Fred Goerner’s last recording — for better or worse

Today we present the alleged last words of Fred Goerner, as recorded for posterity by his wife of 26 years, Merla Zellerbach.  I don’t put much stock in this document, as it has little relationship to Goerner’s many outstanding contributions to Earhart research. Ravaged by cancer in 1994 at age 69, he had made several less-than-wise judgments along his long Earhart search; the most significant are discussed at length in Truth at Last.  On that front, I won’t digress any further here.  (Boldface emphases mine throughout; caps emphasis Goerner’s.)

However, in light of recent comments by Les Kinney, who has voiced what some of us have long suspected but were reluctant to state openly — that Goerner so hated to give other Earhart researchers credit for their important work that he would reject his own findings to undermine them — this transcript may reflect just how deeply Goerner had assimilated his seemingly dishonest rejection of the fact of Amelia Earhart’s Mili Atoll landing.  This was a truth he himself initially revealed to the world in his 1966 book The Search for Amelia Earhart, and is a piece of Goerner’s legacy that will doubtless remain controversial.

Among Earhart researchers, Ron Reuther knew Fred Goerner as well as anyone.  Reuther had a copy of the audiotape of Goerner’s last words, which I don’t have, though I do have the transcript.  Goerner abandoned the thought that AE/FN came down near Mili,” Reuther wrote in 2001.  “He recorded on the day of his death in 1994 on an audiotape that he believed they (AE/FN) came down on one of 5 small reefs SE of Howland.  On the same tape he also said he still believed they were picked up by the Japanese and taken to Saipan.  It would seem to me that if that were the case the Japanese ship would have gone to Saipan via the Marshalls and I have never seen any document from Fred that disputes that.”  (Boldface emphasis mine throughout.)

Merla Zellerbach, an author and columnist at the San Francisco Chronicle from 1962 to 1995, who passed away in December 2014, recalled Reuther fondly.  I remember Ron Reuther very well and was so sorry to learn of his death,” Zellerbach wrote in a 2007 e-mail.  “He was a lovely man, and a tremendous help to me in cataloging Fred’s papers before we sent them off to the Nimitz Library.” 

Undated photo of Merla Zellerbach, Fred Goerner’s wife of 26 years until the time of his death in October 1994 at age 69.  Zellerbach, who died in 2014, authored 13 well-reviewed novels and five self-help medical books, was a panelist for six years on the ABC TV show Oh My Word, a columnist for the San Francisco Chronicle and was editor of the Nob Hill Gazette for 12 years. 

“Even at his passing at 69 in 1994, the Earhart disappearance remained uppermost in Fred’s mind,” Zellerbach told me.  At his side until the end, she forwarded a text copy of his last words:

Sept. 13, 1994 — This will be my last recording, what I know and feel at this point, having worked on this subject for the Columbia Broadcasting System and as a private citizen.

There have been many books written after mine was written in 1966, alleging that the Earhart plane went down in the Marshall Islands.  But I no longer believe it.  I had the opportunity of visiting the Marshalls after the book was published . . . talking to Eric Sussman who came to the conclusion, as did I, that the story was muddled.

I no longer believe that Earhart was on a secret overflight mission for the US military in 1937 . . . mostly because the U.S. Navy didn’t have the money to spend on such a mission at that time, and it would have been too volatile, too highly dangerous.

I do believe, however, that Earhart did collect what is known as “white intelligence” for the military, meaning that she simply observed things during the course of her flight.  It was valuable to the military. After extensive research, I came to the conclusion that the plane, containing AE and her navigator Fred Noonan, landed on one of five small reefs which lie between Howland Island and the Northern Phoenix Islands.  These reefs have never been fully investigated, and I believe there’s a possibility the plane’s still there.

I do not believe in any way the recent ideas of a man named Gillespie and an outfit named Tiger” [sic] that the plane landed in the Northern Phoenix Islands in a place called Nikumororo.  This idea was originally advanced by my friend Fred Hooven.  I tried to convince Fred that that island had been so occupied by so many people that there was no possibility of the plane having landed there.  He finally agreed.

Fred Goerner with witness Dr. Manuel Aldan on Saipan, June 1960. (Courtesy San Francisco Library Special Collections.)

However the original information was sold to the public as a possibility and a great deal of money was spent to no avail to try to find the plane on Nikumororo.

