In my last post we briefly looked at the mostly forgotten, sketchy biography of the multitalented mariner and aviator Fred Noonan up until the time of Amelia Earhart’s March 20, 1937 Luke Field, Hawaii crash on takeoff on the second leg of her first world-flight attempt. Noonan’s fateful decision to stay with Amelia as her sole navigator throughout her next world flight attempt came after her first choice, Harry Manning, quickly withdrew from the team following the near-disastrous Luke Field debacle. The unfortunate mishap, which could have been much worse in terms of injuries or loss of life, did little to bolster Amelia’s reputation as a pilot, despite the official verdict that the ground loop was an unavoidable accident.
Fifty-two years later, Fred Goerner told a Pennsylvania television executive, “It is not correct to blame a tire blowout for the [Luke Field] incident. Harry Manning was in the right hand co-pilot’s seat on the attempted Honolulu takeoff. Manning wrote to me and then told me in tape recordings that the crash was the result of Earhart’s jockeying the throttles on takeoff as she was having trouble controlling the takeoff. The blown tire was a result rather than a cause. Manning said, ‘One second I was looking at the hangars, the next second the water. I was ready to die. It was phenomenal that none of us was injured. She simply lost it. That’s all. I decided then and there that was it for me. I’d been ready to leave anyway because of [George Palmer] Putnam. ’ ”
Manning was likely referring to the publisher’s micro-management of his famous wife’s publicity campaign for the world flight, and his tyrannical insistence that the spotlight remain focused only on Amelia, as if she were the only person in the Electra. Putnam imposed the same conditions on Noonan, but Fred needed the flight so badly, and so filled with promise did the great opportunity appear that he readily accepted the overbearing Putnam’s demands without complaint.
But as we continue our focus on Fred Noonan, we won’t further analyze Amelia’s questionable performance at Luke Field or second guess the decision that cost Noonan his life. Fairly or not, Noonan will always be remembered as the problem drinker who Amelia Earhart trusted with her own life, if he’s remembered at all. By hearing from those who knew Noonan or were close to those who did, and from others who have carefully studied the matter, perhaps we can get a better answer to the questions that will probably never be completely put to rest: Was Noonan an alcoholic, and if so, how bad was his drinking? Most importantly, did Noonan’s drinking have any negative effects on the final, ill-fated flight that terminated at Mili Atoll?
We began with the late Almon Gray, a Navy Reserve captain and Pan American Airways China Clipper flight officer, who flew with Fred Noonan in the 1930s and later brilliantly analyzed Earhart’s radio problems. “Fred obviously was sober at 8 a.m. [July 2],” Gray wrote of his former colleague, “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.”
Another man who knew Noonan well, at least on the professional level, was Captain Marius Lodeesen, the legendary Pan American Airlines pilot and former naval aviator. In Captain Lodi Speaking: Saying Goodbye to an Era (Paladwr Press, 2004, the second edition of his 1984 book), Lodeesen briefly addressed Noonan’s drinking. Recalling his first meeting with Noonan at Alameda Airport in Oakland, Calif., as the Dutch immigrant began his “adventure of Pan American’s Pacific Service” in 1933, Lodeesen described him as “tall and slender and looking a little like movie star James Stewart,” and said he and Noonan “operated on the same UHF band.”
“Much has been made of Noonan’s drinking,” Lodeesen wrote. “He has been accused of being an alcoholic. He wasn’t one, at least not then.” Later in his page-long narrative, however, the “Flying Dutchman,” as Lodeesen was known, wrote that “his drinking did become an issue” and concluded that Noonan was “of a gentle nature and addicted to drink,” implying though not actually stating that Noonan “found himself out of a job” as a result.
TIGHAR’s Ric Gillespie, well known as “an internationally recognized authority on the Earhart disappearance whose writings have appeared in the Naval Institute’s Proceedings and Naval History and in LIFE Magazine,” according to his Amazon.com profile, has blamed Fred Goerner for fueling the public’s perception of Noonan as a drunk. “The stories about Noonan’s drinking seem to have begun in 1966 with the publication of The Search for Amelia Earhart by Frederick Goerner and are totally without documentary support,” Gillespie declaims on his TIGHAR site. “It is one of the tragedies of the Earhart Legend that an aviation pioneer whose contributions to modern air travel are considerably greater than Earhart’s, is primarily remembered as Amelia Earhart’s drunken navigator.”
But what precisely is this “documentary support” Gillespie says is so lacking in Noonan’s case? Is this just another of his weasel phrases, such as “consistent with,” which we’ve seen can apply to virtually anything that “might have come” or “could have come” from the Earhart plane or even Amelia or Fred themselves, too-clever-by-half dodges that provide convenient escape hatches should the thrust of his latest contention prove to be false, as is so often the case?
