ROBERT SIEGEL, HOST:
What happened to Amelia Earhart? That question has been asked for 80 years now. It was this month in 1937 when her plane disappeared while she was attempting a round-the-world flight. She'd been flying with her navigator Fred Noonan. The most commonly held theory is that they ran out of fuel and crashed into the Pacific. But a documentary scheduled to air on the History Channel this weekend suggests that Earhart and Noonan survived a crash landing in the Japanese-held Marshall Islands. The evidence - a fuzzy photo from the National Archives that shows several people gathered on a dock.
NPR's Laurel Wamsley has been staring at the photo much of the day and talking to all sorts of people about it. Hello, Laurel.
LAUREL WAMSLEY, BYLINE: Hi, Robert.
SIEGEL: Let's explain more of what's in this photo and what claim is being made about it.
WAMSLEY: Right. It was originally from the Office of Naval Intelligence, and it's been in the archives for a while. It's here in Washington, D.C. But a researcher who has been very interested in the disappearance of Amelia Earhart for a while came across this about a year, year and a half ago. And then when the History Channel looked to start creating a documentary around it, they heard about it, and they consider this photograph to be their smoking gun, that this shows that Amelia Earhart and her navigator crash-landed and survived. And so this is a photograph taken on a dock on Jaluit Atoll in the Marshall Islands. And it shows a few people standing around. There's - the person who is supposed to be Amelia Earhart we only see from the back.
SIEGEL: Sitting on the dock.
WAMSLEY: Right, looking kind of casual and looking off at this boat which the documentarians say is towing her airplane.
SIEGEL: I have to say. To the untrained eyes - someone who possesses two untrained eyes - I have no idea whether this is - what this shows. What have you heard from people? Do they think that's Amelia Earhart sitting her back to us on the dock?
WAMSLEY: I think if you are shown this photograph, it would not necessarily occur to you that this is absolutely Amelia Earhart.
SIEGEL: To put this in some historic context here, this would have been in 1937.
WAMSLEY: Right. That's what they say.
SIEGEL: The Second World War had not yet begun. Japan was the Mandatory power, as they were called in those days, in the Marshall Islands. But we weren't at war with Japan. So why wouldn't the Japanese have surrendered Amelia Earhart to the U.S. or the U.S. have asked for Amelia Earhart if it knew she was there?
WAMSLEY: The - so the folks at the History Channel who made this or the producer of the documentary - he says that why they believe that all of this happened is that the United States knew that this had happened, but they didn't want to reveal to the Japanese that they had cracked the Japanese code. And so rather than reveal that they understood exactly what had happened to Amelia Earhart, she was sort of sacrificed for the greater mission of keeping it unknown to the Japanese that we'd cracked their code.
SIEGEL: So are people who - are you seeing lots of mass conversions of people who've believed all these years that she crashed in the Pacific now saying, oh, I guess she crashed instead into the Marshall Islands?
WAMSLEY: I don't think so. But of course it hasn't aired yet, so we'll see. But I think that for people who've been following this for years and trying to figure out what did happen with her, this probably isn't going to put their concerns to rest. But it's certainly an interesting next chapter.
SIEGEL: NPR's Laurel Wamsley, thanks.
WAMSLEY: Thank you.
SIEGEL: The documentary "Amelia Earhart: The Lost Evidence" airs at 9 p.m. Eastern on Sunday.
(SOUNDBITE OF FLORIAN WEBER'S "COSMIC") Transcript provided by NPR, Copyright NPR.