Conclusion of “The Last Days of Amelia Earhart”
Today we continue with the conclusion of Cam Warren’s “The Last Days of Amelia Earhart.” I’ve again added photos, and some of my own comments will follow.
“The Last Days of Amelia Earhart”
by Cam Warren
Bert Heath has been mentioned as the Chief Pilot and reportedly viewed the take-off from the air as he was approaching the strip from a flight up country. Guinea’s radio operator at Lae was 37-year-old Harry Balfour, who played a critical role in Earhart’s final flight. He checked out the radio transmitter and receiver in the Electra and attempted to calibrate the direction finder without notable success. Another local pilot has been mentioned, Thomas F. O’Dea, described as working for Guinea, but Balfour later stated (in a 1961 letter to [Joe] Gervais) that O’Dea worked “as a part-time manager for Stephens Aircraft Co.”
Over a dozen Caucasians viewed the historic take-off (17 by some reports). Joe Gervais visited Lae in 1960 and found that only seven were still alive. Their recollections differed, but as any police detective can attest, eyewitnesses, despite the best of intentions, seldom agree. The more time passes, the more divergent become the accounts. Fortunately, we have the evidence of Marshall’s film, and the testimony of James Collopy, the District Superintendent of Civil Aviation for the territory.
Among those present were L. J. Joubert, a mining engineer that worked for Placer in Bulolo and his wife. O’Dea had flown them and another couple, Mr. & Mrs. F.C. Jacobs, down from the gold fields to meet Earhart and view her departure. O’Dea also took a large number of snapshots at Lae, some of which were published in the Morrissey/Osborne book Amelia, My Courageous Sister. (Balfour said Amelia considered him something of a pest, but we can be glad he was there.) Another photographer, Australian Aubrey Koch has been mentioned, although I’ve not seen any of his shots.
Allan Vagg, the Amalgamated Wireless operator at Bulolo was also interviewed by Gervais, but was not on hand at takeoff time. A recent discovery, as far as I was concerned, was the name of Robert Iredale, manager of the Socony/Vacuum (Standard Oil) facility at Lae. Photos show a “Stanavo” employee fueling the Electra; Stanavo was the local SO brand name). Iredale told Fred Goerner that Noonan was his overnight guest while at Lae, and definitely did NOT spend the time drinking. As was often the case, Iredale’s recollections in the early 1980s suffer from some inconsistencies, but Goerner considered him a very reliable source
Balfour corresponded with a number of researchers and described having two-way conversations with Earhart as she flew eastward. Vagg claimed to have heard one or two of these, but no written records survived World War II, neither from Vagg nor Balfour unfortunately. To the best of my knowledge, no American researcher ever managed to interview Balfour face-to-face. (The only published interview appeared in PEOPLE Magazine [SYDNEY HERALD, Australia] in 1967). Balfour passed away in the mid-1980s apparently. As of this writing no information as to his wife and children has surfaced.
Writer Dick Strippel says he interviewed the sole surviving takeoff witness in 1987. “Mrs. Ella Birrell” was the daughter of Flora “Ma” Stewart, the colorful manager of the Cecil Hotel, and helped out around the premises. She recalled Amelia “wanted a room of her own and didn’t really mix with people.” The 70-year-old lady told Strippel “I remember the plane could barely lift on takeoff. . . We all rushed out to watch her go; it was a very brave thing she did.”
Yet another Guinea Airways employee, Alan Board, who was a stringer for the Australian Associated Press, confirmed that Earhart used every inch of runway and then some. “Marshall nearly dropped his camera,” Board told Gervais, as the plane dipped below the seaside bluff and continued to hug the waves for a considerable distance before starting a slow climb. To the best of our knowledge, the Electra was never seen again . . . or was it?