There’s a lot of information to indicate that Earhart and Noonan may have been picked up by a Japanese vessel and taken into Japanese territory.  There’s also the possibility that Earhart and Noonan survived the war and were rescued by US [sic] forces.  Some believe Earhart was killed in an accident after she was rescued from the Japanese. Some think she returned to the US after the war.  I do NOT in any way align myself with these people!

A good researcher will finally seek out and discover the truth. Admiral Nimitz urged me to continue.  He had a deep, deep interest in the Earhart affair.  I hope the Nimitz Museum will continue the investigation.

I wouldn’t have continued the investigation without his urging me to do so.  One night I went to have dinner with him in Quarters No. 1 on Yerba Buena Island.  He was writing a letter and he told me he was writing to the mother of one of the boys who disappeared with the sinking of the Indianapolis at the end of the war.

She hoped he had reached some island and somehow survived and the Admiral had to tell her that specially trained people had visited every known island in the Pacific after the war and he believed there was no chance her son was alive.  He was such a sensitive, warm man.

There are a lot of kooks and crazies who come up with a new theory every day, but a final answer will be found — and the answers are somewhere in the records at Crane, Indiana.  (End of recording.)

“An hour later, Fred passed away” Zellerbach wrote.

Reuther believed Goerner’s change was due more to his longtime association and friendship with Hooven than anything Sussman told him, and that Hooven would have convinced Goerner to return to the Mili scenario if not for his death in 1985.  “I should have also mentioned that Fred Hooven, after making original conclusions that Earhart came down SE of Howland, thus influencing Goerner to concur, later recalculated and changed his conclusions and determined that AE/FN came down close to Mili,” Reuther wrote.  “I strongly believe Goerner would have reassessed his position and very likely would have agreed with Hooven’s final conclusion — near Mili.” 

Bill Prymak agreed that Hooven later converted to Goerner’s original Mili landing scenario, and though I’ve seen nothing in black and white from Hooven, I have no reason to doubt it.  A few weeks before his sudden passing in October 2007, Reuther told me he would locate and send written confirmation of Hooven’s belief in Earhart’s Mili Atoll landing.  It wasn’t to be.

Reuther and Prymak were great researchers and forthright, honest men, but Goerner’s change was a vastly different matter from Hooven’s, and we have nothing to suggest that he was ever mulling a return to the original Mili scenario he described so well in the closing pages of Search.

For much more on Goerner’s change of position about where he believed Earhart landed on July 2, 1937, please see Truth at Last, pages 170-175.

17 responses

  1. Mike. as I have stated before the search phase of the disappearance is over in my opinion, you have convinced me AE died in Saipan and crashed in Mili Atoll. Is there any group fervently looking into the reason for AE’s voyage in the first place. Gary

    Liked by 1 person

    1. Gary,

      Really no mystery about why AE wanted to fly around the world. She wanted to go out on top, by breaking Wily Post’s record in a big way. See pages 16-24 of Truth at Last.

      Mike

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  2. Mike- One of the true mysteries in this case is Goerner’s turnaround on the landing spot. Like you, completely baffled how he could disregard all the evidence he found to the contrary. The only bright spot is his dismissal of TIGHAR’s nonsense. I wonder if anyone has ever questioned Gillespie on the eventual dismissal of the Nikumaroro hypothesis? Well, I guess it would not matter as he is milking that cow for all its worth.

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  3. I agree with Gary. While it’s fascinating to learn all this info about Goerner it still leaves the major questions unanswered. Why did she decide after her crash to fly around the world in the opposite, or wrong direction? What was her reason for radio silence for most of her flight especially nearing Howland? She seemed to be able to talk when she felt like it, but she ACTED as if she wasn’t hearing the Itasca.

    If she blew a fuse on her radio, I would think she would soon figure that out because presumably she would not hear the Itasca, or at least she would soon notice they didn’t hear her and would replace the bad fuse. I would like to hear from a celestial navigation geek who could say whether or not Fred could readily calculate his latitude and would know they were far to the North of Howland. As some have speculated she didn’t transmit much to prevent the Japs from getting a fix on her. If she was merely getting lost why would she care if the Japs heard her? Would the fact that she landed on Mili cause the Japs to deem her a spy?

