Fred Noonan: Amelia Earhart’s forgotten navigator
I’ll start today’s post by citing a few numbers that some might find quite amazing. Do a search for “Amelia Earhart” on Amazon.com, and you will receive exactly 2,208 results, as of Dec. 23, 2014. This doesn’t mean that all 2,208 books are written solely about Amelia Earhart. She might only be prominently mentioned in many, but it’s certain that many hundreds, if not well over 1,000 of these books, are indeed written about Amelia Earhart, a true American original and one of our greatest all-time citizens.
We should also note that well over 99 percent of the Earhart books on Amazon are biographies, novels or fictional works based loosely on her remarkable life. Less than a dozen of these 2,186 books actually attempt to explain Amelia’s disappearance, and only a handful are written and presented in a professional way. Regular readers of this blog are familiar with these books, so I won’t name them here.
But if you do the same search on Amazon for Fred Noonan, Amelia’s navigator during their world-flight attempt up to and including their unsuccessful Lae-to-Howland leg, you’ll find just 142 results. Of these books, none were written solely about him. I repeat: Not one single biography has ever been written about Fred Noonan.
Surely, if only based on his brief professional relationship with Amelia, he deserved at least one biography. But when you consider his extremely impressive accomplishments as a mariner and later as one of the world’s most accomplished navigators, you can come to only one sad conclusion: History has treated Fred Noonan very badly.
Frederick Joseph Noonan was born April 4, 1893 in Cook County, Ill.; we know little about his parents or childhood. In The Search for Amelia Earhart, Fred Goerner wrote that Noonan attended public schools in Chicago as a boy, then a private military academy and the London Nautical College, “but at fifteen, his restlessness drove him to the sea.” Goerner claimed that Noonan joined the Royal Navy during World War I, but I’ve seen nothing to support that, as all other sources say Noonan worked on Merchant ships. Goerner also wrote that during the war “on one trip from London to Montreal, he helped rescue five French soldiers adrift on an ice floe. On another, he was credited with saving the crew of a floundering Portuguese fishing schooner.”
His seafaring life began sometime in his mid- to late-teen years; maritime records indicate that he was an ordinary seaman on the British barque Hecla, probably bound for South America, sometime before 1910, when we know he was an able-bodied seaman aboard the ill-fated British bark Crompton, which wrecked off the southwest Irish coast in November 1910.
He continued working in the Merchant Marine throughout World War I. Serving as an officer on ammunition ships, his wartime service is reputed to have included billets on three vessels that were sunk from under him by U-boats, though in my online searches I’ve found nothing detailing these incidents. A twist of fate saved Noonan from likely losing his life aboard the British cargo ship SS Cairnhill in 1917, when he missed the ship’s departure after being on board for just two days. Cairnhill was “captured and scuttled by U55 (Underwater Boat 55) when 160 miles NW of Fastnet on passage New York for Le Havre, sunk by bombs and her captain was taken as a prisoner,” according to one source.
During his 22-year maritime career as a merchant sailor and officer, he sailed around Cape Horn seven times (three times under sail) and earned a master’s license for oceangoing ships of unlimited tonnage, as well as a license as a Mississippi River pilot, but again, no evidence can be found that he ever piloted a Mississippi riverboat. Noonan married Josephine Sullivan in 1927 at Jackson, Miss. After a honeymoon in Cuba, they settled in New Orleans. Noonan was 34 years old, Josephine, 26.
By the late 1920s Noonan began looking skyward, and he earned a “limited commercial pilot’s license” in 1930, on which he listed his occupation as “aviator.” During the early 1930s, he worked for Pan American World Airways as a navigation instructor in Miami and an airport manager in Port-au-Prince, Haiti, eventually assuming the duties of inspector for all of the company’s airports.
In March 1935, Noonan was the navigator on the first Pan Am Sikorsky S-42 clipper at San Francisco Bay. In April he navigated the historic round-trip China Clipper flight between San Francisco and Honolulu piloted by Ed Musick (who was featured on the cover of Time magazine that year). Noonan was subsequently responsible for mapping Pan Am’s clipper routes across the Pacific Ocean, participating in many flights to Midway Island, Wake Island, Guam, the Philippines and Hong Kong. In addition to more modern navigational tools, Noonan as a licensed sea captain was known for carrying a ship’s sextant on these flights.
At some point toward the end of 1936, Noonan lost his job with Pan Am, and in in March 1937 he divorced his wife, Josie, in Mexico; two weeks later he married Mary Beatrice Martinelli (nee Passadori) of Oakland, Calif. After Amelia’s Luke Field accident on March 20, Harry Manning, her first choice as navigator, opted out of the world flight entirely, leaving the navigator’s job wide open for Noonan.
“Earhart’s crack-up in Honolulu is a classic example of how minor events can change world history,” Paul Rafford, Jr., a former navigator-radio operator for PAA in the early 1940s, wrote in his 2006 book, Amelia Earhart’s Radio. “Had she not lost control and ground looped during takeoff, Earhart would have left navigator Fred Noonan at Howland and radio operator Captain Harry Manning in Australia. Then, she would have proceeded around the world alone. Fate decreed otherwise. Although Harry Manning had left the flight crew and gone back to his ship, Noonan would now accompany Earhart for the entire trip around the world. For reasons never satisfactorily explained, the route was changed to west to east instead of east to west.”