Two surviving documents remain as the most reliable accounts of Earhart’s last days in Lae. The best known is the “Collopy Report” to the Secretary of the (Australian) Civil Aviation Board, dated Aug. 28, 1937. In 1 1/2 pages, it summarizes the activities at the airfield, quotes Noonan as to the fuel load, quotes Balfour about communications and draws some conclusions as to why the flight failed. (Collopy told Ann Pellegreno there was a complete file that had “disappeared” from his department by 1967.) Then in 1991, a copy of a report from Eric Chater to William Miller of the U.S. Bureau of Air Commerce surfaced in Placer Management files. It had been relayed to Miller via the Placer representative in San Francisco (Maurice E. Griffin — son of Frank?) and consists of eight pages of detailed observations. (This is likely the same report that was sent on to George Putnam, as mentioned by Collopy.)
The village of Lae was pretty well destroyed by Japanese bombing early in World War II, rebuilt by them into a major base and later bombed into rubble again by the Allies. Little remained amid the ruins, particularly radio logs and other documents from 1937. Today Lae is the second largest city in Papua New Guinea, with 85,000 residents, but Eric Chater did not live to see it, having met a violent end just before the Japanese invasion. Early in the morning of Monday, Oct. 13, 1941, he absent-mindedly walked into the spinning propeller of one of the Guinea Airways Junkers that had just landed on the Lae airstrip. After an active life that included a stint as a fighter pilot during the deadliest days of World War I, Chater died at the age of 45, the apparent victim of a careless accident. Yet another curious footnote in the saga of Amelia Earhart.
In September of this year [1996?], I sent a letter to the Commandant of the Coast Guard and requested, a copy of the unexpurgated, official report, including the radio log of the Coast Guard cutter Itasca as it related to the flight of Amelia Earhart on 2 July 1937. I cited the Presidential Directive #12958, dated 17 April 1995, concerning the automatic declassification of documents that are more than 25 years old, as authority. The Coast Guard Commandant advised me that all documents relating to that event were in the National Archives.
With the name of a contact for Coast Guard material in the National Archives, I again requested the original, unexpurgated log of the Itasca. Again I was told that no such document exists in their files. However, they did send me a copy of an index of material that they had relating to Earhart and the Coast Guard Cutter Itasca. Although much of the information in the index is familiar, I did send for some documents that may offer some new light.
Why all the mystery about what happened to Amelia Earhart? It is my judgment Morgenthau knew what happened to Amelia Earhart from “a verbal report and all those wireless messages and everything else.” But he put a cap on the release of all information about her shortly after she disappeared. I believe he took that action to protect the reputation of Amelia Earhart from that day forward so that people of the world would remember her as a beautiful and courageous young lady who was willing to challenge the concept of a man’s world and would live on as a legend for all to love and admire.
On Jan. 6, 1935, Amelia Earhart planted a Banyan tree in Hilo, Hawaii. (Earhart was in Hawaii preparing for her flight to Oakland.) On Aug. 12, 1937, Secretary of the Treasury for President Franklin Roosevelt, Henry Morgenthau Jr., planted a Banyan tree next to the Earhart tree. They are there today on Banyan Tree Drive, Hilo, Hawaii. (End of Cam Warren commentary.)
As always, the opinions expressed in the foregoing commentary are solely those of the author, Cam Warren. In particular, I vehemently disagree with Warren’s contention that Henry Morgenthau Jr.’s motivation in preventing release of “all information shortly after [Earhart] disappeared” because he was concerned that the world might not remember Amelia as a “courageous young lady” and wanted to ensure that her legend would endure for all to “love and admire.”
In fact, Morgenthau was a pure political animal whose sole concern was the reputation of his boss, FDR, and in turn, his own; he knew that if the truth about the president’s abandonment of Earhart to the hands of the barbaric pre-war Japanese on Saipan ever became known, Roosevelt’s reputation as the New Deal savior of the middle class would turn to ashes, as would his political future. Thus we have the “Earhart mystery,” which is not a mystery at all, but one of several sacred cows that the Washington establishment and its media allies protect at all costs.
