In ’85 letter, eyewitness describes Earhart’s takeoff, Insists Noonan “had no drink” before last flight
Bob Iredale, Socony-Vacuum Corp. manager at Lae, New Guinea, spent two days with Amelia Earhart and Fred Noonan before the last leg of their world flight attempt in early July 1937. In this 1985 missive, he offers Fred Goerner a firsthand account of their last takeoff, plus his opinion about what happened later. The following letter appeared in the November 1998 issue of Bill Prymak’s Amelia Earhart Society Newsletters. Boldface emphasis mine throughout.
Victoria Aust. 3931
July 28, 1985
Dear Mr. Goerner,
Through good work by Australia Post, I received your letter 15 days after your post date of July 11. I am glad to be able to assist your research about Amelia Earhart, as I have read many views by writers, example, spying for the U.S. against Japanese in the Marianas, beheaded by the Japs, still alive in the U.S., etc., etc., all of which to me is a lot of sensationalist garbage.
C.K. Gamble was president of the Vacuum Oil Co., a subsidiary of U.S. Standard Vacuum, when he was a young man. Fred Haig, our Aviation officer, and I knew him quite well, then and later. Up until a year ago I chatted to him about Amelia many times and he recorded the views I’ll relate to you. Fred left the Planet over 12 months ago, hence no response to your letters. He was in his 80s.
Yes, I fueled the Lockheed and did it personally. Fred had arranged 20 x 44 gallon drums of Avgas 80 octane shipped out to us from California many months before. I can assure you all tanks were absolutely full — the wing tanks and those inside the fuselage. After she had done a test flight, I topped them up again before her final take-off. I think she took somewhere around 800 gallons all up. Fred Noonan was with me at the fueling and checked it out. He was also with me when we changed the engine oil, as was Amelia. I enclose a much faded photo, me in white, Fred in brown, and Amelia leaning on the trailing edge of the wing. [Photo not available.]
You are aware that because of an unfavorable weather forecast from Darwin (some 700 miles SW of Lae), of at least 2 days, Amelia decided on a two-day layover at Lae. She stayed with Eric Chater, General Manager of Guinea Airways, and Fred with Frank Howard and myself at Voco House. Frank and I shared quite a large bungalow as the two representatives of Vacuum Oil in N.G. He died, unfortunately, in 1962. As was our custom, we had a drink in the evening — 90 degrees F, and 95 percent humidity made it that way.
We asked Fred if he would join us the first night, and his comment was, “I’ve been 3 parts around the world without a drink and now we are here for a couple of days, I’ll have one. Have you a Vat 69?” I did happen to have one so the three of us knocked it off. He confessed to Amelia next morning he had a bit of a head, and her comment was, “Naughty boy, Freddie.” 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 take-off.
We talked a lot about his experience as a Captain on the China Clippers flying from the West Coast to China, and he told us of his expertise in Astro-navigation, amongst other things. We all talked about ourselves, and he showed great interest in our life at Lae. He came around our little depot, where we stored drums of petrol, oil, and kerosene in the jungle to keep the sun off, etc. He told us how keen Amelia was to write a book about the flight, and the different people.
In the two days at Lae, she tried to learn pidgin English and talk to the [natives], and about her ability wherever they landed to take the cowls off the engines and do a Daily Inspection. A remarkable woman, and he has great admiration for her ability. He spent a lot of time with me in Guinea Airways hanger, and around the airfield, looking at the JU31’s, the tri-motored metal Junkers planes that flew our produce and the dredge up to Bulolo, how they were loaded with cranes and all that.
Their final take-off was something to see. We had a grass strip some 900/1000 yards long, one end the jungle, the other the sea. Amelia tucked the tail of the plane almost into the jungle, brakes on, engines full bore, and let go. They were still on the ground at the end of the strip. It took off, lowered toward the water some 30 feet below, and the props made ripples on the water. Gradually they gained height, and some 15 miles out, I guess they may have been at 200 feet. The radio operator at Guinea Airways kept contact by Morse for about 1,000 miles where they were on course at 10,000 feet, and got out of range.
In 1940, I joined the Australian Air Force as a pilot, trained in Canada, and operated in England with the RAF before being promoted to a Wing Commander, commanding an Australian Mosquito Squadron attached to the 2nd Tactical Air Force. I did 70 missions in all sorts of weather, awarded Distinguished Flying Cross and Bar, French Croix de Guerre with Palm for blowing up a prison in France, and other operations for the French. I mention this only as that experience confirmed what I believe happened to Amelia. It is just another view.
