Volume 14 #1
May 1998

The Noonan Project

Several separate threads of investigation by TIGHAR members around the U.S. and around the world have come together to focus on the other aviation pioneer who mysteriously disappeared over the Central Pacific on July 2, 1937. Here’s an overview of the latest results.

Chasing the Bones

In February, Kenton Spading (TIGHAR #1382CE) succeeded in tracking down a 1941 report by the principal of the Central Medical School in Suva, Fiji which sheds more light on the bones found on Nikumaroro the previous year. Contrary to the initial opinion expressed by Dr. Lindsey Isaac that the individual was an elderly Polynesian (see TIGHAR Tracks Vol. 13, Nos. 2&3, “The Tarawa File”), Dr. D. W. Hoodless concluded that the bones were those of a middle-aged male of European or mixed-race extraction. That description is consistent with Fred Noonan. However, he also felt that the subject was of relatively short, stocky build. Noonan was tall and thin. Fortunately, Dr. Hoodless included with his report the notes and measurements upon which he based his conclusions. These are being re-examined by forensic anthropologist Dr. Karen Ramey Burns (TIGHAR #2071) and the measurements are being applied to revised formulae which may confirm or contradict Dr. Hoodless’s findings.

Of course, our first concern is to find out whether the bones may still exist. The report suggested that they may have gone to the University of Sydney, but inquiries there by Australian TIGHAR David Kelly (#2092) have turned up no indication that that happened. Kenton Spading is looking into the possibility that they were sent to England and may be among the records of the Western Pacific High Commission. Through dogged research, Kristin Tague (TIGHAR #905CE) has learned that although the Central Medical School once had “bones galore” which were used in the teaching of anatomy, a change to “problem-based learning” in 1991 prompted a house cleaning. The only bones there now are artificial. Kris is trying to determine how and where the disposal of the bones took place.

Sons and Daughters of Eve

Should we be so fortunate as to eventually relocate the bones found on Nikumaroro in 1940, or find more which may still be there, we’ll need samples of mitochondrial DNA from both the Earhart and Noonan families so that comparisons can be made. We must have mitochondrial DNA because that is the only kind expected to have survived in 61 year-old bones. This hardy form of DNA is passed exclusively through the female because the male’s mDNA resides in the tail of the sperm which, of course, never enters the egg. That means we need living, female line relatives of both Fred and AE. Amelia is no problem. Her sister’s daughter could be a source.

Fred is a problem. At present we know of no living relative except an alleged male cousin. Surprisingly little documentable information is available on Frederick J. Noonan and most of the brief biographical sketches of him in books about Earhart are little more than folklore. Rising to the challenge, several subscribers to TIGHAR’s on-line Amelia Earhart Search Forum have begun trying to track down a source of mtDNA for Fred. Sandy Campbell (TIGHAR #2110) leads a growing research group which includes Jackie Ferrari (TIGHAR #2091), Don Jordan (TIGHAR #2109), Jerry Hamilton (TIGHAR #2128), Dick Pingrey (TIGHAR #0908C), and Fred Madio (TIGHAR #2042). Their efforts necessarily involve filling in the many blanks in our knowledge of the largely neglected and often maligned other half of the 1937 world flight team. The information they are uncovering presents a rather different picture from the Noonan of legend.

The Real Fred Noonan

It has traditionally been held that Frederick J. Noonan was born in Chicago in 1894, but if that is true, the fact somehow escaped the notice of the 1900 U.S. Census. Sandy Campbell found a Fred Noonan born in Warren Co., Illinois in 1899, but his middle initial was C. A birth certificate uncovered by Jackie Ferrari of Fifeshire, Scotland now leads us to suspect that Earhart’s navigator is the Frederick Joseph Noonan born July 14, 1891 in Norwich, England, to Joseph and Clara Greenfield Noonan. Joe Noonan was born in Roscommon, Ireland.

The Noonan Project team has also established that Fred married his first wife, Josie M. Sullivan, on July 11, 1927 in Jackson, Mississippi and was divorced from her in Juarez, Mexico on March 3, 1937. That’s just ten days before it was first announced that he had joined Earhart’s team for the first world flight attempt which departed on March 17, 1937. That endeavor ended on March 20th with the crackup at Luke Field in Hawaii. On March 27th, two days after the world flight team had arrived back in California aboard the Matson liner S.S. Malolo, Fred married Mary Beatrice Martinelli (ne้ Passadori) in Yuma, Arizona.