    I don’t think so. They might hold her for a while, but then send her home. They wouldn’t have gone to the trouble of shipping her plane to Saipan if they only suspected she might be spying. So the Japs were convinced she was up to something. Did a couple days of enhanced interrogation get the answer out of her? So why didn’t the Japs make an international issue out of her on Day One?Instead they kept her prisoner. For what? They must have had a reason. What would they be able to use her for after 6 months or a year? Having her a prisoner would be a strong card in their hand but there is no evidence they ever played that card. Or did they? All these reasons and more convince me that her flight was not just an innocent somewhat naive scheme to make a few bucks. But what really was the purpose? Unfortunately speculation about Goerner’s motivation doesn’t lead us anywhere in that mystery.

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  4. Stuart R Brownstein | Reply

    Keep up the great work, Mike ! Stuart !

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  5. Mike, I think the reason for the trip is more than wanting to beat Mr Post, far too much innuendo from AE herself and others she talked to as friends and acquaintances. This could be the big story and with Trump holding the key it could come out Gary

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    1. You asked for the initial reason, Gary. After her crash on takeoff at Hawaii, or just before, it’s likely the government stepped in and had a very interesting conversation with Amelia, if what Art Kennedy said is true.

      As for Trump, in a better world he might want and be able to help. But look at what he’s dealing with daily, and tell me who will be putting the Earhart bug in his ear? Ivanka, or perhaps Melania? Pigs will fly first.

      MIke

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    2. William H. Trail | Reply

      Gary,

      Ask yourself this question: After the 20 March 1937 takeoff mishap at Luke Field on Ford Island, do you really think that AE and GP “mortgaged their future” to get the Electra back to Lockheed in Burbank and repaired? Does anyone actually believe that Putnam went “hat in hand” to friends who generously forked over big bucks to put AE back in the air for another RTW attempt? I don’t think so. A more plausible scenario would be that the U.S. Government, most likely the Navy, foot the entire bill and saw to it that Lockheed got the Electra repaired and airworthy in record time (59 days from mishap to fully repaired and ready to go), all in exchange for a small favor. A small favor such as diverting upon reaching Howland to take up a heading toward the Marshalls and then, when close, ditch in the ocean where the Navy could pick her and FN up.

      It should have been a win-win for everyone. AE would have gotten in that “one more good flight left in her system” before “giving up long-distance ‘stunt’ flying.” And the Navy? Laurance Safford and OP-20-G would have gotten a ton of coded Japanese radio traffic about a known subject — a veritable gold mine for code breakers. A simple plan.

      So, what went wrong? Suffering from exhaustion and maybe some mild dysentery as a result of the long, arduous trip, AE may have had some serious second thoughts about actually ditching in the ocean. (It is a maneuver that requires great skill, and is not to be taken lightly even under the most optimum conditions.) Pacifist and gentle, good soul that she was, AE may have reasoned (wrongly) that everyone, including the Japanese, were basically good and that there was really little danger in actually landing on one of the Marshall Islands. She probably didn’t believe that the Japanese would not return, let alone murder, her and Fred Noonan. And why would she? She was beloved around the world. The Japanese people, as did many others around the globe, avidly followed the RTW flight in their newspapers and on radio. However, AE was most likely unaware of newly installed (four days after her takeoff from Miami) Japanese Prime Minister Konoe Fumimaro’s hatred of the West in general, and the United States in particular.

      THIS then I believe is the very heart of the “…she disregarded all orders…” part of “The Morgenthau Transcript” — AE (maybe over the strenuous objections of Fred Noonan) landed on Mili rather than ditching in the ocean as she was no doubt instructed to do. Secretary of the Treasury Henry Morgenthau’s 13 May 1938 telephonic conversation with First Lady Eleanor Roosevelt’s secretary, Malvina “Tommy” Scheider, was nothing less than a stunning and damning admission of U.S. Government complicity.

      All best,

      William

      Liked by 1 person

      1. Excellent summary of the most probable scenario, William. Thanks for taking the time.

        Mike

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  6. I will endeavour to do more research on the reason AE found herself flying over Mili Atoll. For the time being I will assume this is the truth. I like your theory, William. Maybe AE and Fred were such a prize package that the Japs imprisoned them for a bargaining chip. Maybe the PM of Japan just didn’t like people landing in the mandates especially Americans and just locked them up out of spite. Maybe he thought everyone who came to the Mandates was spying. In the case of AE he was probably right. Locked her & Fred up. THat’s what we would do if we caught a Japanese spy, except maybe not. I seem to remember probably from “Day of Deceit” (book) that there was a known Japanese spy in Hawaii who was allowed to stay free probably so the U.S. could see what he was doing and maybe supply him with false information. I hardly think AE was lost, yes, she was on some sort of spy mission.
    But landing in the water? Easier said than done. https://www.newenglandaviationhistory.com/tag/provincetown-boston-airlines-crash/