For much more, please see my posts of March 31, 2015, “Amelia Earhart and the Morgenthau Connection: What did FDR’s treasury secretary really know?“ and May 9, 2020, “Morgenthau papers could reveal Earhart truth.“
Cam Warren on “The Last Days of Amelia Earhart”
We return to the work of Cam Warren, an original member of the Amelia Earhart Society, who, according to one online search is 99 years old and resides in Fountain Hills, Ariz., and has been a member of the Americal Society of Media Photographers since 1966. Otherwise I haven’t heard from him in many years. This piece is far from your garden-variety rehash of old Earhart background, and provides many interesting and previously unpublished details on Lae, New Guinea and Guinea Airways, its personnel, airfield and history, and appeared in the January 1997 edition of the Amelia Earhart Society Newsletters. I’ve added most of the photos. This is the first of two parts.
“The Last Days of Amelia Earhart”
by Cam Warren
The story of Amelia Earhart is a fascinating one from start to finish, and the mystery surrounding her disappearance continues to challenge serious researchers to this moment in time. Countless theories have been advanced, ranging from the wildest speculation to the more reasoned scenario, all based on little or no hard evidence. Paul Rafford, for example, has contributed several possible explanations for Amelia’s erratic radio communications and technical support for even some of the more extreme “government spy” ideas.
As we approach the sixtieth anniversary of the ill-fated Flight Into Yesterday (as Capt. [Laurence] Safford described it), few people remain that have any firsthand knowledge of the event. Those who knew Amelia or Fred, worked on the Electra, or contributed in some way have left us and physical evidence is sparse indeed. Documentary evidence does exist, of course, thanks largely to the Freedom of Information Act, and like archeologists on a “dig,” we sort and sift through it on the slim chance a sliver of evidence heretofore overlooked will suddenly assume greater significance.
Saipan and the Marshalls have been pretty thoroughly investigated* and the ever-hopeful TIGHAR crew from Delaware are convinced the answer lies on Nikumaroro (nee Gardner Island). As for other possible landing sites in the vicinity of Howland, I’ve personally discounted the “uncharted reef” theory through a personal visit to the Winslow area and a study of marine geophysical data from the National Oceanographic and Atmospheric Administration (NOAA). Baker and McKean islands have been thoroughly combed over.
* Editor’s [Bill Prymak] Note: Joe Gervais and Prymak were the very first researchers to visit Jaluit Atoll, former Japanese Administrative Headquarters. See post here of Oct. 8, 2019, “Prymak’s “Jaluit Report” recalls ’91 Jaluit visit, interviews of hitherto unknown Earhart witnesses.”
My attention turned back to Lae, New Guinea. Amelia’s penultimate days were spent there, as she and Fred Noonan rested up and The Electra was serviced by the ground crew for Guinea Airways. What was Lae like in those days? Who witnessed the final take-off? Was Noonan suffering a severe hangover? Was Amelia battling dysentery or, as it has been suggested by at least one writer, was she pregnant?
The island of New Guinea (second largest in the world, after Greenland) lies directly north of the continent of Australia, and is centered about 5 [degrees] south of the equator. It was an Australian territory from 1905 until 1973. The climate is monsoonal and thick forests prevail. Moresby is the capital of what is now known as Papua New Guinea, and is located on the south coast. Lae is 200 miles to the north on the eastern side of the island, facing the Huon Gulf and next to the Markham River. The town was founded in 1927 to serve air transport into the Bulolo gold fields in the mountainous interior. Large deposits of gold-bearing gravel had been discovered some years previous, but no roads existed and native bearers were used over the 70-mile-long trail to the diggings, which were located at an altitude close to 7,000 feet above sea level.
An Australian by the name of Cecil Levien, realizing what a bonanza existed in the treacherous terrain, and was well aware of the threat of the local cannibal tribes, decided an airlift was the answer. In 1926 he raised enough money to purchase a British built DeHaviland DH37, capable of carrying a 600-pound payload, the equivalent of a dozen natives with backpacks. So in 1927, Guinea Airways was born, became an immediate success and the entire mining operation thrived. Levien sought additional financing to expand his holdings. His search brought him to Vancouver, British Columbia and a resident mining engineer, Charles A. Banks. They formed a company called Placer Development, Ltd. (later known as Placer Management and now Placer Dome).
Banks brought in two other engineers as directors of the new company; Frank W. Griffin and Frank R. Short. Griffin was a well-known dredge designer, Short a placer engineer. They examined the Bululo field and came up with even rosier estimates as to the yield than Levien had done. Investors were impressed, even in the Depression era of the ’30s.
