Monday, August 31, 2020

The Forgotten Battle: Captain Fredrick Spaulding and Firebase Ripcord

On July 23, 1970, in the A Shau Valley in South Vietnam as part of the evacuation of Fire Support Base Ripcord, Frederick G. Gilbert, point man for Delta Company of the 506th Infantry Regiment, 101st Airborne Division, found himself rushing through the jungle at breakneck speed on a desperate mission to help rescue the trapped members of Alpha Company. His fellow soldiers were under heavy fire from North Vietnamese Army regulars, a situation he likened to “Custer’s Last Stand.”

As Gilbert moved through the thick jungle, he remembered seeing a Hughes OH-6A scout helicopter flying overhead at treetop level that “would leave and then return, firing from the cockpit, throwing hand grenades and smoke [grenades], all while taking an unbelievable amount of fire from the green tracers of the enemies’ .51 [caliber] heavy machine guns.” The fear Gilbert felt when he had been ordered to “walk point” that day, knowing casualties were high in Alpha Company and that his death was probable, was “replaced with a fearless sense of urgency when I saw that OH-6A keeping the trail open, leading the way to A Co.”

Long after the Vietnam War had ended, Gilbert, a retired career army noncommissioned officer from Odenton, Maryland, finally learned the identity of the person responsible for preventing both Alpha and Delta Companies from being annihilated by the enemy that day—Captain Fredrick L. Spaulding of Indianapolis. Spaulding was a career army veteran with service in two other combat areas, Korea and the Dominican Republic, where he had been the point man across the Duarte Bridge into Santo Domingo for the Eighty-Second Airborne’s first battle since World War II. Spaulding had exposed himself to great personal danger as an officer with the Third Brigade, 101st Division (“Screaming Eagles”) during Ripcord’s evacuation, going so far as to hang outside of the helicopter’s cockpit to drop smoke grenades to mark the enemy’s positions. When his supply of grenades was exhausted, he returned fire with shots from his .45-caliber sidearm against a North Vietnamese .51-caliber antiaircraft machine gun.

Spaulding, in coordinating tactical air support for the men on the ground, had to fly in four different unarmed observation helicopters that day due to damage inflicted by enemy antiaircraft and rocket fire. “Captain Spaulding’s courage, extraordinary heroism and battlefield skills were an inspiration to the entire 3rd Brigade during this last major ground battle of U.S. forces in the Vietnam War,” said Benjamin L. Harrison, his commanding officer during the battle. Harrison considered Spaulding to be “one of the most outstanding combat officers” he had come across during his two tours of duty in Vietnam. Spaulding, however, saved his praise for the bravery of the men who fought a battle largely uncovered by the media at the time and often forgotten. “Most men in a company don’t know the men in another company, but at Ripcord, they put their lives on the line to get the others out,” he recalled.

During his twenty-nine-year career in the U.S. Army, Spaulding commanded rifle companies, headquarters companies, and Special Forces A teams. In doing so, he received some of the nation’s highest honors for military service, including the Distinguished Service Cross, Silver Star, two Distinguished Flying Crosses, three Bronze Stars, and a recommendation for the nation’s highest military award, the Medal of Honor. A member of the army’s Officer Candidate School Hall of Fame and Ranger Hall of Fame, in 2014 he and fifteen other Hoosiers were inducted into the Indiana Military Veterans Hall of Fame, whose objective is to highlight the honor brought to Indiana and nation by the sacrifices made by Indiana military veterans and their families. Quite a distinguished record for a man who, at the age of eighteen in June 1958, had journeyed to the federal building in downtown Indianapolis hoping to serve his country only to be deemed “too small” when he tried to volunteer for the U.S. Marine Corps.

Born on April 9, 1940, Spaulding grew up on Indianapolis’s east side in a house on North Kealing Avenue, one of four brothers whose father, in spite of a severely impaired leg, worked as a printer for the Indianapolis Times and had played in small bands on the vaudeville circuit. It was a hardscrabble existence, but his family “never went hungry,” Spaulding recalled. As a child he attended classes at the Minnie Hartmann School Number 78, where he was under instruction of “some of the finest teachers” he ever met. 

