By now the world has learned that Amelia Earhart and her navigator Fred Noonan were not lounging around on a jetty in a remote Pacific island in 1937 – a claim I discounted more than a year ago when I first saw the disputed photo.

The History Channel went overboard with the claim that the undated photo, unearthed in the US National Archives, shows Earhart and Noonan relaxing on the jetty in Jaluit Harbour – part of the Marshall Islands group – shortly after the pair vanished while trying to circumnavigate the globe 80 years ago.

It was claimed that in the background was the Koshu Maru, the Japanese ship which was to take them to the island of Saipan where it was suspected they died. And on the rear of the ship, it was proposed, was Earhart’s Lockheed Electra aircraft.

When an Earhart researcher sent me the photo from the US last year I was intrigued – but dare not go into print without further checks.

What was the date on the photo? Who took it? Where are the Japanese officials who would have been watching over the couple? While at first glance two of the figures on the dock might – and ‘only’ might – be the missing couple, why wasn’t word sent out by radio that they had been found, despite a massive search of land, sea and air authorised by President Roosevelt?

I also wondered why one of the vessels in the picture had so many flags flying from it.

In fact, with Earhart, Noonan, the Koshu and Earhart’s aircraft on the ship, I began to wonder if the picture, with the main ‘characters’ and all the ‘props’ included, was just too perfect to be true.

The US researcher, at my request, returned to the archives and searched through the folder which had contained the interesting photo. He could add no further information except to point out that the picture was in an envelope with the date ’1940+’ on the outside. This, he said, was disheartening. The date was wrong. Earhart had disappeared three years or more earlier. It was enough for me to hold back on writing up the story.

Then, in recent weeks, came the dramatic announcement from the History Channel that the very same photo in question was at the heart of a documentary claiming that the two aviators had survived the 1937 crash of their aircraft.

By this time I had conducted further research, talking to islanders and establishing that the figures in the photo were not Westerners, despite claims by ‘body language’ experts that they could be Earhart and Noonan. And there was that date on the envelope containing the photo – 1940+ – along with the absence of Japanese military officials. I finally went into print insisting that the photo could not be believed.

I was both right and wrong – although in discrediting the photo I would like to think I was more right than wrong! I just happened to go the wrong way on the calendar.

For Japanese military historian Kota Yamano unearthed the same photo in a Japanese-language picture book of Pacific images – published in Japanese-held Palau in October 1935, two years before Earhart had even taken off on her round-the-world flight.

But of course, that scene on the jetty of a group of figures just hanging about would have been photographed before the book’s publication. How long would it have taken for that photo to have ended up in a book – one year, two years…more? We are looking at perhaps 1933, four years before the pair disappeared.

And it turns out that those flags I was wondering about were to mark a yacht regatta taking place when the picture was taken. ‘Earhart’ and ‘Noonan’ turned out to be sailing regatta spectators!

I wasn’t the only one to question the photo. Among the serious doubters were Earhart researchers Mike Campbell and Ric Gillespie, the latter stating in his blog that the ship in the background could not be the Koshu Maru, as claimed by the History Channel, as it is a smaller vessel and the ‘aircraft’ on the rear is nothing more than an indistinct blob.

Adding to what he says is a fiasco, he points out that the man in the photo who is claimed to be Noonan cannot be him because the hair is wrong – an original photo of Noonan used as a side-by-side comparison has been flipped horizontally in an attempt to match the parting of his hair and that of the man in the photo.

In addition to that problem, a Pacific islander has told me: ‘There’s no way in the world that man is a Caucasian. My immediate reaction was that he was an islander.’

No pun intended, but as history has shown – or rather not shown – Amelia Earhart didn’t make it to a sun-kissed jetty in Jaluit Harbour in 1937.

Photo: Courtesy National Archives.