As for aircraft, Junkers had just designed the G31; a new plane that could carry 7,000 pounds. With capital assured, Banks went to Germany and ordered two planes, but specified more powerful engines, namely, Pratt & Whitney Hornets, and the new aircraft joined the Guinea Airways fleet.
Banks returned to the U.S. Pacific Coast and with Griffin and Short began laying plans for a vast and complex dredging operation. Key to the plan was that the dredges were to be disassembled for transportation to the New Guinea jungles. The organization proceeded quickly and by March 23, 1932 the first dredge went to work. Before long, eight were in operation. As author Russell Bennett reported in Quest for Ore (1986), “A total of 30,000 tons of freight was flown into Bulolo, with not the loss of a pound. It was the first example of large-scale aerial freighting, and set a pattern that has been followed in an almost infinite number of campaigns — including military in World War II — since then.”
At the new town of Lae, a 1,000-yard-long dirt runway had been carved out of the tangled scrub brush jungle, ending just short of a 25-foot drop-off into the gulf. An unpaved road followed around the edge of the bluff. Hangars and workshops were located about 250 yards northwest of that point. By 1937, a small-but-thriving village existed, which included a small hotel (the “Cecil,” named after Levien, who had recently died). About 1,000 Caucasians, mostly Europeans or Australians, lived in Lae, with many hundreds of natives quartered in town or in the many stilt-supported, thatched-roof huts built over the water. Amelia was impressed by the “peroxide-bleached hair” favored by the indigenous population.
Some of the Airways personnel are mentioned in various accounts; Eric H. Chater (not “Chaters” as some have it) was the resident manager and a pilot. He has been characterized as not caring much for radios in airplanes and only authorizing installation in one of the company’s aircraft (possibly their lone Electra 10-E, which was used primarily for executive transport). Sid Marshall was an “Aircraftsman and Aero Engineer” and was the man who took the amateur movies of AE’s near-disastrous take-off. See TIGHAR’s “The Last Takeoff“ for a clip of Marshall’s brief film, and more information about its provenance. George Gurr (not to be confused with Joseph Gurr back in the states) was in charge of the GA hangar and was a radio “ham.” Herman Hotz was the “wrench” who did the actual work on AE’s Electra, according to at least one account.
(End of Part I.)
Goerner’s December 1961 letter to Leo Bellarts: “Earhart and Noonan were on Saipan”
Today we return to the early 1960s correspondence between KCBS radio newsman Fred Goerner and retired Coast Guard Lt. Leo Bellarts, who as the chief radioman aboard the Coast Guard Cutter Itasca, was on hand to hear Amelia Earhart’s last official messages on the morning of July 2, 1937, concluding with her last transmission at 8:43 a.m. Howland Island time. For Bellarts’ Nov. 28, 1961 letter to Goerner, posted Feb. 6, 2017, as well as the author’s reply, please click here. Bellarts Dec. 15, 1961 response to Goerner, posted April 24, 2017, can be seen here.
Many of Goerner’s questions are still relevant today, especially since the American public has been fed a steady diet of disinformation for many decades by a U.S. media that hasn’t shown the slightest interest in learning the facts since Time magazine panned The Search for Amelia Earhart as a book that “barely hangs together” in its 1966 review that signaled the establishment’s aversion to the truth the KCBS newsman found on Saipan. Goerner died in 1994 at age 69, Bellarts in May 1974 at 66. (Boldface emphasis mine throughout.)
CBS Radio – A Division of Columbia Broadcasting System, Inc.
SHERATON – PALACE, SAN FRANCISCO 5, CALIFORNIA – YUKON 2-7000
December 20, 1961
Mr. Leo G. Bellarts
1920 State Street
Dear Mr. Bellarts,
Thank you very much for your letter with enclosures of the 15th. It was received with a good deal of interest by all of us who have been working on the Earhart story.
I’m sorry if I took on the proportions of a “quizmaster” to you. I think it must be the reportorial instinct. I learned long ago that if you don’t ask the questions, you very seldom get the answers.