Upon leaving for high school, he recalled that one of his favorite teachers gave him advice he always tried to live by: “Be your truest and best self.” Growing up during World War II, he had memories of collecting scrap metal for the war, growing food in Victory Gardens, and watching Gold Star mothers waving flags as uniformed young men marched off to the train station for war. He also remembered seeing his uncle, Ray Allen, a veteran of the war in the Pacific who had been wounded several times, decked out in his U.S. Marine Corps dress blues. “Boy, did he look sharp in that uniform,” Spaulding said.

While his well-off classmates hung out at such drive-in restaurants as Jack and Jill’s or Al Greens, Spaulding had an after-school job as a mechanic making sure the automatic pinsetters functioned smoothly at Brody’s Lanes on Twenty-First Street and Arlington Avenue. After graduating in 1957 from Thomas Carr Howe High School, Spaulding, perhaps still impressed by his uncle’s service with the marines, decided to enlist with that branch of the service. Unfortunately for him, the marine recruiter had apparently filled his quota for the month, and dismissed him from his office with some harsh words about the skinny, five-foot-six-inch kid (he later grew an additional five inches).

Luckily for Spaulding, he was spotted by a U.S. Army recruiting sergeant, who had just said good-bye to his son, an army Ranger whose uniform sported a Parachutist Badge (“Jump Wings”). Noticing his dejected look, the recruiting sergeant asked Spaulding what was wrong, and the potential recruit explained what had happened with the marines. “He said, ‘How dare he, you look like a fine specimen of manhood to me, step right in here,’” Spaulding remembered him saying. On the walls of the sergeant’s office were posters promoting various army specialties, including the artillery and tanks. Spaulding’s eyes, however, were drawn to a poster emblazoned with the motto “Airborne—Rangers Lead the Way” and showing paratroopers dropping from the sky, with some already on the ground, ready for action with determined looks on their faces and knives jammed into their jump boots. “I thought, ‘Well, I’ll bet that’s just as good if not better than the Marines,’” said Spaulding. Hearing that he wanted to become a Ranger, the sergeant good naturedly noted, after looking at him up and down, “Well now, we have our work cut out for us.”

Entering the service in June 1958, Spaulding received his basic training at Fort Knox, Kentucky, with advanced individual training at Fort Benning, Georgia. He picked the right time to join the army, as the noncommissioned officers who guided him were all hardened veterans of World War II and/or the Korean War. “The way they taught you was exactly how they were taught—to stay alive in combat,” he said. “Pounding it into your head, no nonsense.” Spaulding particularly remembered one NCO who had the habit of whacking his (helmeted) trainees on the head and shouting the advice, “Think, think, think,” along with the adage, “Check, check, and re-check,” because Murphy’s Law (“Anything that can go wrong, will go wrong”) would be sure to rear its ugly head during combat. Once he had passed his initial training, Spaulding said that the NCOs he came across on the platoon, company, battalion, and brigade levels were also determined to have their men in top physical condition; anyone who did not measure up, said Spaulding, was quickly transferred to less-demanding units. “They weren’t mean, but they were hard, they made you a better person—a better soldier,” Spaulding said of the NCOs. “That was their job and they did it very well.”

Conditions were tough for those who wanted to be an Airborne Ranger. When Spaulding attended jump school at Fort Bragg, North Carolina, he had 1,258 members in his class—he was one of only two hundred who successfully graduated. Being a Ranger meant being in a “whole different world,” he said. When his unit was called upon for a mission, it often meant that “practically everybody else in the system has tried it, and they can’t get through, they can’t accomplish it, so they call you.” Spaulding spent nine years as an enlisted man, including service in Vietnam as an adviser with the Forty-Second Army of the Republic of Vietnam Ranger Parachute Battalion for three operations in 1962, and seemed to be well on the way to achieving his goal of being the youngest sergeant major in the U.S. Army. One of his company commanders, however, noticing his dedication to his job, urged him to attend night school so he could earn a degree and go through officer candidate school; he did so, obtaining a degree in just a few months thanks to help from a sympathetic professor who recognized his abilities, helped him obtain credits for his work in previous military schools, and therefore tested him out.

