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Never-Before-Seen Photo Suggests Amelia Earhart Survived Plane Crash

Experts and locals present a compelling case that the Japanese government may have kidnapped Earhart during World War II, though the country denies these claims.

Mitchell Sunderland

Mitchell Sunderland

Amelia Earhart standing under nose of her Lockheed Model 10-E Electra, via Wikimedia Commons

For eight decades, aviation pioneer and author Amelia Earhart's disappearance has remained one of the biggest mysteries in US popular culture. Earhart and her navigator, Fred Noonan, boarded a plane in June 1937. She had vowed to fly across the entire globe—a feat that would have made her the first woman to do so—but they were never heard from again.

This morning, NBC News broke the news of a bombshell in History Channel's new documentary Amelia Earhart: the Lost Evidence: a photo suggesting that the pilot and Noonan lived.

"There's evidence that Earhart survived her final flight," former FBI Executive Assistant Director Shawn Henry announced in the trailer for the film, which airs Sunday. The preview shows a man revealing a photograph from a "secret" navy file.

The image is dated 1937, the same year Earhart took off for her final flight. NBC News reports that the government has long assumed that Earhart and Noonan crashed and died in the Pacific Ocean, though their remains were never found. In the intervening years, feminists like Camille Paglia have turned Earhart into an icon for her trailblazing adventures and genderbending pants, a signature look which can be seen in the newly unearthed photo. In it, a woman who resembles Earhart is sitting on a dock with her back to the camera while a man who resembles Noonan stands near her. Though the woman is facing away from the lens, a facial recognition expert told NBC that the most promising identifiers were the man's distinctive hairline and prominent nose, which resemble Noonan's.

"When you pull out, and 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," Henry, who also works as an NBC News analyst, told the network.

Read more: Camille Paglia Discusses Her War on 'Elitist Garbage' and Contemporary Feminism

Independent analysts reviewed the evidence, and according to NBC News, the Japanese ship Koshu floats in the background, alongside an item that looks like a plane. The picture stems from the National Archives and was labeled "Jaluit Atoll," a Japanese territory.

The mention of Jaluit Atoll falls in line with Japanese legends about Earhart's fate. Last week, the Japan Times reported that elderly locals claim Earhart and Noonan crashed in the Marshall Islands and were then ushered to Jaluit Atoll. There, Fred Goerner's controversial book The Search for Amelia Earhart alleges, they boarded the Koshu and were shipped to Saipan as prisoners. (The Japanese government denied these claims to NBC News, stating that they have no records of Earhart and Noonan.)

"My father was 23 at the time and working at the Japanese seaport moving drums of water for a Japanese company that took water from the big spring east of the port," Stanley McGinnis Torres, the father of a future Saipan congressman told Goerner, the Japan Times reported. "That dock area is where he saw the two tall white people under guard. He couldn't say that the Americans he saw were Amelia Earhart and Fred Noonan. He couldn't say for sure what happened to them, but it makes sense to me that the prisoners, whoever they were, were either killed here on Saipan or sent on to Japan for questioning."

History Channel's unearthing of the photograph doesn't confirm Torres and other locals' claims, but it does add a new piece of evidence to one of America's favorite mysteries.