First, let me answer several of your questions. As far as I know, there is absolutely no connection between CBS and Mrs. Studer; in fact, I have never met her, and I found the article you mentioned slightly on the irritating side. That article was the first time I was even aware of her existence.
As to George Palmer Putnam, I never had the opportunity to meet him. He died in January, 1950.
The only members of Amelia’s family I know personally are her mother and sister who live in West Medford, Massachusetts. The mother [Amy Otis Earhart] is now in her nineties, and her sister [Muriel Earhart Morrissey] teaches high school in West Medford.
I was glad to receive the information that Galten was a bona fide member of the Itasca’s crew; however, it leaves me even more at a loss to explain his remarks to the press to the effect that the Earhart [plane] was incapable was transmitting radio signals more than 50 to 75 miles, and that the seas were eight feet with fifteen feet between crests the day of the disappearance. The Itasca Log indicates as you have that the sea was calm and smooth.
You might be interested in Galten’s address: 50 Solano Street, Brisbane, California.
Galten has also stated that he actually copied the message, “30 minutes of gas remaining”; yet, your record of the messages and the July 5 transcript sent by the Itasca to ComFranDiv, San Francisco, indicates “but running low on gas.”
As you probably well know, there is a vast difference between 30 minutes of gas remaining and gas running low. Every pilot who has flown the Pacific Area will tell you if you are unsure of your position, are having difficulty in contacting your homing station and are down to four or five hours of gas — the gas indeed is “running low.”
We know as a positive fact that the Lockheed had sufficient gas for twenty-four to twenty-six hours aloft. The take-off time from Lae, New Guinea, was 10:30 a.m. at Lae, 12:30 p.m. at Howland. It was possible for the plane to have stayed aloft until 2:30 p.m. Howland time the following day. The July 2 transmission from the Itasca to San Francisco estimates 1200 maximum time [i.e. noon local time] aloft.
Why then the supposition that Earhart “went in” right after her last message at 0843?
It just isn’t true that Earhart and Noonan began their flight from Lae to Howland with just enough fuel to reach Howland and no more. They were fully aware of the navigational hazards of the flight. The planning for that 2,556-mile flight is contained in Amelia’s notes which were shipped back to the United States from Lae. She planned her ETA at Howland just after daybreak. Daylight was absolutely necessary to locate that tiny speck. She had figured her fuel consumption to give her at least six additional hours to make a landfall if Noonan’s navigational abilities did not bring the plane dead center to Howland.
Is the supposition based on the fact that her voice sounded frantic when she radioed the last message, “We are 157-337, running north and south. Wait listening on 6210”? If she were “going in” at that time, why would she ask the ITASCA to wait on 6210? (Caps Goerner’s throughout.)
Your comment that she simply forgot to include the reference point in the final message seems to be negated by the fact the she included “running north and south.” If Noonan had been able to give her a reference point, there would have been no reason for running north and south courses. They would have known their exact position and in which direction to fly.
The variance in the two groups of messages sent to San Francisco by the ITASCA is not the result of “faulty press reports.” I’m going to have my copies of the Coast Guard Log photostatted and sent along to you. The amazing discrepancies are clear and incontestable.
Your quotes from TIME magazine are “faulty press reports.” TIME is wrong that no position reports were received after Earhart’s departure from Lae. The Coast Guard Log indicated a check-in 785 miles out from Lae with a full position report. TIME was also mistaken in the number of messages received by the ITASCA from the plane. It varies from your own list.
Yes, I was aware that the COLORADO refueled the ITASCA. This is indicated in the Navy’s official report of the search. The Navy report indicates that the COLORADO, on a naval training cruise in the Honolulu vicinity with a group of reservists and University Presidents [sic] in observance when it was ordered to assist in the search and refuel [of] the ITASCA and the SWAN.
I’m afraid I’m going to have to resort to another list of questions. There is so much that appears to be unanswered in this entire vacation. I think you are as interested in this as I am, or I wouldn’t bother you.
Was the signal strength of Earhart A3 S5 on all the messages from the 0615 “About two hundred miles out” to the final 0843 message? In your list A3 S5 is not listed for 0615,0645, 0742 and 0800.