After graduating from OCS in 1967, Spaulding led five rifle companies through combat in the Vietnam War, an assignment he esteemed above all others. “The toughest job in the world is being a rifle company commander in combat, but that’s also the best job in the world,” he said, adding he was responsible for approximately 176 men and more than $2 million worth of equipment, all for monthly pay totaling $550. Spaulding kept extending his tours of duty in Vietnam for a conflict that had sparked growing demonstrations on college campuses and cities across the United States. “There were several of us that . . . considered ourselves professional soldiers and we didn’t exactly like the way the troops were getting the short end of the stick,” he noted. “The majority of them [draftee soldiers] didn’t want to be there anyway. But we figured if we could stay and, in some way, make a difference by keeping these kids alive, then we’ll just keep staying.”

Spaulding saw his main goal as making sure a mission had been accomplished with the least amount of casualties. “It doesn’t get any easier picking up some young fuzzy faced kid who hasn’t learned to shave yet and putting him in a body bag,” he said. Consequently, Spaulding was particularly demanding with the medics under his command, exhorting them, “Try your best not to let anyone die.” While under fire Spaulding always led by example, noting that once his men saw that he was not afraid to “get in there and mix it up,” they would follow him anywhere. He had some close calls, with bullets hitting his canteen and glancing off his helmet on more than one occasion. Once, a ricochet hit him in the chest and knocked him down. Five or six of his men sprang to their feet to check on his condition. “I knew then that this was my company,” he said.

Spaulding needed all the lessons he had learned in combat to survive the last great American offensive operation of the Vietnam War. By 1970 the administration of President Richard Nixon had embarked on a policy of Vietnamization, whereby U.S. combat troop levels would be reduced and Army of the Republic of Vietnam units would be called upon to step up operations against enemy forces. “There are 176 men authorized in a rifle company,” Spaulding noted. “By 1970 we might have had 95 to 100. We were already almost at 50 percent strength. By March, we were operating with roughly 75 to 95 men in a rifle company.”

Those reduced American companies, along with their South Vietnamese allies, were thrown into combat in the A Shau Valley as part of Operation Texas Star, a campaign that had as its goal the destruction of North Vietnamese supply bases scattered throughout the region. A previously abandoned U.S. Marine Corps firebase, Ripcord, was to be rebuilt near the top of a 2,800-foot-high mountain. The remote base ensconced in the thick jungle could only be resupplied by helicopters. About the size of four football fields, the firebase included a battery of six 105-mm howitzers, a battery of six 155-mm howitzers, two 90-mm recoilless rifles, three platoons of 81-mm mortars, a battalion headquarters, a medical aid station, a platoon of engineers, and three helicopter landing pads.

The army operation, which began on March 12, was conducted without the usual watchful eyes of the U.S. media. Colonel Harrison, who commanded the Third Brigade, 101st Division, the last full American division in Vietnam, noted that a lesson had been learned from what had happened at Dong Ap Bia (Hamburger Hill): “taking heavy casualties and providing that unpleasant news, especially at this time of the war wind-down, to the American public, brought down sharp criticism and scrutiny on the already unfortunate unit.” In addition, during the time of Operation Texas Star, the media’s attention had been focused on the invasion of Cambodia. Harrison pointed out that even army combat photographers and reporters were barred from Ripcord. Some enterprising army reporters did sneak aboard a helicopter and flew into the 101st’s area of operation, he said, but they were soon discovered and ordered out. “This was indeed extraordinary censorship in a here-to-fore uncensored war,” Harrison said.

According to Harrison, the area of operation for the men of the 101st was “thick, hot steaming in the day, cold and wet at night, triple canopy, insect filled jungle with an occasional view of backbreaking hills to climb.” From the start of the battle until Ripcord had to be abandoned on July 23, 1970, Spaulding estimated that, if all of the units supporting Ripcord were counted, more than 800 Americans had been killed during the operation, during which they were besieged by approximately 25,000 NVA soldiers. “I don’t know of anyone who came off that hill who wasn’t wounded,” Spaulding recalled, noting that enemy mortar shells fell on the base “like raindrops.” Among those who gave their lives were Wieland Norris, the brother of actor Chuck Norris, and Lieutenant Bob Kalsu, a former football player with the Buffalo Bills, the only active professional athlete who died in the war.