In fact, Goerner wrote little about Noonan’s drinking. I may have missed something in my quick review of Goerner’s 1966 bestseller, I found only two relevant passages. On page 30 of the first edition of Search we find this:
“Fred Noonan was a talented and handsome man. Only one major flaw disturbed the image. He could drink a bottle of whiskey in the afternoon, and get through the better part of another in the evening. ‘Boozer,’ ‘drunk,’ ‘lush’ – are hard words, and none of them fit Fred. He was hooked on liquor, yet somehow he always managed to function. He fought his adversary with courage and conviction, but sometimes he lost, and those defeats were costly. One of them caused Pan American to let him go.”
Goerner didn’t elaborate on the “defeat” that caused Pan American “to let him go,” and his only other reference to Noonan and booze came on page 33, wherein he wrote that after Noonan and Mary B. Martinelli were married in Yuma, Arizona, in late March 1937, “their car smashed head-on into another automobile on a highway near Fresno. The investigating police officer cited Fred for driving in the wrong lane. A notation at the bottom of the traffic ticker said: ‘No injuries. Driver had been drinking.’” We’re left to wonder why Noonan wasn’t arrested if he caused such a potentially deadly accident while drinking, but this is all Goerner wrote.
Scottish researcher Jackie Ferrari, about as close to a Noonan biographer as this observer knows, claims Noonan was “let go” at Pan Am in late 1936 as a result of his heavy drinking, although no official announcement was made. “He simply disappeared from the payroll,” Ferrari writes, so that the image-conscious PAA would “not lose face by admitting they had employed Fred when he was in this state.”
Noonan’s life had come undone, Ferrari wrote in her Jackie Ferrari’s Blog on Fred J Noonan, and he was “almost suicidal, according to his friend Marius Lodeesen. There are others who say that something had gone wrong in his life. His marriage was finished and his career effectively ended.” Noonan remarried shortly before leaving for the world flight with Earhart and the timing of the incredible opportunity seemingly could not have been more fortuitous for the forty-four-year-old navigator.
In her blog post, titled, The Cincinnati Division, Ferrari, who also owns the Fred Noonan Society Yahoo! discussion group, was adamant about why Noonan lost his job at Pan Am. “Fred Noonan was ‘let go’ at the end of 1936 for drinking,” she wrote. “He was in the words of a fellow crew member sent to the Cincinnati Division. I am assured by a former PAA navigator that that was the euphemism for ‘getting the boot.’ What is my evidence for this and how credible it that evidence?
“In the archives of PAA, in Miami,” Ferrari continued, “there exists a series of transcribed interviews between John Leslie, a former PAA executive and several crew from the pioneering days of the Clippers. Two of that crew flew with Fred. They are Victor Wright and Harry Canaday. Both, but particularly Wright tell in no uncertain terms what happened.” Ferrari continues:
“Fred developed a severe drink problem after Acapulco where the Clipper stopped during its transfer across country from Miami to Alameda. He suddenly found fame according to Wright and it went to his head. Before this he had been ‘rock steady’ with no sign of a ‘crackup’. He ‘did a beautiful piece of work’. Then in Acapulco everyone was shaking his hand. Overnight he became a celebrity, invited to all the parties where he regaled the company with seafaring tales. He was very much in demand and the partying habit continued in Honolulu, Wake, Guam and Manila.
“One day he had to be sought out by Wright, who had to get into some ‘interesting situations’ and proceeded to sober him up before his flight. This resulted in a fall in the bathtub which knocked out his front teeth [in Honolulu]. Canada navigated on the way back. One might say that this was “normal behavior” for the aviators of the time. Maybe for some, but not for PAA. Andre Priester, Pan Am’s chief engineer, was known to instantly dismiss anyone under the influence of alcohol. It is a measure of the esteem in which Fred was held that he was tolerated for almost two years.
“Wright says that the ‘Old Man’ covered up for Fred. Was that Ed Musick? Or Priester? Or Juan Trippe, Pan Am’s president? They knew he did a faultless job and he was indispensable for the proving flights. But by the time regular passenger carrying service was set up and other navigators were trained his value waned and he became a liability. The company carried very high class personages from heads of state to movie stars.
“It simply would not do for them to see the plane’s navigator carried aboard comatose. He had to go. But according to Wright, PAA could not lose face by admitting they had employed Fred when he was in this state. They had too much to lose so he simply disappeared from the payroll. That is why there is no official record of him having been dismissed.”
For more of Ferrari on Noonan, please click here.
Earhart biographer Mary Lovell, whose 1989 book, The Sound of Wings, is among the better-known accounts of Amelia’s incredible life, flatly disagreed with Ferrari’s contentions, at least in the 1989 edition of her book. Lovell wrote that Noonan was not dismissed from Pan Am because of his drinking, but “because as a navigator and not a pilot, he could go no further in the company ranks. He had recently married and felt that his navigator’s salary was insufficient for his new needs; he was then 44 years old and wanted to make a new start.” Lovell based this statement on a 1988 interview she had with Elgen and Marie Long.
