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
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
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
|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
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
|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.
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
“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
Ex. C.A.P. USN, Number 12.
4312 Winding Way,
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,