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 NewslettersBoldface emphasis mine throughout.

793 Esplanade
Mornington
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.

KCBS newsman and bestselling author Fred Goerner, right, with the talk show host Art Linkletter, circa 1966, shortly before the establishment media, beginning with Time magazine, turned on Goerner and panned his great book, The Search for Amelia Earhart, telling readers, in essence, “Move along, Sheeple, nothing to see here.”

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.

Guinea Airways employee Alan Board is credited with this photo of the Electra just before leaving the ground on its takeoff from Lae, New Guinea on the morning of July 2, 1937.  This is the last known photo of the Earhart Electra.

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.

Group posed in front of Amelia Earhart’s Lockheed Model 10-E Electra (NR 16020) at Lae, New Guinea, July 1937.  From left are Eric Chater (manager, Guinea Airways), Mrs. Chater, Amelia Earhart and Fred Noonan.

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.

Sincerely,

Bob Iredale

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.

12 responses

  1. William H. Trail | Reply

    Greetings to All:

    Bob Iredale’s account of the drinking session with FN, and that “he had no drink for at least 24 hours before take-off,” complements James A. Collopy’s 28 August 1937 letter to the Civil Aviation Board of the Territory of New Guinea, which does not mention the consumption of alcoholic beverages whatsoever, much less as it might relate to FN’s fitness to fly and perform navigator duties on the morning of 1 July 1937. Collopy’s letter is also consistent with Iredale’s account of the take-off and is likewise full of praise for AE’s demonstrated stick-and-rudder skill in getting the overloaded Electra into the air.

    Both Iredale’s and Collopy’s accounts of AE’s take-off from Lae are in stark contrast to the disastrous take-off attempt from Luke Field on Ford Island, Hawaii on 20 March 1937.

    The mission Bob Iredale refers to for which he received the Croix de Guerre was Operation: Jericho (Ramrod 564) — the famed 18 February 1944 Amiens Prison raid staged by 140 Wing, 2nd Tactical Air Force, including six DeHavilland Mosquito fighter-bombers of 464 Squadron, Royal Australian Air Force (RAAF) led by Wing Commander Iredale. The mission objective was to effect the escape of over 800 captured French resistance fighters and political prisoners, who it was believed were about to be executed by the Nazis. “And The Walls Came Tumbling Down” by Jack Fishman (1982) provides a good, detailed account of the entire operation.

    All best,

    William

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  2. Thanks Mike- Noonan is not only the forgotten, overlooked part of this tandem, but often misaligned as well. Maybe some of those authors should read your book more closely and stop trying to blame their misfortune on his drunkenness and inability to navigate. Look at his credentials and realize although Amelia would most likely get the lion’s share of the glory had they succeeded, he also would have benefitted greatly from their fame. Would he risk that, as well as their lives, on a drink? I like to give him more credit than that.

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  3. Bob states that after she had done a test flight, he topped them up AGAIN before her final take-off, implying that she did a test flight with full tanks; she did do a test flight early morning July 1 but before the tanks were filled for the final flight (and there is no way she would have attempted 2 white-knuckle takeoffs with a full load).

    He also states “all tanks were absolutely full”; in Elgen Long’s book (a detailed but tedious read) all tanks with the exception of the right wing tank were filled, as that tank was about 1/2 full of 100 octane fuel that AE wanted available for takeoff (she didn’t want it diluted with 87 octane). Maybe it was filled after all. Bob should know.

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    1. Tom, you’re correct. Earhart’s test flight was done before the Electra was refueled. It would have been foolish for her to take the plane up with full tanks. Amelia took off on the test flight in the direction of the mountains. That would have been a recipe for disaster.

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  4. Bob Ireland or Fred Haig (I’m not sure who is the active voice) got a little right and a lot wrong. Except for the wind blowing in the wrong direction for take-off, weather was not a factor in Amelia and Fred’s timing for leaving Lae. Just before Amelia and Fred did leave, they received a Navy weather summary from Honolulu of a storm 300 miles east of Lae. In 1937, that would have been an impossible weather report from a Navy meteorologist 4200 miles away.

    When Amelia arrived at 3:00 pm on June 29th, they had every intention to leave the following morning. Putnam was pressing Amelia to arrive back in Oakland by the Fourth of July. Amelia attended a dinner at Chater’s residence and Fred wasn’t invited. Instead, Fred checked into his room at the Hotel Cecil and then headed to the Cecil’s bar, a very rowdy place and met up with Jim Collopy and Bernie Heath, a Guinea Bush Pilot. Over the next several hours, Fred proceeded to get sloshing drunk.

    Fred had done this before working for Pan Am. Somehow he managed to get to work the following morning. Fred thought Amelia was pushing along to fast and at that moment in time didn’t give a damn if he got drunk.

    There is no indication of a drinking issue the next two nights.

    Les Kinney

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    1. William H. Trail | Reply

      Les,

      I think it rather rude of Eric Chater to invite Amelia to dinner, and snub Fred. All respect to AE, she should not have allowed such an insult to stand. FN was her navigator, and they were flying as a team. FN was also notable in his own right for having pioneered the route for Pan American Airways’ flying boats across the Pacific. In my opinion, if Fred wasn’t invited, I believe AE should have politely declined.

      As for the Navy weather report out of Honolulu reporting a storm 300 miles east of Lae, couldn’t that report have been relayed from a source much closer to the storm to the Navy in Honolulu?

      All best,

      William

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      1. As usual, William, you offer thought provoking and constructive criticism.