“July was terrible,” remembered Specialist Fourth Class Daniel Thompson, a wireman at Ripcord. The enemy constantly barraged the firebase with mortar and rocket fire. “Day after day, night after night. I was getting shell shocked. I didn’t care if I got out,” said Thompson. “At night you could hear the [enemy] yelling from the jungles all around, ‘GI die tonight! GI die tonight!’ This was our deathbed. We thought we were going to be overrun.” On July 22 Brigadier General Sidney B. Berry, the acting division commander, informed Harrison of his decision to close Ripcord and evacuate American personnel—a decision Berry made based on what he believed “to be a costly, unjustifiable continuation of human casualties for no corresponding military advantage.”

Then a captain, Spaulding coordinated all of the air support covering the withdrawal from Ripcord on a mission that encouraged those still fighting, as one soldier remembered, that they “might actually get off the firebase, alive. And it motivated us to fight all the harder for that eventuality.” On the morning of July 23, Spaulding left Camp Evans, the tactical operations center, for Ripcord, about a twelve-minute flight, flying in an unarmed OH-6A scout helicopter with his pilot. They were on hand to offer support for the retrieval of Alpha Company, which had been engaged in desperate hand-to-hand fighting against the enemy. One of the members of the unit remembered waking up that morning to be confronted by the face of the enemy soldier he had killed the previous day. The scene as he flew toward the firebase seared itself onto Spaulding’s mind. He remembered:


The China Sea is behind us, the sun’s coming up and it’s black out in front of you, but as the sun is coming up it’s hitting the top of the mountains and it was really   beautiful. You’re somewhat in awe when you’re looking at that. At that point, the radios start popping, all the different outfits are calling and telling me they’re on their way. I looked south and it was the most awesome sight you ever saw. It looked like thousands of helicopters with the sun reflecting off the plexiglass. . . . As far as I can see are these helicopters coming, with their radios popping. I thought, ‘My God, what an awesome sight. And, I’m part of it.’ It made you proud to be an American. Everyone in all those choppers, they were all there for the same reason, to get those guys out.

Flying at treetop level, Spaulding’s aircraft was exposed to intense machine-gun, small-arms, and rocket fire, which crippled the helicopter. Spaulding’s pilot managed to maneuver the aircraft back to Camp Evans, where, upon landing, the helicopter’s tail assembly collapsed. Spaulding procured another OH-6A and returned to the fray.

On his second mission Spaulding saw an enemy soldier fire a rocket-propelled grenade at his helicopter, and barely managed to scream out a warning to his pilot, Warrant Officer Steven M. Wandland, who maneuvered so that the rocket only creased the aircraft’s underside, careening off and exploding against a nearby hillside, peppering Wandland with debris. “I was so scared,” Spaulding remembered, “it felt as though somebody had slammed me in the chest with a sledgehammer. I could barely catch my breath. That bird [helicopter] should not have flown—we saw the crease and realized the stabilizer bar was barely hanging on when we shut down on the brigade pad—but we managed to make it back to Camp Evans.”

Once again, Spaulding took to the air, climbing into a third helicopter for a return to Ripcord with Wandland to mark enemy targets, coordinate artillery fire and air support, and direct the movement of American forces. “I expected their LOH [light observation helicopter] to be shot down at any moment,” recalled First Lieutenant Blair Case, observing the action from a command-and-control chopper. “It seems like a miracle that they survived.” Small-arms and machine-gun fire peppered Spaulding’s craft, with each hit moving the helicopter up and down five or six inches. “All the warning lights started flashing, and we lost hydraulics,” he said. “Wandland had to fly sideways all the way back to the brigade pad. He shut it down and we frantically unstrapped our seat belts and unplugged our radio helmets, and ran like hell to get away from the thing in case it exploded.” Instead of exploding, the helicopter wobbled and shook so much that its tail boom separated from the main body.

For a fourth, and final time, Spaulding returned to action, again taking fire from the North Vietnamese. The mission was a success, with Spaulding noting: “We got everyone out. No one was left behind.” Harrison marveled at his officer’s selfless and heroic efforts that day. “Six OH-6A Scout helicopters were destroyed or damaged by enemy fire during the entire four month Battle of Ripcord; four of the six were commanded by Captain Spaulding on that single day, July 23, 1970,” Harrison reported.

