gathering agencies (particularly the Military Intelligence Division of the Army, the Office of Strategic Services, and the British intelligence services) supplied information and documents to ONI.”

UPDATE of July 23

And so now the plot thickens! An article from Variety claims that  “History Investigates Amelia Earhart Doc Claims, Suspends Repeats”.

So far, so good. However, this intriguing claim appears. I had seen the article, but a former reporter with whom I’ve corresponded was curious about the following:

“That claim counters assessments by multiple analysts quoted in the History special, but itself has been challenged by an analyst who told History that the authenticity of the book may be questionable.” [emphasis mine]
It’s not clear what this is supposed to mean. But, anyhow, I just asked someone at NARA to restore my query about the ONI number on the contested photograph that appears in the book, whose authenticity (according to an “analyst”) is questionable.  Let’s see where this goes. Nothing is ever settled in Earhart research!