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.”
“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.
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.