by Revilo P. Oliver
IN A Postscript, “When the Twain Do Meet,” in Liberty Bell, December 1984, I summarized the evidence presented by Vincent Loomis in his recent book, Amelia Earhart, the Final Story, and drew certain conclusions from it. Mr. Philip Roddy, of Salem, Oregon, (who permits me to use his name) dissented from my conclusions and directed me to a book published twenty years ago, Fred Goerner’s The Search for Amelia Earhart (New York, Doubleday, 1966), which Loomis mentions only obiter and slightingly, dismissing it together with books that were the product of either brain fever or the cynical greed of publishers and their scribbling accomplices, such as one that reported the discovery of Amelia Earhart Putnam and her companion on the flight, Frederick Noonan, living under assumed names in New Jersey in 1970. Loomis was certainly disingenuous and too cavalier in thus depreciating Goerner’s investigations, from which his own evidently started.
Mr. Roddy suggests that Loomis’s book is a “cover-up,” designed to bury Goerner’s work. If I hesitate to express an opinion, that is the fault of Mr. Loomis or, perhaps, of his journalistic assistant or even of his publisher’s editors. They seem not to have been aware of the nature of evidence and proof.
There is no disagreement between the two books regarding the basic facts. In July 1937, Mrs. Putnam and Mr. Noonan, on a flight from New Guinea to Howland Island in the mid-Pacific, made a crash landing near the shore of Mili, an atoll in the Marshall Islands. They were arrested by the Japanese and taken to Saipan, where Noonan was executed and the lady was held captive until she died, presumably of a tropical disease. The Japanese falsely claimed they had conducted an intensive search for the missing aviators and found no trace of them.
The sharp disagreement is over the intentions of the famous aviatrix when she took off from New Guinea. Loomis tells us that she was only trying to complete her flight around the world and had to make an emergency landing at Mili (which she supposed to be one of the Gilbert Islands, a British possession) through an error in navigation. Goerner reached the conclusion that the aviators were acting as intelligence agents and flew over the islands the Japanese were surreptitiously fortifying, especially their huge naval base on Truk, to observe what the Japanese had accomplished. Although that was not espionage in the strict sense of the word, it did give the Orientals an excuse for treating Mrs. Putnam and Noonan as spies. And Goerner could point to the fate of an American spy, Colonel Earl H. Ellis, who reached the Caroline and Marshall Islands, disguised as a trader. The Japanese, who are a polite people, blandly permitted him to die of disease, the disease being a suitable poison, and professed regret that the trader had succumbed to the hazards of a tropical climate.
The entire dispute between Goerner and Loomis can be decided, at least provisionally and perhaps definitively, by just one simple fact, which could be ascertained by anyone who is willing to go to Washington and spend an hour or two there. I shall return to that crucial point in a moment, but in the meantime there are several ancillary points that may be noticed for what they tell us about the methods of the two authors.
In Liberty Bell, I thought it sufficient to say that Amelia Earhart reached Mili as a result of “a gross but not inexplicable error in navigation (presumably Noonan’s).” Given the issue between the two books, I shall have to amplify that statement, regretting any distress that may be caused to persons now living. Whichever thesis about the purpose of the flight is accepted, it is quite clear that the responsibility for its failure and her consequent death rests squarely on Noonan.
He was the aviatrix’s navigator, charged with determining her position both by celestial navigation and by such radio assistance as was then available, and he must also have been her radio operator.(1) The lady was a pilot, and on a long and difficult flight over a pathless ocean in variable weather she could not have done that work herself. She reposed, perhaps against her better judgement, great confidence in Noonan, and once, when offered good advice by an expert, she replied tartly, “I’ve got a navigator to tell me where I am.”
Before the start of the circumterrestrial flight, the plane’s trailing antenna, requisite for obtaining accurate determinations from directional radio, was discarded, perhaps at Noonan’s suggestion, certainly with his approval. That was an act of bravado. But there is much more than that to be credited to him. When I read Loomis, who presents the evidence in full, and again when I read Goerner, who knew part of it, I was astonished that neither author had used the evidence to draw deductions from a significant datum which neither seemed to have noticed. After the plane took off from New Guinea, the only communications from it, even those which came after the aviatrix knew she was lost and was desperately trying to ascertain her position while keeping the plane steady in turbulent air, were spoken by her. And in her hurried requests to the Coast Guard’s cutter, the _Itasca_, she evinced an exasperating ignorance of what was required for a radio “fix” and even of the proper radio frequencies in those circumstances. She even seemed to ignore messages to her. That she was distracted by the arduous task of keeping the wind-tossed plane on an even keel is understandable. But did neither author ask himself, Where in Hell was her navigator and radio operator?