    At one time on TIGHAR forum I used to argue this point. You see, the AE plane would defi nitely float because of the huge gas capacity, the Prov/Bos plane would not. Ric indicated I was a stupid troll, threatened to bar me from his forum but later adopted my truth as one of the linchpins of his Nikumaroro theory asserting that her plane “floated” off the reef and that’s why the searchers couldn’t find it. Someone must have shown him high school physics (which proved the plane would float) because evidently he was not bright enough to figure this out himself. (He’s probably reading this right now, Hi Ric – no offense meant), But still… …….a water landing seems dangerous not because the plane would break apart, it wouldn’t, but how is she going to get picked up? Was she actually broadcasting on another frequency? that would pretty much end when the plane went in the water, I doubt Electras were made watertight.

    So many possibillitys so many angles a very risky proposition in my opinion. She would have had to land far away from the Marshalls so that the US searchers would not tangle with Jap ships and planes. Maybe this was her intention but maybe the Jap planes unexpectedly intercepted her. Maybe FDR was fearful an attack on Hawaii would come from the Marshalls it is the closest Jap territory, so maybe he wanted to see if they were building up anything. (THey weren’t at that time) and it’s 2,000 miles, far too much distance for land based planes. So my head is starting to spin, I’m going to go out and run the snowblower for a while.

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    1. Bill Prymak made a pretty strong case against an intentional ditching of the Electra when he wrote “A Dissection of Earhart Spy Theories” and described the risk of a water landing as “a virtual death warrant”, as well as deeming the prospect of AE and the Navy finding one another “impossible”.

      https://earharttruth.wordpress.com/2015/12/14/bill-prymak-analyzes-earhart-as-spy-theory/

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      1. William H. Trail

        Tom,

        I have nothing but immense respect and great admiration for the late, Bill Prymak. His contributions to what we now know of the disappearance of Amelia Earhart and Fred Noonan are beyond measure. He was a great researcher and scholar who brought much to the table with his vast experience as an aviator. However, I politely and respectfully differ with him on a couple of points here.

        I disagree with his statement that a water landing would have been “a virtual death warrant.” Not necessarily. Difficult? Yes. Depending on the wind and sea conditions at the point of touch down there might have been varying degrees of difficulty. For example, the most difficult and dangerous scenario would have been a “glassy water” landing on a calm, mirror-like sea. A smooth, featureless surface without texture robs you of depth perception and makes it very difficult to judge your altitude for the landing flare accurately. If the sun’s at the wrong angle there could be visibility problems as well. And, how do we know that AE didn’t try to make a water landing at the proscribed place? She may have made repeated unsuccessful attempts to ditch and, in growing frustration, finally gave up on it, defied her strict (and no doubt oft-repeated orders), and took up a heading for the nearest point of land to take her (and Noonan’s) chances with the Japanese. It’s solidly within the realm of possibility.

        As for the difficulty of navigating to a specific point at which to ditch in the ocean where the Navy could pick them up, let me respond with another question: Wasn’t Fred Noonan expected to navigate his and AE’s way from Lae, New Guinea to tiny, fly-speck Howland Island? I believe it would have been well within Fred Noonan’s capabilities, and certainly that of the United States Navy, to navigate accurately to the same place. I believe both parties could have arrived at the same spot and found each other.

        All best,

        William

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      2. William,

        I don’t disagree with you regarding the possibility of successfully ditching in the Pacific, and do agree that Bill’s “death warrant” description is a little extreme; difficult, for sure, particularly in heavy seas (or glassy conditions as you explained).

        If I was in Amelia’s position, I would have been more worried about the planned rendezvous. At a minimum I would have wanted to find the vessel first and ditch in it’s presence not knowing how long the airplane would float etc; the odds of her and Fred being found AFTER ditching would be very slim (especially if they ended up like Tom Hanks bobbing on the waves in a little yellow boat that grew!).

        Yes, the plan was for Fred to find the tiny fly-spec Howland Island, however a ship is MUCH smaller than even Howland. A ship however IS moblie, unlike an island; that would certainly be a huge plus if they could get a fix on her. The other big concern would be the possibility of bad weather/poor visibility, in which case success would be bordering impossible.

