• Amelia Earhart first women to fly solo across Atlantic
• Famous pilot disappeared while attempting to be first to fly around equator
• Archaeologist believe Ms Earhart may have crashed on pacific island
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ARCHAEOLOGISTS believe they may be just yards away from finding the grave of the record-breaking aviator Amelia Earhart, who disappeared while trying to become the first person to circle the world at the equator.
Ms Earhart disappeared after taking off on 2 July, 1937, from a dirt airstrip in New Guinea with her navigator Fred Noonan.
For the past 67 years, many have tried to determine their fate, but none has succeeded.
Now archaeologists on the Pacific island of Tinian believe they might be close to solving one of the 20th century’s most puzzling mysteries.
The search has become a personal quest for Saint John Naftel, 82, who first arrived on the island, 2000km east of the Philippines, 60 years ago as a United States Marine. Ferrying internment camp inmates to work sites around the island after the Japanese capitulation, Mr Naftel got talking to a former slave labourer.
"One morning he said he wanted to show me something," says Mr Naftel. "I could see two mounds of earth, two graves. He told me he was brought here by the Japanese to dig two graves. Soldiers arrived with two civilians, a white man and a white woman, and dumped the bodies into the graves. The woman had a lapel pin of a wing and he said he thought he recognised her.
"The man said he had once seen pictures of a woman who was planning to fly around the world but could not remember her name," Mr Naftel recalls. "I said ‘Amelia Earhart?’ and he said, ‘That's her!’"
At the time, Mr Naftel assumed the proper authorities would hear of the graves and forgot about the story until 18 months ago when he decided to discover the truth.
Theories abound as to what happened to Mr Noonan and Ms Earhart, who made her name by becoming the first woman to fly solo across the Atlantic. Some contend her Lockheed Model 10E Special Electra simply ran out of fuel and crashed into the ocean. Others believe they navigated to a remote island where they waited in vain to be rescued, while a more sinister scenario is that Earhart was on a spying mission over Japanese-held islands and was captured after her aircraft crash-landed or was forced down by Japanese fighters.
Mr Naftel, from Alabama, is firmly of the belief that the pair were executed by the Japanese for espionage and buried on Tinian, while components of the aircraft were reverse-engineered to enable Japan to produce sophisticated engines as well as radio and direction-finding equipment for its own aircraft.
And he is not alone; at least 100 people have claimed to have seen a Caucasian couple on Saipan or Tinian in the late 1930s. Approaches to the local government and US military authorities went unanswered, but were passed on to local historians, who flew Mr Naftel to Tinian in October last year.
Once at the site, Mr Naftel thought that the road he had driven along in 1944 was not how he remembered it. After poring over aerial photographs from the 1940s, it became clear that another road had run nearby, and the team finally located its general route. Not far away were two slight indentations in the ground consistent with a body being buried and decomposing.
Last month, they carried out two days of investigation work which turned up glass, ancient pottery used by the indigenous Chamorro people and shards of metal that may have been shrapnel - but, as yet, no bodies.
But the archaeological team has not given up. The plan now is to definitively locate the layout of roads, through maps and aerial photographs from the 1940s, which will help pinpoint the position for future exploration.
"If this isn’t the burial site, I won’t be depressed," says Mr Naftel. "It’s a process of elimination and we’ll just have to look further afield."