With American forces safely evacuated, Spaulding turned his attention to directing fighter aircraft attack runs against the enemy. In addition, B-52 bombers plastered the area. Writing about the battle years later, Harrison, who interviewed NVA officers involved in the battle during a trip to Vietnam, estimated that in the approximately four months of fighting at Ripcord the enemy had, at a minimum, 2,400 soldiers killed in action, as well as several thousand more wounded. Spaulding, who revisited Vietnam with Harrison and had also spoken to NVA staff officers about what had happened in the A Shau Valley, believed that anywhere from 60,000 to 70,000 North Vietnamese soldiers were killed in the bombings after the firebase had been evacuated. Harrison estimated that the heavy losses suffered by the North Vietnamese at Ripcord delayed their army’s offensive operations for a full two years (until the Easter Offensive in 1972). “That is what I call a tactical and strategic victory for the 3rd Brigade, for the 101st Airborne Division and for the US Army!” he wrote.

Spaulding, who retired from the army with the rank of lieutenant colonel in 1987, takes great satisfaction with his belief that the soldiers he served with during his military career “were some of the finest young men this country ever produced.” Although for his service he received five of the six top military honors that could be awarded, he noted that a medal was “just a pretty colored ribbon they give you that fades with age.” The greatest accolade a soldier could receive came from those he served with, and those tributes were worth “ten times more than any medal because from them it is heartfelt and they don’t fade with age.”

In addition, Spaulding is often touched when, at military reunions, he is approached by someone he cannot ever remember meeting, men who will come up to him with their wife and children and want to introduce him to them. “And they introduce you as ‘this is Colonel Spaulding, this is the guy that got us out,’” he said. “Makes you feel 10-feet tall.”


Thursday, July 30, 2020

Investigating Hoffa: John Bartlow Martin and the Teamsters

Following Adlai Stevenson’s second loss running as the Democratic Party’s presidential candidate in 1956, one of his main speechwriters, John Bartlow Martin, who had also worked for Stevenson in his 1952 campaign, returned to his career writing thoughtful, longform articles for national magazines.

A series Martin did for the Saturday Evening Post on a government investigation of one of the country’s largest and most powerful unions—the International Brotherhood of Teamsters, Chauffeurs, Warehousemen and Helpers of America, more commonly known as the Teamsters—put him in the middle of a titanic battle between two men: a determined (some said ruthless) investigator, Robert F. Kennedy, and a rough-and-tumble union man, James R. Hoffa.

Journalists had been investigating rumors that Teamster officials had been enriching themselves at the expense of their members, and gangsters, salivating over the union’s large pension fund ($250 million), had made inroads into its operations. During the 1956 California presidential primary, when Martin had found himself “swamped with too many speeches to write” for Stevenson, Pierre Salinger, a former newspaper reporter for the San Francisco Chronicle and then the West Coast correspondent for Collier’s magazine, offered his help.

According to Martin, Salinger produced a few speech drafts, from which he used little, but one day Salinger brought to Martin’s hotel room in San Francisco a Collier’s editor, who asked Martin to research and write an article on the Teamsters (the union was not then under investigation). “I told him I couldn’t undertake it till after the election; he said he couldn’t wait; I suggested he get Pierre Salinger to do it, and he did,” Martin recalled.

Salinger jumped at the chance to write about such a powerful organization. As one Teamster official told him, discussing the union’s firm grip on the country, “When a woman takes a cab to the hospital to have a baby, the cab is driven by a Teamster. When the baby grows old and dies, the hearse is driven by a Teamster. And in between we supply him with a lot of groceries.”

Unfortunately for Salinger, just when he finished his article, Collier’s went out of business. He had two job opportunities waiting for him—one as public relations director for the Teamsters, and the other as an investigator with a U.S. Senate subcommittee created on January 31, 1957, the Select Committee on Improper Activities in the Labor or ManagementField, which came to be widely known as the Rackets Committee. In addition to the Teamsters, the committee investigated other unions as well as the growing influence of the Mafia and the Chicago Syndicate.