Many radio operators have told us that in the South Pacific, particularly near the equator, a voice signal will come in from any distance so strongly that the person appears to be in the next room, then, a few minutes later, it cannot be raised at all even when the transmission station is only a few miles away. Was this your experience while in the South Pacific?
Did the ITASCA make any contact with Lae, New Guinea to set up radio frequencies before her final take-off?
Did the ITASCA contact Lae to determine the actual time of the take-off?
Was the ITASCA aware of the gas capacity and range of the plane?
If the ITASCA arranged frequencies with Earhart at Lae, or at least firmed them up, why didn’t the ITASCA know that Noonan could not use cw [sic, i.e., Morse Code] on 500 kcs because of a lack of a trailing antenna?
The “Organization of Radio Personnel” Photostat indicates that in the event of a casualty the ITASCA was to block out any other station attempting to communicate information. What other station was near the ITASCA that might transmit information contrary to fact? When the plane was lost, did the ITASCA block out any other transmission of information?
Do you know of the whereabouts of [RM2 Frank] Ciprianti [sic, Cipriani is correct], [RM3 Thomas] O’Hare, [RM3 Gilbert E.] Thompson, Lt. Cmdr. F.T. Kenner, Lt. (j.g.) W.I. Stanston or Ensign R.L. Mellen?
This is aside from the Earhart matter, but is certainly of interest. What was the eventual fate of the ITASCA, ONTARIO, and SWAN?
In closing, Mr. Bellarts, let me say that we sincerely appreciate the opportunity the [sic] with you. Let me assure you that we will keep your confidence, and will in no way quote you without your permission.
I, personally, have been working on this investigation for nearly two years. It has nothing to do with any stamp that might be issued with her image, or some nebulous entry into a hall of fame. This is a news story, and we intend to pursue every possible lead until a satisfactory conclusion is reached. I [sic] happy to say we have the blessings of both Amelia’s mother and sister. They have suspected for many years that the disappearance was not as cut and dried as portions of our military have indicated, but no one, including that military, has ever put together a concerted effort to tie together the loose ends.
I believe with all my heart that Earhart and Noonan were on Saipan. I saw the testimony gathered by the Monsignor and the Fathers. I know the witnesses were telling the truth. There was no reason for them to lie, and such a story could never have been invented by simple natives without the appearance of serious discrepancies.
However, I believe with you that Earhart and Noonan never flew their plane to Saipan. They must have been brought to the island by the Japanese.
The search for Earhart has been a joke for years. I think that’s because the military has dogmatically maintained that the pair went down close to Howland; yet, that contention appears to be based solely on the belief that the strength of signals before the last received transmission indicated the ship was probably within two hundred miles of the ITASCA. Where did they fly on the four to five hours of gas we know remained?
Mr. Bellarts, if you know anything that has not been made public that will shed more light on this enigma, please give us the information. If not to CBS, to Amelia’s sister:
Mrs. Albert Morrissey
1 Vernon Street
West Medford. Mass.
No one, certainly not CBS, has the idea of castigating individuals, the Coast Guard, the Navy or the Air Force or even Japan for something that happened so long ago. The important thing is to settle this matter once and for all, and bring a modicum of peace to the individuals involved.
Earhart and Noonan fought their battle against the elements. If they later lost their lives to the aggrandizing philosophy of a nation bent on the conquest of the Pacific, the great victory is still theirs. Their story should be told, and they should receive their nation’s gratitude and a decent burial.
Would you ask less for your own?
Best wishes for a merry Christmas and a prosperous New Year.
I’ll be looking forward to your next communication.
San Francisco 5,
California (End of Goerner letter.)
I have more of the fascinating correspondence between Fred Goerner and Leo Bellarts, two of the most interesting people in the entire Earhart saga, and will post more at a future date.
Fred Noonan’s drinking: In search of the true story
In my last post we briefly looked at the mostly forgotten, sketchy biography of the multi-talented 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 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 Proceedingsand Naval Historyand 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 virtually always 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, but 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.” His only other reference to Noonan and booze came on page 33, where 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 44-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 goes on:
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. H e 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.
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.