Noonan was a noted alcoholic who had professed a wish to overcome his addiction when he was given the honor of accompanying her, but had forgot it long before they reached New Guinea. On the night before Amelia Earhart began her last flight, he, in vulgar parlance, ‘hung on a real bender’ in the bars. In the morning, he had to be roused from a stupor and helped aboard the plane, and there was reason to suppose that the rattling box he clutched to him contained one or more bottles of the juice that gives joy. It is surely obvious why nothing was heard from Noonan during the flight and why Amelia Earhart was so inept and seemingly scatter-brained in her communications to the Itasca. Her navigator was presumably counting the pink elephants that were cavorting so oddly on the wings. She was, in fact, alone.
Had Amelia Earhart had a navigator who was compos mentis, she would probably have survived and have enjoyed the glory of great achievement that she coveted, as Nordics do. That is the bitter truth. And it is a melancholy irony that she failed to kick the incorrigible souse out of her plane because she was emotionally involved, not erotically, but because the father whom she had esteemed and protected had also been an alcoholic who had vainly tried to dispense with bottled comfort.
Now this circumstance seriously impairs Goerner’s conclusion. If the flight was intended to pass over Truk and other islands and make observations of Japanese installations, those observations would have had to be made by Noonan. The pilot of a plane was (in those days) too busy flying to do more than glance at the ground, and the pilot’s position gave vision ahead, not beneath the plane. Only the navigator would have been free to look over the side and observe the ground through binoculars. If Amelia Earhart had been charged with a mission by some branch of American Intelligence, she would have had to abandon it when her companion, the only person who could carry it out, was watching elephants, if he had not attained the alcoholic’s Nirvana of total oblivion.
There are other weaknesses in Goerner’s case. He naturally makes much of the encouragement given him by Admiral Nimitz, who clearly implied that he disbelieved the then accepted story (that the plane had vanished at sea). It does not follow, however, that the Admiral knew of any attempt at espionage. He need only have been told by someone, in the Navy or Marines, that the aviators had fallen into the hands of the Japanese and had died or been killed in captivity. He may also have heard that their graves on Saipan had been found. (Goerner reports that he found good evidence that the graves had been found by Marines and the skeletal remains removed in a box that could not be located later. Loomis does not consider this point, having evidently neglected to follow up the indications given by Goerner.) Nimitz, in other words, may have known or suspected only what Goerner did eventually discover on Saipan and Mili.
Goerner also draws logical but unnecessary inferences from the curtain of secrecy in Washington and the persistent efforts to frustrate his inquiries and investigations. One need not conclude that the Navy and Marine Corps were concealing attempted espionage, which would not have been anything that called for secrecy after the defeat of Japan. They may have been concealing only something that was shameful, e.g., that they had lost or discarded the bones excavated from the unmarked grave on Saipan. They may possibly have been trying to keep secret that they had known at the time that Mrs. Putnam and Noonan had been captured by the Japanese, but had done nothing to rescue them, either on orders from the State Department or to avoid compromising the source of their information. Or their motive may have been absurdly trivial.
Bureaucrats — and military officers become bureaucrats when they join the chair-borne battalions in Washington — all suffer from an occupational disease, a mania for secrecy that often produces fantastic results. In 1941, there was an effort to keep secret the location and purpose of the Pentagon, which was then under construction, although any foreign agent could have learned the location, size, shape, name, and function of the building by spending thirty-five cents for one of the maps of Washington on general sale. I once heard of a frantic appeal to Counter Intelligence when it was found in some war-time agency that an absurdly trivial fact (I have forgotten exactly what) was known to a girl who was “unauthorized personnel.” The face of Counter Intelligence became rubicund when the girl pointed out that she had learned the secret from the Washington newspapers the week before. What is more, a bureaucrat feels that it is an impertinence for anyone to ask about anything his “public relations” men have not told the public. If you asked a bureaucrat the date, his first impulse would be to “classify” the calendar and demand of you a petition in quintuplicate showing your “need to know.” If I exaggerate, it is only slightly. A veteran (and therefore cynical) intelligence officer once explained the bureaucrats’ mania to me: “It helps the lousy bastards feel important.” The obstruction of Goerner’s investigations could have been mere habit, but I am inclined to believe that it was a determination to cover up something that could have exposed the Navy or the Marine Corps (justly or unjustly) to adverse criticism. That something need not be anything that you or I would think important. But we are left with an annoying mystery.