Later in her book, Lovell wrote, “The stories of his heavy drinking seem too widely based to have no foundation; his contemporaries in the aircraft scene in California all ‘knew’ about this problem of Noonan’s. … Noonan was a heavy drinker not an alcoholic but it is ironic that Amelia should once again place her trust, and the success of her flight, in the hands of a man with a reputation as a drinker.” I always wonder how those untrained in clinical diagnosis of alcoholism and far removed in time and place from the subject under discussion can so blithely pass judgment on the status of another individual’s drinking habits.
“A great deal of emphasis has been placed on reports of Fred Noonan getting drunk on the night of their arrival at Lae [June 29] after an argument with Amelia,” Lovell also wrote in The Sound of Wings, citing Ann H. Pellegreno’s 1971 book World Flight as her source. “These reports vary in description and reliable witnesses who were present that night do agree that he got ‘very drunk’ but only after Amelia and Noonan had already taken the decision not to fly on the following day.” In fact, they didn’t fly until the third day, July 2, after Noonan’s June 29 “bender.”
Next, Lovell again turned to her 1988 interview with Elgen and Marie Long, who tell us the following about Noonan’s drinking at Lae:
“The argument that caused Noonan to get drunk was over nothing very much. AE had been invited to a dinner party. Noonan was not personally invited though I think this was merely an oversight. Anyway he came down to the bar of the Cecil Hotel to find Eric Chaters [sic] and Jim Collopy all smartened up and ready to go for drinks. When asked if he was going Fred said, ‘No, but AE is ….’leaving no doubt that he was disgruntled, and when asked what he’d have to drink he said ‘whiskey.’ The other guys were all drinking beer but he stayed on whiskey and got very drunk. Next day AE watched him like a hawk to make sure he didn’t drink again.”
Twenty years later, in Lovell’s 2009 St. Martin’s Press reprint edition of The Sound of Wings, in a new entry, she quotes Noonan’s boss during his days with Pan Am’s transpacific operations, Clarence L. Shildhauer:
“Noonan developed a bad habit of going on a bender and getting lost among Manila’s whorehouses. Before takeoff he’d have to be hunted down and ”poured” aboard the airplane. . . . Noonan was given several warnings about his behavior because, as [his boss] reasonably pointed out, ”it would not inspire confidence among the customers if they were to see the navigator being carried aboard in Manila.”
“Noonan did not wait to be fired, however; he resigned,” Lovell concluded in her 2009 edition, which, at the end, is really not much different from “being let go” without the attendant publicity, fuss and paperwork, is it?
Photos taken just before takeoff at Lae, New Guinea’s primitive airstrip reveal what appears to be a fit and sober Noonan. In a 1985 letter to Fred Goerner, Bob Iredale, a Vacuum Oil Company representative at Lae, offered eyewitness evidence that Noonan was not drunk or hung over on the morning of July 2, an allegation that still lingers. During the fliers’ first night at Lae, Iredale invited Noonan, who was staying with him and fellow Vacuum employee Frank Howard in a large bungalow known as “Voco House,” to join them in their customary evening drink. “I’ve been 3 parts around the world without a drink and now we are here for a couple of days,” Iredale recalled Noonan saying. “I’ll have one. Have you a Vat 69.”
The next morning, Noonan “confessed to Amelia” that he “had a bit of a head and her comment was, ‘Naughty boy, Freddie,’” Iredale wrote. “That was the only drink session we had and to suggest he was inebriated before they took off is mischievous nonsense. I can assure you or anyone he had no drink for at least 24 hours before taking off.”
But Lae radio operator Harry Balfour’s 1970 letter to former Itasca Chief Radioman Leo Bellarts, who led the cutter’s 1937 radio crew in its desperate attempts to establish contact with Amelia, tells a different story. “Noonan did not arrive back in Lae until the morning of the takeoff,” Balfour wrote, “and he could not have done any flight planning and also he had been up in the hills at Bulolo – all the time hitting the bottle and she also knew that I had a navigator’s ticket.” Balfour’s claim that he “was asked if I would have liked to go along with her [Amelia] and that was the night before the takeoff” — though he didn’t specify by name who made the strange request — may indicate a tendency to exaggerate. repeats this story as related to Bellarts in Balfour’s 1970 letter, writing that on the night of July 1, Noonan … was on a bender up at Bulolo … and was put on board with a bad hangover.”