Salinger went to work in February 1957 for the committee, chaired by conservative Democratic senator John L. McClellan of Arkansas, and shared what he had learned about the Teamsters with its chief counsel, Robert F. Kennedy, the younger brother of John Kennedy. Another journalist, Clark R. Mollenhoff, a Pulitzer Prize–winning reporter for the Des Moines Register, had for months been badgering Kennedy to probe the Teamsters possible illegal activities.

Martin had first become acquainted with Robert Kennedy during Stevenson’s 1956 presidential campaign, which Kennedy had joined to learn how to run such an organization in anticipation of his brother seeking the Democratic nomination for president in 1960. “He told me later he had learned how not to run one,” Martin noted. Robert Kennedy described the Stevenson effort to a friend over drinks as a disaster and told Martin he had never seen such a poorly run operation. “He should have seen 1952,” said Martin.

The two men’s paths crossed again when Martin received word from his editors at the Post that the magazine was interested in a series of articles on the Rackets Committee’s more than two-year-long investigation of the Teamsters and its top officials, including Dave Beck (convicted of federal tax evasion charges in 1959) and James R. Hoffa (convicted of bribing a grand juror in 1964, he disappeared from view in 1975, never to be seen alive again). When the committee held public hearings, newspapers had published “scrappy reports,” said Martin, but, as Rose pointed out, nobody had yet been able to “put the whole story together,” and he suggested Martin take on the task.

The resulting seven-part series, published in the Post from June 27 to August 8, 1959, was Martin’s longest yet, taking him nearly a year to put together, and setting a mileage record for his legwork, as he traveled 17,000 miles around the country. In conducting his research, Martin filled twenty 150-page notebooks and wrote a first draft that ran 1,500 pages and 336,000 words; his final manuscript totaled 40,000 words.

Martin had unearthed a remarkable study in power—the vast economic power wielded by the Teamsters, with its more than 1.5 million members the largest labor union in the world, versus the great political power wielded by the U.S. Senate. The resulting investigation stood as one of the largest by a government entity since the days of the Teapot Dome scandal of the President Warren G. Harding administration of the 1920s and the banking and security fraud inquiries of the 1930s. “They exposed wrongdoings in big business; the McClellan committee alone has gone after big labor,” said Martin.

The Rackets Committee’s work (1,366 witnesses questioned produced a printed record of testimony that ran to 20,000 pages) sent shockwaves through both political parties, as well as the labor movement in America, and raised essential questions still being argued about today—the use of and abuse of the Fifth Amendment, the authority of Congress to investigate, the rights of individual workingmen in a labor union, and the rights of an individual testifying before Congress.

The investigation also pitted the titanic personalities of two men, Robert Kennedy and Hoffa, who became “bitter antagonists,” noted Martin. Hoffa viewed Kennedy as a rich, “spoiled jerk,” while Kennedy’s determination to uncover the labor leader’s criminal activity became “a holy crusade” to him, one of his friends confided to Martin. Kennedy himself said the way Hoffa operated the Teamsters meant it no longer served as a bona fide union: “As Mr. Hoffa operates it, this is a conspiracy of evil.”

To report on the investigation, Martin traveled to Washington, D.C., staying there off and on for more than half a year and becoming a familiar presence at the Rackets Committee’s offices in Room 101 at the Old Senate Office Building. For his story he spent more time with Kennedy than with anyone else, sometimes visiting with him all day in his private office and going with him at day’s end to his home, Hickory Hill, in McLean, Virginia, for dinner—often a hair-raising ride, as Kennedy, recalled Martin, “loved to drive his big convertible fast from office to home, his hair flying.”

On weekends at Hickory Hill Martin played, “not very well,” he admitted, the traditional Kennedy family sport of touch football (at that time Kennedy and his wife, Ethel, had six children), swam with Kennedy in his pool, and accompanied him as he made trips around the country pursuing leads from whistleblowers in the union. “I liked Bobby Kennedy from the start,” said Martin. “Though born to wealth and power, he had about him not a trace of superiority or affectation.” 