        It must be remembered; we’re dealing with the British here – well Aussies are first cousins, aren’t they? If memory serves me, Eric Chater was born in England. Regardless, I think you know where I am going with this. Amelia would have been in Chaters eyes, the American aristocrat, who had dined with Kings and Queens. Fred, well in the eyes of Chater he was nothing more than a hired hand and in typical British tradition not worthy of a dinner invitation. Most likely, Amelia was compelled to attend. Chater was servicing her plane and his wife had invited many of the distinguished residents of the community.

        You’re right, it was common practice for ship captains to report unusual or bad weather by CW to radio stations monitoring the 500 band. That information was often passed to other locations. However, there were no ships 300 miles east of Lae. If there were, Lae radio or Rabaul would have been the recipient of their messages. Pearl Harbor could not communicate directly with Lae. 4300 miles is too far for the transmission.

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    2. David Atchason | Reply

      Les,

      I’m unclear of the timeline in your post. Maybe you can clarify it for me. So Fred gets wasted on the 29th evening and yet “somehow shows up for work.” What work did they do on the 30th? Or for that matter on July 1st. I thought Fred was listening to the radio, trying to get a time signal from somewhere. I have heard the story that she delayed for a day because of “personnel problems.” So now Fred has the night of June 30 and the night of July 1 to kill.

      Is there any record of what he was doing those 2 nights?It would seem that AE and FN were hardly sharing a bunkroom and she had cut him loose for some reason, I doubt it was because she and the Chaters were were ignorantly rude. Maybe AE had given Fred a green light to “Blow off some Steam” knowing the poor guy had been dry for weeks, Maybe Fred already had started hitting the sauce and she knew he would not be presentable for dinner. Then: “No evidence of a drinking issue” the next two nights.” What does that mean? He retired to his hotel room to do what? See what was on the TV? Knowing a little about alcoholism, I would say once Fred “tied one on” he would hardly just stop after one night.

      I bet he would REALLY tie one on the next night or two only stopping when he was cut off. Was anybody watching Fred those next two nights? In fact, to present the worst case scenario, he could have been unfit for duty on the 2nd or, even worse, brought a jug or two along in his little metal box. If Fred was a “bender drinker” he might have continued right on drinking until he ran out of Vat 69. He would literally be “out of control” and his will power would have been of no use. Speaking of weather, maybe FN was “under the weather” that day.

      Even the best navigators can make mistakes, look at Rickenbacker’s case. So FN could have been having a bad day and got them way north of Howland and flying west they wound up on Mili. Maybe FN had them flying back and forth for quite some time, using up a lot of gas because of Fred’s mistakes. Amelia was too proud to admit they were lost and anyway there was nothing they or anybody could do at that point to fix that. They had to fly west. Morganthau could not have known why they were lost and had to head for Mili, would not have thought of Fred being out of commission and anyway she was in charge, she picked Fred.

      In reference to William’s hypothesis, about her activating the Jap defenses on purpose, it sounds like a plausible thing they could have done, but is there any evidence at all that they were doing that? I have never heard of any, but I sure don’t know every detail. Let me know if there is.

      Dave

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      1. Dave, I didn’t make myself clear. Poor writing on my part. Referring to showing up for work the next day was in reference to Fred’s time at Pan Am.

        As you say, Fred “got wasted” on the evening of their arrival at Lae. That has been documented by three sources. Why he got drunk knowing they intended to leave the next morning would be unusual for most of us but not for Fred. He had a habit of doing just that at Pan Am and led to his dismissal.

        The next morning about 6:30 am, if my memory is correct, Amelia sent a telegram to her husband in Oakland: “RADIO MISUNDERSTANDING AND PERSONNEL UNFITNESS PROBABLY WILL HOLD ONE DAY….”

        Lae radio couldn’t hear Amelia’s transmissions on her way over from Darwin. Amelia had given instructions for Guinea Radio to listen for her on the wrong frequency. That was resolved with Harry Balfour on her arrival. It’s possible she was still confused – no one knows for sure.

        “PERSONNEL UNFITNESS” was a real problem. I doubt Fred could get out of bed the next morning. I couldn’t after drinking 20 Scotches. Notice Amelia didn’t say “personal unfitness which would have referenced herself. There could be only one other person fitting the definition of “PERSONNEL.” The fact she sent this telegram early the next morning after their arrival makes it clear she was referring to Fred.

        There are contemporaneous sources who said Fred wasn’t interested in drinking the next couple of nights. Again, without going to my notes, Fred said something like, “No thank you, I had quite enough last night.” Fred realized he needed his chronometer reset but that wasn’t known until later in the day. Fred and Amelia did have free time and toured the local countryside; the wind was blowing the wrong direction another day. Amelia didn’t stay in the hotel after the first night. According to a source, she hated the place. Fred liked it and stayed.

        Les Kinney

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    3. William H. Trail | Reply

      Les,

      Many thanks for the reply and kind words.

      Of course, when placed in the context you describe, I can see that Amelia really would have had no other choice but to smile and show up for dinner with the Chater’s and their guests, despite the snub of Fred. I could be wrong, but given the kind and gentle person she was, and the fact that she had just flown most of the way around the world with Fred as her navigator, I can’t believe Amelia was pleased about him not being invited.

      I did not know that there weren’t any vessels in the vicinity of the storm 300 miles east of Lae. It makes me wonder, how did Navy meteorologists in Honolulu know about a storm that far away from their location if there were no vessels present, and a direct radio message was not possible even if there had been one?

      All best,

      William

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  5. Amelia and Fred, it’s been 83 years; you are gone but not forgotten.

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    1. Thanks Tom,

      This year I’m doing a joint post for Amelia’s disappearance and birthday commemorations, and will publish in-between on July 11. Mainly a recap of the media BS from the past year, as well as a brief report on the Earhart Memorial Monument initiative on Saipan.

      Mike

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