Last Updated Jul 5, 2017 7:54 PM EDT
A new documentary claims a photo from 1937 discovered in the National Archives shows aviator Amelia Earhart and navigator Fred Noonan in Japanese custody, indicating the pair might have survived when their plane disappeared over the Pacific Ocean.
Airing Sunday on the History channel, "Amelia Earhart: The Lost Evidence" argues that a woman and a man seen on a dock in the Marshall Islands in a grainy black and white photo closely resemble Earhart and Noonan, whose disappearance has been a mystery for 80 years.
The photo was shown Wednesday on NBC News' "Today" during a preview for the program. It was found in the National Archives by Les Kinney, a former Treasury Department investigator and longtime Earhart researcher. Believed to have been taken in 1937, the photo includes a caption indicating it was taken on the Jaluit Atoll, one of the islands comprising the Marshall Islands in the Pacific.
The Marshall Islands were under Japanese control when Earhart and Noonan disappeared on July 2, 1937, while flying over the Pacific Ocean during Earhart's attempt to become the first female aviator to fly around the globe. They, spurring the largest and most expensive search and rescue effort by the U.S. Navy and Coast Guard in American history. They were declared dead two years later, but the wreckage was never found.
Analysts working with the History channel concluded the photo appears to be legitimate and not doctored. Shawn Henry, a former executive assistant director for the FBI, told NBC News that History's "analysis of the image leaves no doubt to the viewers that that's Amelia Earhart and Fred Noonan."
Researchers zeroed in on two figures shown on the dock, concluding the male figure's distinctive hairline matches Noonan's. "It's my feeling that this is very convincing evidence that this is probably Noonan," facial recognition expert Ken Gibson said.
The History investigators also concluded that the woman's body proportions match those of Earhart.
In the background of the photo, the Japanese ship Koshu can be seen towing a vessel that appears to be 38 feet long -- the same length as Earhart's airplane. Local legend has long held that the pair crashed and were seen in Japanese captivity on the island, the NBC report noted.
"We believe that the Koshu took her to Saipan [in the Mariana Islands], and that she died there under the custody of the Japanese," Gary Tarpinian, executive producer of the documentary, told NBC News.
The Japanese government denied having any record of Earhart and Noonan being held in captivity, but many records from the time were destroyed in World War II.
The two-hour-long "Amelia Earhart: The Lost Evidence" premieres July 9 on History at 9 p.m. ET.