The very first theory about what happened to Amelia was conjured by the captain of the Coast Guard cutter Itasca which was waiting for her at Howland Island. Commander Warner K. Thompson decided that she probably ran out of gas shortly after contact was lost and that she had gone down at sea somewhere to the northwest. He went and looked but found nothing.
The next theory was put together by Naval officers in Honolulu that same evening. After studying the facts as they knew them, it was decided that the search should be conducted along a navigational line running southeastward from Howland. The battleship USS Colorado was dispatched to undertake that mission.
Over the next few days, as the Colorado steamed the 2,000 miles southward to begin the search, radio signals believed to be from the lost plane were heard prompting experts to declare that the airplane had to be on land and able to operate an engine to recharge the batteries. Directional bearings taken on some of the signals by Pan American Airways stations around the Pacific seemed to indicate that the transmissions originated from the area of the Phoenix Group of islands, which lie about 350 miles southeast of Howland. This information caused the Navy to alter its theory somewhat. By use of its three catapult-launched floatplanes, the Colorado would focus its search on the islands of the uninhabited Phoenix Group rather than on the open ocean.
No airplane was seen during the Colorado’s aerial search of the Phoenix Group, although “signs of recent habitation” were noted on Gardner Island. When the aircraft carrier USS Lexington took over the search on July 11th the search shifted away from the Phoenix Group to the open ocean areas north and west of Howland. Other ships were assigned to search the densely populated Gilbert Islands far to the west on the chance that Earhart had reversed her course, but neither the Lexington’s intensive aerial search of the ocean nor the inquiries in the Gilberts turned up any hint of the missing flight. On July 18th the search was officially called off. The official verdict was that the plane had probably gone down at sea and sunk without a trace. The supposed distress calls were declared to be either misunderstandings or outright hoaxes.
The first allegation that there was more to the story than the U.S. government would admit came from an Australian tabloid newspaper called Smith’s Weekly. The paper’s October 16, 1937 issue charged that the U.S. Navy had used Earhart's disappearance as an excuse to send aircraft over the Marshall Islands where it was suspected that the Japanese were building military installations in violation of a League of Nations mandate. The logs of the ships participating in the search show that they never came anywhere near the Japanese Mandate and subsequent research of Japanese records show that no fortifications or airfields had yet been built. Yet the seed of an idea had been planted which would grow into one of the 20th centuries most popular conspiracy theories.
In the months following the attack on Pearl Harbor, a screenplay of disputed authorship was written entitled “Stand By To Die” which took the Smith’s Weekly idea and added the notion that Amelia was in on the plot. Purchased by RKO Pictures, the story was filmed and released under the title “Flight For Freedom” in April of 1943. Rosalind Russell and Fred MacMurray starred as “Toni Carter” and “Randy Britton” – characters so thinly disguised as Earhart and Noonan that George Putnam, Amelia’s widower, was paid a fee to forestall a lawsuit.
Life began to imitate art as soon as the film was released. That same week a Georgia Tech administrator, M. L Brittain, who had been a guest aboard the Colorado during the Earhart search, came forward with the news that he had had the feeling at the time that Earhart’s flight was somehow involved with the government. He did not mention why he waited six years to mention it. Aided by rumors that the story might not be entirely fictional, “Flight for Freedom” probably got more play than it deserved. (It’s a terrible film, even for a wartime propaganda vehicle.) By the time U.S. forces invaded the Marshall Islands and Saipan in 1944, the notion that Amelia Earhart may have been “captured by the Japs” was well-established scuttlebutt.
In 1949 rumors about Earhart having been in the Marshall Islands were bolstered by her mother’s statement to the press that she felt that AE had been secretly involved with the government. In response, U.S. Army Intelligence and the United Press conducted independent investigations in the Marshalls and could find no supporting evidence or corroborating witnesses.
The Earhart spy fever seems to have gone into remission until 1960 when three U.S. Air Force officers stationed on Guam produced a long list of names of witnesses on Saipan who supposedly had seen Earhart and Noonan in Japanese custody. The press was quick to report the story although an official USAF inquiry called the allegations “garbage.” It wasn’t long before a woman in San Mateo, California named Josephine Blanco Akiyama was in the news with a claim that, as a girl on Saipan before the war, she had seen Amelia Earhart and Fred Noonan taken prisoner. The story captured the imagination of KCBS Radio reporter Fred Goerner who launched an investigation that culminated in a 1966 best selling book The Search For Amelia Earhart which painted Earhart as a government agent forced down in the Marshalls, imprisoned on Saipan, and dying of malnutrition and disease. Goerner’s success unleashed a flood of other conspiracy books by authors who alleged countless variations on the theme, including the charge that Earhart was alive and well and living in New Jersey under an assumed name.
It was inevitable that such nonsense would spark a backlash, and in 1972, public relations executive and Earhart fan Richard G. Strippel wrote Amelia Earhart: The Myth and the Reality which endorsed the government’s original conclusion that Earhart simply ran out of gas and crashed at sea. Among the most vocal proponents of this intuitive theory are retired airline pilot Elgen Long and the chairman of the National Air & Space Museum's Aeronautics Department, Tom Crouch.