The possibility is that they ran into bad weather, 10/10th cloud up to 30,000 feet at the equator, which negated Fred’s ability of Astro-navigation; he would have relied on DR navigation where wind can put you 50 miles off course, cloud base too low to get below it because the altimeter is all to hell if you do not know the barometric pressure, and to see a searchlight provided by a U.S. Cruiser under those circumstances would be impossible. My guess is they got to where Howland Island should have been in the dark, spent an hour looking for it, before having to ditch somewhere within a 50 mile radius of Howland. I find it hard to accept anything else.
I hope I have not bored you. If I can provide anything at all beyond these comments, do write. As long as I am above ground, I’ll reply.
P.S. Can I get your first book in Australia?
Doubtless Iredale could have obtained The Search for Amelia Earhart, Goerner’s only book, in Australia, though the shipping and handling charges might have been a bit stiff. He certainly needed to read it closely, considering his closing statement, “My guess is they got to where Howland Island should have been in the dark, spent an hour looking for it, before having to ditch somewhere within a 50 mile radius of Howland. I find it hard to accept anything else.”
Perhaps Iredale’s most important contribution in this letter is his up-close-and-personal account of drinking Vat 69 with Fred Noonan two nights before the doomed fliers took off, and his assurance to Goerner, that “he had no drink for at least 24 hours before take-off.”
For an extensive examination of the always-controversial issue of Noonan’s drinking, please see my Jan. 6, 2015 post, “Fred Noonan’s drinking: In search of the true story.”
I don’t believe I have Goerner’s reply to Iredale, but if anyone out there does, please let me know and I’ll be glad to post it.
“Two very strange telegrams,” is the way Bill Prymak described these compelling missives in the opening pages of Volume 1 of his Amelia Earhart Society Newsletters. I don’t know how Prymak procured these provocative documents, or even if they were ever made public before they appeared in the AES Newsletters. I’ve never seen them anywhere else, but maybe someone can shed more light. In his brief note at the bottom of the page, Prymak wrote:
July 30, 1937 from [U.S. Secretary of State] Cordell Hull to American Embassy London, and [second] telegram from [George Palmer] Putnam to Marvin McIntyre, personal secretary to President Franklin D. Roosevelt. We are digging to find out what is so “hurtful and internationally embarrassing to all concerned.” Putnam evidently knew something that had to be kept from the American public; could be that he knew AE did survive July 2nd.”
Here’s the first telegram, from Cordell Hull to the American Embassy in London. At the time, the U.S. Ambassador to Britain was Robert Worth Bingham, whose name has never been associated with the Earhart story, to my knowledge.
In the telegram (above) Hull flatly states that “evidence that to many sources seems positive indicates that Amelia Earhart (Mrs. Putnam) was on land the two nights following her disappearance.” What “evidence” is Hull referencing in his July 30, 1937 telegram, written less than two weeks after the official Navy and Coast Guard reports failed to list a single instance of any such evidence? (See also Truth at Last, pages 38-57.) To this day, these reports are cited as the official U.S. government position on the Earhart matter.
Otherwise, Hull is asking the British government, which owns the Gilbert Islands, to “continue a thorough search in those Islands” and that “Mr. Putnam would be glad to defray the expense involved.” Hull then reports that Putnam is offering a $2,000 reward for “any evidence leading to a solution of her disappearance whether in the nature of wreckage or more positive indication of what happened.”
Can anyone tell us why this statement from the eminent Secretary of State under Franklin D. Roosevelt, the longest serving (11 years) in U.S. history, has never been mentioned by the U.S. media in over 83 years of its dishonest coverage of the Earhart disappearance? Or has it?
Nearly a month later, Amelia Earhart’s husband, George Palmer Putnam, writes to Marvin McIntyre, FDR’s secretary, to complain that “after three weeks” he has been “unable to secure reply or cooperation British [sic] on small specific search financed by me.” Putnam asks McIntyre for help in “getting action at least information” on his request to Britain, adding that he is “anxious [to] head off threatened story by newspaper which knows situation some likely hurtful all concerned and internationally embarrassing.”
To summarize: These two telegrams sent soon after Amelia Earhart’s disappearance contain statements that strongly suggest that Secretary of State Cordell Hull and G.P. Putnam are in possession of facts that directly contradict the official U.S. story. Prymak’s AES Newsletters don’t offer anything further from Hull or Putnam along this thread, so we’re left to speculate just what Hull and Putnam were talking about.
What do you think?
We continue our brief inquiry into possible resting places for our heroine, Amelia Earhart, and the great Fred Noonan, her overlooked and misunderstood navigator. In my last post, “Amelia Earhart held in Saipan’s Garapan Prison: Was she also buried somewhere nearby?” we saw more witness testimony that strongly suggested Amelia was buried on Saipan, just as so many others have told us. Boldface emphasis is mine throughout.