        I don’t believe Amelia would have agreed to such a plan, not only based on the risks involved, but also the fact that her dream of a round-the-world flight would have been dashed. That is just my opinion…of course it’s possible it all happened just as you say. Hopefully one day we will all know for sure!

        Best regards,

        Tom

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      3. William H. Trail

        Tom,

        We are agreed about the risk of executing a perfect rendezvous at sea. It’s a dicey proposition, no argument. I too not only would have wanted to have the rescue vessel in sight, but to know for sure that the rescue vessel had me in sight as well before I ditched. Then again, there are situations where you just have to execute your slice of the operations plan and have faith and confidence that everyone else will execute their part with knowledge, skill, professionalism, and precise timing. Suppose that AE didn’t ditch at sea, not because she had any qualms or misgivings about her ability to pull it off successfully, but rather because she and FN did not see the rescue vessel on station waiting for them as expected. That too would certainly fit the “…she disregarded all orders….” part of The Morgenthau Transcript.

        I agree that the possibility of bad weather/poor visibility in the area where they were to ditch would have been a concern in the mission planning stage. However, if there was a real possibility of weather bad enough to seriously interfere with the mission the contingency plan might have been for AE and FN to contrive a plausible reason to remain at Lae long enough for it to clear, and then continue the mission as planned. Once in the air, they were committed.

        Of course, I do very much believe that AE agreed to the plan. Maybe she didn’t like everything about it, but she might also have understood (without knowing all the deep background and details) that she wouldn’t have been asked if it wasn’t vitally important. AE was also full of pluck and courage. I have often wondered how the pitch was made to her, and by whom. Those two factors might have been absolutely critical to AE’s acceptance or not. In Warner Brothers 1943 film “Flight for Freedom,” the Admiral says to Rosalind Russell’s thinly veiled Amelia Earhart “Toni Carter” character, “This is a job only you can do for the Navy.” Could this have been how it was put to AE?

        As for her disappointment at not completing the entire round-the-world flight, Amelia Earhart might have figured, as my great grandmother often opined that, “Half a loaf is better than none.” Actually, AE would have gotten a whole lot more than just half a RTW flight. This could also plausibly explain the heretofore seemingly arbitrary decision to suddenly change the direction of the RTW flight from west to east. By going East AE got most of her desired RTW flight.

        All best,

        William

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      4. William,

        An alternate theory may be Amelia was to actually land someplace and then be picked up by the Navy/CG (in a perfect scenario she would be able to takeoff again); is there anywhere that could have happened? I could see that happening if it was at all possible.

        I do believe in some sort of clandestine operation at the request of the government based on her extremely limited radio presence leading up to her last “official” transmission, and then the complete lack of it thereafter (possible exception being the “land” or “ship” in sight message)….and also supported by the use of the word “orders” in the Morgenthau Transcript.

        Best regards,

        Tom

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      5. William H. Trail

        Tom,

        I’m not going to pretend that I have all the answers. Goodness knows, I don’t. I am however unshakable in my belief that AE and FN landed on Barre Island, Mili Atoll, the Marshall Islands on 2 July 1937, and that they were subsequently taken into custody by the Japanese, transported to Saipan, and died there very badly. With those core beliefs as my foundation I’ve simply tried to put forth what I think is the most logical, reasonable, plausible case for the why and how of it.

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  7. I was just reading Prymak’s take on the spy theory. He doesn’t seem to like it is what I get from it. I haven’t thought that through, I mean, what’s in it for her if the Navy finances the trip but she is committed to ditch the plane near the Marshalls? If she lands on Mili the Japs won’t let her keep her spy film even if she convinces them that she was merely lost. So I recalibrated to inspect the water landing. Now, based on the displacement of her gas tanks if they were empty she would undoubtedly float. However, they aren’t, so she will sink a little lower in the water.

    So I can picture a scenario where she lands, the water comes in, and soon they are up to their bippies in cold seawater. Let’s say now they have 6 feet of freeboard figured from the top of the cabin. Or 8 or 10. The waves are 8 feet or 10 feet, occasionally higher. Does this sound doable? I contend it is not. Would I volunteer for such a situation? Nope, nor would she. I think the water landing is off the table in my view. Others may disagree. But that’s my thinking for now.
    All Best,
    Dave

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