It was 80 years ago yesterday that Fred Noonan went missing at age 44. He was declared dead a year later, though his body was never found.
His mother had died when he was four and relatives in the Chicago area took him in. He took off for Seattle at age twelve where he became a seaman. He worked on many ships and rose to the rank of bosun’s mate. In the Merchant Marine during World War I, he was on ships that were sunk by German U-boats three different times.
As a sailor, he traveled around Cape Horn seven times, three times under sail. After 22 years at sea, he learned to fly airplanes and ultimately went to work for Pan Am as a navigator. He was the navigator on the first Sikorsky S-42 Flying Boat out of San Francisco in 1935.
And also on the historic mail flight across the Pacific of the China Clipper a month later.
Noonan mapped Pan Am’s pioneering routes across the Pacific, always carrying a ship’s sextant with him to navigate by the stars.
In 1937, he resigned from Pan Am, having gone as far as he could in the company as a navigator. He hoped to open a navigation school, and he signed on for a “record-breaking” around-the-world flight that he thought would bring him the needed fame to get a good start. The plane to be used was a very highly advanced one for the day, the Lockheed Model 10 Electra.
When he disappeared, he had navigated 22,000 of the planned 35,000 kilometers of the flight. On July 2 1937, he took off from Lae, New Guinea and headed for tiny Howland Island, a tiny speck less than half a mile long in the middle of the Pacific.
There was a second person on the plane, but it was up to Noonan to find the way. They reached the vicinity of Howland and established radio contact, but they never saw the island itself, and were never heard from or seen again. Some research later showed that the island was wrongly located on their charts – off by about five miles.
Many books have been written about the disappearance. Movies have been made, songs written, conspiracy theories advanced. Tons of websites, literally millions, speculate on exactly what happened. Many people have latched on to an apparently bogus claim that Noonan may have been drunk, though the most accepted theory is that they simply ran out of gas and ditched. In recent years, there have been claims that their remains had been found on a nearby island.
By now, you’re probably wondering why, if so much attention has been given to this, do you not know who Fred Noonan is and have never heard his name before. Well, I guess I buried the lede – the other person on board was Amelia Earhart.
Noonan hoped to capitalize on the attention that Amelia Earhart’s “exploits” garnered. Her husband and business partner, publisher George Putnam, promoted the flight as if she was flying solo, careful to keep Noonan out of the publicity as much as he could. He micro-managed the whole stunt, actually, causing Earhart’s original choice for navigator, Harry Manning, to quit after a bungled first attempt when Earhart crashed on takeoff in Hawaii.
For those who study these things, Noonan has received virtually all of the blame for the screw-up, though it’s clear he would have received very little acclaim had he succeeded.
A beautiful song called “Amelia Earhart’s Last Flight” was written by Red River Dave McEnery, and it became the first song ever performed on commercial television at the 1939 World’s Fair. The song got Noonan’s name wrong in the original version, published in “Sing Out” magazine, giving it as “Captain Newman”, though I believe they got the “Captain” right.
Even today some web sites are confused about his name, though in most versions you’ll find on the web today, this mistake has been corrected.
I like the this version by Kinky Friedman and the Texas Jewboys, though, as always, Kinky plays it for smiles. It really is a nice tune, though.
As the song says, Happy landings, Captain Noonan.