Today we take a brief look at an Earhart burial theory suggested by a few of the more fanciful types who’ve speculated on this mystery, although its exact origin isn’t clear. To introduce this bizarre idea, we present a letter from one of the most speculative and imaginative of all notable Earhart researchers and authors, retired Air Force Col. Rollin C. Reineck, who needs no introduction to regular readers of this blog. Reineck’s letter to the director of the Amelia Earhart Birthplace Museum, Louise Foudray, and her response, which follows after my brief comments, were published in the February 1999 issue of the Amelia Earhart Society Newsletters.
Rollin C. Reineck
1127 Lauloa St.
Kailua, HI 96734
24 October 1998
Amelia Earhart Museum
Atchison, Kansas 66002
The other day I received the enclosed letter from a researcher.
I find it interesting in two respects. First, it indicates that Goerner had some inside information that Earhart was killed on Saipan and that her remains were returned so the United States.
Secondly it eliminates the Arlington National Cemetery as possible place where AE could have been buried had her remains been returned to the U.S.
When I read the letter, specifically that part of the 6th para. “I can’t be specific, but why don’t you look in the most obvious place.” I immediately thought of her home in Atchison, Kansas, as the most obvious place.
(Editor’s note: Here Reineck was referring to an Oct. 9, 1998 letter from Ross Game to Bob Ross, which was presented in our Dec. 20, 2019 post, Game letter suggests possible Earhart burial site. In the letter’s sixth paragraph, Game wrote, “Just before the CIA assistance [he and Goerner were receiving] was cut off I pleaded with our contact to tell me where the Earhart remains had been placed after being brought from Saipan. The reply: “I can’t be specific, but why don’t you look in the most obvious place.’ ” Game and Goerner’s subsequent investigations of Arlington National Cemetery came up empty.)
When you get a minute, I would appreciate your comments.
Aloha, Rollin C. Reineck
Reading Game’s account of the cryptic response from the unidentified CIA man about how he might find Amelia Earhart’s gravesite brought to mind a long litany of negative responses from officials that Donald Kothera’s wife, Florence, received during her brief fact-finding foray in Washington. D.C., as chronicled near the conclusion of Joe Davidson’s highly underrated 1969 book, Amelia Earhart Returned from Saipan.
“I do not remember going on any grave digging detail,” former Marine Capt. Tracy Griswold had told Kothera, John Gacek and Davidson at his home in Erie, Penn., in answer to their queries about his role in the 1944 Saipan grave-digging incident as recalled by Everett Henson Jr. and Billy Burks. Before Kothera and friends left, Griswold, not content with leaving them flat, asked whether they had “checked with the National Morgue? You might be surprised what you would find there.” We continue, quoting directly from Amelia Earhart: The Truth at Last:
Rather than ignore Griswold’s devious suggestion, Kothera sent his wife, Florence, to Washington to “check with the National Morgue.” Florence soon learned that no such entity exists, but a phone call to the ever-helpful Griswold redirected her to the National Archives, as if the answers might be found there. Three days later, her bureaucratic goose chase had taken her not only to the National Archives, but to the Naval History Office, Japanese Embassy, U.S. State Department, Chief of Naval Intelligence, and Navy Annex as well. Along the way, she told several officials how she felt about their inability to produce any answers about Earhart, Griswold, or the remains he had removed from Saipan. Florence Kothera learned a hard lesson from her frustrating Washington experience: Nobody in the U.S. government has ever offered anything helpful about the fate of Amelia Earhart.
Rudely, Louise Foudray did not respond directly to Reineck’s sincere letter, but wrote a brief note more than three months later to Bill Prymak, whom she presumed would publish it in his Amelia Earhart Society Newsletter, and he promptly did.
Jan. 28, 1999
I have not responded to [the above from] Col. Reineck, so will do so via the newsletter.
We have joked for years about the 2 large cement mounds in the basement of the birthplace. One for Amelia Earhart, one for Fred. If she requested they be “entombed” together, it’s ideal. According to certain sources, this may be true.
[Researcher] Art Parchen observed these “mounds” recently and said he didn’t think so.
When the new fiction book comes out, maybe we’ll know. The lady researching for the book says, “’You are going to be surprised”!
These are exciting times! I can just “feel” an answer coming — can you?
Bless you all and “Happy Hunting”
I don’t know to which Earhart fiction book Foudray was referring, but considering the numerous tomes of varying uselessness published since 1999, it couldn’t have been terribly compelling. The very idea of producing more Earhart fiction is a insult to Amelia and her legacy, which had already been muddled, nearly beyond redemption, by decades of disinformation and fiction.
That’s about it, I have only the basics on this one. The source of the birthplace basement theory remains a mystery, at least to me. Others may be out there besides Alex Mandel, who has personally visited there several times and rejects the Earhart-Noonan interment idea, who might have their own stories or insights. Special thanks to Alex for his assistance with the photos.