Fred Noonan was a respected and accomplished professional, but as a condition of his agreement with the publicity obsessed George Putnam, he kept an extremely low profile during the world flight, never spoke on the radio and was rarely featured in the press. Thus his lasting notoriety in the Earhart saga has been the lingering question of his drinking, and whether it might have adversely affected the final flight. A few more details on Noonan’s career can be found elsewhere, but henceforth we’ll focus on the question of his alleged drinking problem and whether it might have affected his performance during the final flight, which, unfortunately, has been his lasting legacy.
We’ll next hear from a few notables who actually knew Fred Noonan, and foremost among these must be former Navy Capt. Almon Gray, who was a Navy Reserve lieutenant when World War II was declared and retired in 1968 as Chief of Future Plans in the National Communications System. During the mid-1930s, Gray helped build the bases to support the first Pan Am trans-Pacific air service and was first officer-in-charge of the PAA radio station on Wake Island.
After the San Francisco-Hong Kong air route was opened in late 1935, Gray was a radio officer in the China Clipper and her sister flying boats. Later he was assistant superintendent of communications for PAA’s Pacific Division. He flew many trips with Fred Noonan and got to know him well. He even consulted with Amelia, offering her the full resources of the Pan American radio facilities, then in position in the Pacific, for her upcoming final flight, but to his amazement, chagrin and disappointment, she strangely refused such help.
Gray wrote several important articles on the Earhart radio problem that appeared in Bill Prymak’s Amelia Earhart Society Newsletters, including “Amelia Didn’t Know Radio,” which appeared in the November-December 1993 issue of the prestigious U.S. Naval Institute Proceedings magazine. Following is Gray’s poignant reminiscence of Noonan, which appeared in the November 1994 AES Newsletter.
“Fred Noonan as I Knew Him”
It was at Wake Island in August, 1935, that I first met Fred Noonan. I had helped construct the PAA radio communication and direction finding stations there and, at the time, was in charge of them. Fred was the navigator in Capt. Rod Sullivan’s crew, which had brought the first survey flight to Wake, using a Sikorsky S-42 Flying Boat. He was very interested in the radio direction finding and meteorological capabilities of the station and spent considerable time with me and my assistant, viewing and discussing our facilities. I found him to be polite and soft spoken, but very businesslike and obviously very well versed in those matters.
Fred also was the navigator of the survey flight to Guam in October. I boarded the plane at Wake on its return trip and flew to Honolulu in it. That was my first flight with Fred. When I reached Alameda I was checked out as Flight Radio Officer. At this time most of the flights being made were for training purposes and I frequently was crewman on flights where Fred was training navigators or pilots. In that way I got to know him quite well. I was not married at the time so had no social contact with him or his wife. As a fellow crew member he was a very fine person with whom to work. I never saw him get excited but he could act very fast when necessary.
I recall one night while returning from a long training flight we were making a landing on San Francisco Bay through a thin layer of fog, and flew an S-42 right into the water. We hit so hard that the hull was bent till the nose was pointing up about 30 degrees. Almost before I could get straightened up in my seat, Fred was down in the bilges stuffing blankets, pillows and anything else he could find into the cracks of the hull through which the water was pouring. I am sure that had he not acted so swiftly, the plane would have sunk.
While we were laying over at Honolulu or Manila he was pretty much of a loner. If the crew had to make an obligatory appearance as a unit Fred would be there and be sober. However after that he would take off on his own and would not be seen around the hotel again until just before it was time for the crew to leave for the plane. He would be sober but it would be apparent that he had a king sized hangover. Once aboard the plane he would have something to eat and drink some coffee and soon things would be normal. He never, to my knowledge, drank on the plane, or came aboard in such a condition that he could not effectively navigate.
The official reports submitted by New Guinea Airways, the outfit that serviced Earhart’s plane at Lae, show that Fred got a time-tick and rechecked his chronometers at 8 a.m. of the day they left Lae. At that time he and Earhart told the Airways people that everything was ready, and set 10 a.m. as their departure time. Fred obviously was sober at 8 a.m. and with all the rush of getting ready to take off he would not have had an opportunity to get drunk before 10 a.m. without someone of the Airways staff knowing about it.
I am very confident that Fred was sober and in all respects capable of performing his duties on the Lae-Howland flight. He could not however perform miracles. Unless he could see the heavenly bodies he could not use celestial navigation. Radio navigation did not work. That left him only Dead Reckoning, and without current and comprehensive weather reports, DR over a considerable period of time is a risky business. I am confident that Fred did as well for Earhart as anyone could have done under the circumstances that existed. (End of Almon Gray comments.)
Almon Gray passed away on Sept. 26, 1994 in Blue Hill, Maine. In my next post we’ll hear more those who knew Fred Noonan, and perhaps we can come to some well-educated conclusions about Noonan’s reputation as a hard-drinking member of the Golden Age of Aviation.