There are flaws in Loomis’s argumentation, too. To say that the aviatrix could not have had a mission to observe the Japanese installations because she was a pacifist is absurd. A pacifist could have been eager to expose Japanese “militarism,” and everyone knows that pacifists, less intelligent than Mrs. Putnam, are notoriously eager for wars to end wars. To say that she could not have had such a mission because she would have flown over Truk at night is to beg the crucial question, to which I shall now come.
One answer to that question will make Goerner’s theory a possibility; the opposite answer will prove Loomis right — but will then raise the secondary question why he neglected such proof.
Goerner asserts (pp. 295f.) that he found in the Historical Office of the Department of State, accessible to anyone, a file which contained a document that showed that “The engines carried by the Lockheed [Amelia Earhart’s plane] were not those listed in the publicity releases to the public. Two… military-version engines had been installed…. The new engines gave the plane half as much again power and a cruising speed of 200 or more miles per hour [and hence a maximum speed in excess of 220 miles per hour at 11,000 feet].” If those new engines were in fact installed, Goerner’s theory becomes possible, and if the installation was kept strictly secret, the theory becomes plausible as one possible explanation of the secrecy. Now Mr. Loomis has nothing to say about this except (p.81) that the change of engines was “not confirmed.” It is hard to refrain from profanity. “Not confirmed” how? by whom? Did Mr. Loomis go to the Historical Office and ascertain that the file mentioned by Mr. Goerner does not, and never did, exist? Or that the file contains no such document? Or that the document is spurious, a forgery or merely a report of an idle rumor? If not, why did he, having read his predecessor’s book, shirk his obvious duty? Or did he find evidence that he is trying to suppress? My guess is that he was merely negligent, but he has exposed himself to the grave suspicion of attempted falsification of the historical record, and that serves him right.
After the foregoing was already in type, Keith Whited calculated the flying time and consumption of fuel on Amelia Earhart’s circumterrestrial flight, so far as data were available in Loomis’s book. He concludes that on her last flight, she, after taking off from New Guinea with the maximum load of gasoline her plane could carry, remained in the air for so many hours before she finally ditched the plane at Mili that the fuel consumption was remarkably low. This calculation assumes that her plane had the engines with which it was originally fitted. Had more powerful engines been installed, the consumption of gasoline per hour would have been much greater and she could not conceivably have remained aloft for so many hours without landing to refuel during the flight.
Mr. Whited suggests that if any alterations in motive power were made in preparation for the flight, the engines were equipped with improved carburetors, possibly of a new design that the aviatrix was testing for Lockheed. (Possibly the first in the series of improvements in carburation and use of fuel that made possible the engines used in the subsequent war.) This could have given rise to the report of a change of engines, which was the basis of Goerner’s somewhat sensational contention that Mrs. Putnam had been charged with a mission to observe Japanese installations.
However that may be, Mr. Whited’s conclusion is that the fuel consumption on the last flight proves that the plane had not been equipped with more powerful engines, and that in turn proves that there could have been no intention of deviating from the direct route to Howland Island to make a wide detour to the north.
That disposes of Goerner’s thesis, but I still wish that Loomis had recognized his responsibility to look for the document that Goerner claimed to have seen.
(1) He did not know either the Morse or the Continental code and so could not have communicated by telegraphy, but he presumably would have listened for relevant communications by radiotelephone and have monitored the various frequencies on which telephonic transmissions might be made. As an expert navigator for Pan-American Airlines until he was discharged for habitual inebriation, he presumably was acquainted with all the techniques of aerial navigation then in use, and we cannot suppose that if he had been conscious and rational on the flight, he would not have saved the aviatrix from the blunders she made in communicating with the Itasca.
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Source: Liberty Bell magazine, August 1986