No contemporaneous source has yet been found to support allegations that Fred Noonan had a drinking problem. Stories abound, but there is no hard evidence. No letter, diary or memorandum has surfaced to explain Fred’s departure from his illustrious career at Pan American, or even pin down the date, which seems to have been sometime in early 1937. On April 4th, Fred and Mary Bea were involved in a head-on collision car accident near Fresno. Fred skinned his hand, Mary Bea was cut on the knee and scalp, and the driver of the other car and the infant with her were “cut and bruised but not seriously hurt” according to the April 5, 1937 Oakland Tribune. Fred was cited for driving in the wrong lane, but there was no mention of alcohol. In his 1966 best-seller, The Search For Amelia Earhart, Fred Goerner alleges that “a notation at the bottom of the ticket said: No injuries. Driver had been drinking.” But there were injuries. Mary Bea, in fact, spent some time in the hospital. Did Goerner see the notation or only hear about it? Does it still exist?

The known events in Fred Noonan’s life in March of 1937 certainly invite speculation. Having recently left a distinguished position with Pan American, he ends a 10 year marriage and signs on with the Earhart world flight. When that enterprise ends in disaster, he remarries in what must have been a spur-of-the-moment wedding. This is not the happy-go-lucky, boozy Irishman of the Earhart myth. There is much more we need to learn about Mr. Noonan.

The Pensacola Ludolph

Yet another avenue of inquiry provides a possible link between Noonan and Nikumaroro. Among the objects found with the bones in 1940 was a sextant box. In a telegram dated 23 September 1940 (see TIGHAR Tracks Vol. 13, Nos. 2&3, “The Tarawa File”) it is described this way:

Sextant box has two numbers on it. 3500 (stencilled) and 1542 – sextant being old fashioned and probably painted with black enamel.

Hoping that the numbers and description might provide a clue to the box’s origin, researchers and sextant experts in the U.S. (Peter Ifland, TIGHAR #2058), Great Britain (David Charlwood, TIGHAR #1978) and Europe (Lou Schoonbrood, TIGHAR #1198) collectively examined something over 500 sextants and boxes in various collections. No luck. Although virtually all sextants came in protective boxes, none of those examined had numbers stencilled or written on them. Military instruments often have a small metal plaque nailed or screwed to the box lid on which numbers are inscribed. Many sextants, both civilian and military, are painted with black enamel. It looked like the sextant box was a dead end.

Sextant boxHelp came from an unexpected quarter. After reading about the sextant box in TIGHAR Tracks, officials at the National Museum of Naval Aviation in Pensacola, Florida contacted us to say that they have in their collection an “old fashioned” sextant, painted in black enamel, and manufactured in 1919 by W. Ludolph GmbH of Bremerhaven, Germany. Some numbers are hand-written on its wooden box. On the bottom is 3547 under which is written 173. On the front face is 116 in a similar style.

Although the numbers are hand-written rather than stencilled, this is the first box we have seen with any numbers at all on the outside, and the 3547 seems to resonate nicely with the 3500 on the Nikumaroro box.

But what is most interesting is the certification which accompanies the instrument:

6 June 1968
TO WHOM IT MAY CONCERN:
I, hereby, certify that the accompanying
Navigation Sextant was the property of Mr. Frederick J Noonan,
who was copilot-navigator on the World flight with Amelia Aerhardt [sic]
when their plane was lost in the Pacific Ocean.
This instrument was borrowed by the under-
signed who at that time was studying navigation under Mr. Noonan
in preparing for service in the Pacific Division of Pan American
Airways, for use in practice praticle [sic] navigation. Identification
marks are not in evidence, however, the undersigned hereby certifies
as to the authenticity of the above remarks.

W. A. Cluthe
Retired Captain, Pan American
World Airways.
Ex. C.A.P. USN, Number 12.
4312 Winding Way,
Mobile, Alabama-36609

Oddly, the numbers on the box bear no apparent relationship to the serial number on the instrument (XIX 1090). Are they, perhaps, part of some kind of inventory system? Are the sextant boxes of Pensacola and Nikumaroro both part of that system? Ludolph sextants were highly prized as among the finest in the world, but this is not an aviation instrument. Why would Noonan, a professional air navigator, have an “old fashioned” nautical sextant? Fred himself provides the answer in a letter to Commander P. V. H. Weems of the Weems School of Navigation. In describing the techniques he used to navigate the 1935 Pan Am China Clipper flight, Noonan says:

Two sextants were carried. A Pioneer bubble octant and a mariner’s sextant. The former was used for all sights; the latter as a preventer.

Did Fred Noonan, the master navigator, perhaps have a collection of fine nautical sextants? If not, how likely is it that he loaned his only sextant – a beautiful Ludolph – to a student and didn’t bother to get it back when he left Pan Am? Could the sextant box found on Nikumaroro in 1940 have been that of Noonan’s “preventer”? And what happened to the sextant itself? Is it still somewhere on Nikumaroro? These are questions which, until a few months ago, we didn’t even know enough to ask. Further research may provide answers and, just as important, more questions.


About TIGHAR Join TIGHAR The TIGHAR Store
TIGHAR Projects TIGHAR Publications Contract Services Field Schools
TIGHAR News Contact TIGHAR TIGHAR Home Site Map