Although dedicated to his work—Martin said he “seemed almost obsessed”—Kennedy infused his office with a youthful, lighthearted atmosphere. Martin remembered coming into Kennedy’s office and seeing him and Kenneth O’Donnell, his administrative assistant, passing a football back and forth as they discussed the investigation (the two men were on the football team together at Harvard University). “He moved fast, handling his body well, like an athlete,” Martin said of Kennedy. “He ran upstairs and downstairs. He scheduled himself remorselessly, and he drove his staff just as hard.”

Driving Kennedy’s determination was the worry in the back of his mind that if the investigation proved to be a flop, it might have a negative effect on his brother’s political future, both his reelection to the U.S. Senate in 1958 and his try for the Democratic presidential nomination in 1960. “A lot of people think he’s the Kennedy running the investigation,” Robert said of John, one of the four Democratic senators who served on the Rackets Committee. “As far as the public is concerned, one Kennedy is the same as another Kennedy.”

When Robert Kennedy’s work took him to the Chicago area, he and some of his investigators sometimes stayed with Martin at his home in Highland Park, including one trip when Kennedy and his men were in the area to dig up a body in a cornfield near Joliet, Illinois. Walter Sheridan, whom Martin considered to be one of Kennedy’s best investigators, later indicated that Kennedy and his staff had been looking for the body of a woman reporter from Joliet allegedly killed for daring to expose labor racketeering in the city. They had been tipped off by a convict in the prison there who said he knew where the body had been buried; it turned out to be a bogus tip, but Kennedy and those with him turned over a lot of earth in a farmer’s field before realizing “the prisoner was just stringing them along,” Sheridan said. “They did a lot of digging.”)

As Martin got deeper and deeper into his story, he discovered that there seemed to be two different Robert Kennedys (a theme picked up on by many other journalists during Kennedy’s subsequent career). There was the person few in the public saw—the family man who went home to Hickory Hill and loved having his children swarm over him when he opened the front door. Those who watched the Rackets Committee’s hearing on national television, however, only witnessed the relentless prosecutor, hectoring hostile witnesses who dodged his questions on Fifth Amendment grounds, earning for Kennedy a reputation for ruthlessness that dogged him until the end of his life. 

Instead of seeing a coldblooded individual, however, Martin thought of Kennedy as “hard driving, tenacious, aggressive, [and] competitive”—a person who said his long and eventually unsuccessful campaign with the Rackets Committee to put Hoffa behind bars was “a little like 1864, when [General Ulysses S.] Grant took over the Union Army to go back into the wilderness—to go back slugging it out.” Unlike some of his friends who were concerned about possible infringements of civil liberties, Martin did not believe Kennedy persecuted Hoffa or denied him his constitutional rights. “As a crime reporter, I had seen far worse prosecutions,” said Martin. “Indeed, I thought he treated Hoffa fairly, on the whole.”

What Martin could not understand was Kennedy’s conviction that the labor leader represented America’s biggest problem—a notion that sounded odd to someone who had only recently been involved in a presidential campaign concerned with helping reign in the worldwide threat of nuclear destruction. Kennedy believed that if someone did not do something about Hoffa’s damaging influence on the Teamsters, gangsters would soon have a stranglehold on the country’s economy. 

During the investigation Kennedy had also grown to admire the rank-and-file members of the Teamsters, and he believed that Hoffa had engaged in sweetheart contracts with employers, receiving kickbacks in return and denying workers their fair due. Kennedy also possessed, like some politicians Martin had known, an almost mystical faith in the democratic system—a faith readers of the Post likely shared. “Like them [other politicians],” noted Martin, “he links it with the righteousness of his own cause. He feels that, although Hoffa may win a battle, he can never win the war, because justice and right will prevail, owing to the excellence of this democratic system and the good sense and decency of the American people.”

Martin held a much harsher opinion of the investigators who worked for Kennedy. Most of them were in their late twenties and early thirties and had previously worked as newspapermen, FBI agents, or policemen. Kennedy had, at the inquiry’s peak, forty-two investigators on his staff, aided by forty men from the government’s General Accounting Office. “These men,” Martin noted in his articles for the Post, “condemn wrongdoing unequivocally. For many of them the crusade against Hoffa is their first cause, important as first love. There is something a little chilling about their moral certitude and zeal.” They lacked, Martin later reflected, the tolerance for human weakness he had seen in the work of big-city detectives he had known.