Alan Vagg, the radio operator at Bulolo, which was 40 miles from Lae, in an interview in Tokyo sometime before publication of the Joe Klaas’ infamous 1970 tome, Amelia Earhart Lives, told Joe Gervais a story that seemed to support Balfour’s contentions that Noonan was busy getting drunk on the evening of July 1. According to Klaas, Vagg told Gervais that Noonan and Jim Collopy, district superintendent of the Australian civil aviation agency in New Guinea, had “hit it off from the first meeting [June 29] and while there had one hell of a good time” while the fliers awaited their last takeoff.
“At 7:30 A.M. on the day of their takeoff from Lae, Jim and Fred had just returned to the local hotel after being out all night living it up,” Vagg told Gervais. “At 8:15 Amelia Earhart arrived at the hotel and knocked on Fred’s door. Jim answered because Fred was asleep.” Thus, according to Vagg as told to Joe Gervais, “Noonan had an absolute maximum of forty-five minutes to sleep off a night-long fling.”
Vincent V. Loomis, in his 1985 book Amelia Earhart: The Final Story, is among those who reported Amelia’s alleged statement to Putnam in a June 26 phone conversation from Bandoeng, Indonesia, as told by Putnam to his friend Van Campen Heilner. According to Heilner, Amelia began the conversation with the remark, “He’s hitting the bottle again and I don’t even know where he’s getting it!” Loomis also echoed Harry Balfour’s questionable story of Noonan’s reckless behavior on the eve of the final flight:
On the evening of July 1, the night before the takeoff from Lae, the two fliers were to retire early, but Fred decided to spend the time drinking with his friends. The next morning, July 2, Fred made it back to his hotel room only 45 minutes before Amelia came pounding on his door to announce they would take off in a couple of hours. According to his drinking cronies of the previous night, Fred had complained of the strenuous pace set for him by Amelia, and found that as good a reason as any for seeking the comforts of the bottle.
So who are we to believe, Balfour via his letter to Chief Leo Bellarts and Vagg via Joe Gervais, or our own eyes, as we consider the photo, as well as a 37-second YouTube video of Amelia and Fred boarding the Electra on July 2, taken just before the pair left Lae, with Noonan appearing especially chipper and well?
It need not come to that. Balfour’s recollection of Noonan’s whereabouts on the evening of July 1 simply cannot be trusted or verified, and is directly contradicted by more than one source. At the request of William Miller, U.S. Bureau of Air Commerce, Eric Chater, general manager of Guinea Airways at Lae, wrote a July 25, 1937 letter detailing events as he recalled them during the American fliers’ stay at Lae.
“At 10.20 p.m. [July 1] a message was heard from all Australian coastal stations requesting all shipping to keep silence for a period of ten minutes during the transmission of the Adelaide time signal which was being awaited by Miss Earhart,” Chater wrote. “Complete silence prevailed during this period and a perfect time signal was received by Captain Noonan, and the machine chronometer was found to be three seconds slow.”
“It was difficult for Noonan to be in two places at the same time, in the radio shack at Lae and at the same time at Bulolo which is 40 miles away from Lae, there were no roads so the only way in and out was by air,” researcher Gary LaPook wrote in an April 24, 2012 message to the Earhart Yahoo! Online discussion group. “Did they fly at night through the mountains in New Guinea in 1937?
“On the night before their departure,” LaPook continued, “Collopy is quoted by [Ann] Pellegreno at page 194 [of her 1971 book, World Flight]. ‘Both were in bed early that night.’ At page 192 [Elgen] Long [author of Amelia Earhart: The Mystery Solved] also states that after the time check they returned to their hotel and were in bed by 11:00 p.m. July 1. ‘The clerk knocked on their doors at 5:30 Friday morning, July 2,’ Long wrote. ‘Collopy was having morning tea with Fred when Amelia came down.’”
Finally, in a taped 1988 interview with Fred Goerner at his home in Australia and reported in Dave Horner’s 2013 book, The Earhart Enigma, Vagg said neither Noonan nor Amelia visited Bulolo while they were at Lae. While at Lae, Horner wrote, Amelia stayed with the family of Eric Chater, general manager of Guinea Airways at Lase, while Noonan stayed at the hotel there, Voco House, with Iredale and Frank Howard of Vacuum Oil Company.”
I hope the preceding is enough to satisfy the curiosity of those who might have wondered, from time to time, what Fred Noonan was really up to in the days and hours before the final flight. I’ll leave it to you to decide whether Fred Noonan was a drunk who was guilty of irresponsible, even fatally bad judgment on the eve of the most important flight of his life, or whether he behaved as any other responsible professional would have done when facing such a daunting challenge, regardless of his drinking history.
I have no doubt, based on the personal accounts and other evidence we’ve just seen, that Noonan was sober, alert and fit when the Electra left Lae at 10 a.m., July 2, just as I’m certain that he would never have consciously put Amelia at risk. Of course, those who disagree are free to do so, and it certainly won’t be the last time in the Earhart saga that compelling evidence and common sense came out on the short end.