The investigators’ ardor for justice did translate into meticulous evidence gathering. Kennedy told Martin that for every witness called to testify before the committee, twenty-five people had been interviewed and they examined tens of thousands of documents for every one placed into the record. During one inquiry, Salinger and two other investigators went through more than 600,000 checks from one company alone. Sheridan noted that as long as those on staff did their work to the best of their abilities, they could always count on the leader’s support—something he had not had in his previous job. “The big difference—it was just a phenomenal difference to me—of going from the FBI to work for Robert Kennedy was that with the FBI you knew that J. Edgar Hoover would never back you up,” said Sheridan, “and with Robert Kennedy you knew that he would. It was all the difference in the world.”

Kennedy’s cooperation with Martin was part of the chief counsel’s ongoing effort to cultivate good relations with the press, especially with columnists and magazine writers. Edwin O. Guthman, a reporter with the Seattle Times who later became Kennedy’s press secretary at the Justice Department, said that in his journalism career he had never encountered someone in public life who had answered his questions “as candidly and completely as he [Kennedy] did,” and he often briefed reporters in considerable detail about the evidence to be presented at a committee hearing. Kennedy developed “special relationships” with certain reporters, noted Guthman during the investigation of Beck, and these writers always had access to him and received tips on stories and verification of information when needed.

As a reporter, Martin said it made him “a little nervous” to see journalists who had completed independent investigations on the Teamsters, such as Mollenhoff, exchanging information with Kennedy about what they had uncovered. In a draft for his Post series Martin had included a passage, cut from the published piece, pointing out that some newspapermen had become so close to the investigation that they attended committee staff parties almost like members of the staff themselves and some shared their “zeal for getting Jimmy Hoffa.” As a representative of the Post, one of the country’s leading magazines, Martin said he could count on Kennedy’s full cooperation, as he “was anxious that the Post story come out well; it was the first full-dress account that tried to pull the whole investigation together.”

To gain a broader perspective on the Teamsters investigation, Martin also talked to some of the senators serving on the Rackets Committee, including McClellan and the leading Republican member of the panel, Barry M. Goldwater of Arizona, who he found to be “an amusing, engaging man.” Martin found himself spending a lot of his time with John Kennedy, seeing him alone in his Senate office, having breakfast with him at a New York hotel, and eating dinner with him and his wife, Jacqueline, in Washington, D.C. When they were alone together, Martin remembered that he and the Massachusetts senator “talked politics almost entirely.” Kennedy had been gearing up to run for president in 1960 and the primaries were about to begin in little more than a year. Although winning primary races did not translate into a clear path to the nomination, they were important to Kennedy as a way of showing to party leaders skeptical of his youth and religion, as well as grassroot Democrats, that he could win support from a broad spectrum of voters.

Knowing of Martin’s experience in Stevenson’s two presidential efforts, Kennedy picked his brain on what kind of campaign staff he might need, his opinion on various issues, and how to connect with the academic world when it came to developing policy ideas and position papers. “Jack Kennedy struck me as an extremely attractive and extremely intelligent young man,” Martin said. “He presented a lighthearted funny exterior, sometimes almost frivolous, but inwardly he was deadly serious and he had an astonishing fund of information about all manner of subjects, such as France’s problems in Algeria and the number of Nigerian exchange students in the United States.” He also seemed, unlike Stevenson, to “welcome challenges, not be burdened by them,” Martin noted. Many people Martin ran into that spring and summer in Washington, D.C., including some former Stevenson supporters, had begun to proselytize on Kennedy’s behalf. Martin still had his doubts about Kennedy, as he was unsure if he was presidential material, noting, “He was so young.”

For the other part of his story for the Post, Martin had to somehow convince a suspicious and hostile Hoffa to talk with him. It would not be the first time in his journalism career that Martin had come up against a recalcitrant Teamsters official. During his time as a young reporter with the Indianapolis Times, Martin had covered a truck strike and attempted to interview Daniel J. Tobin, then the Teamsters president, at the union’s headquarters at 222 East Michigan Street in Indianapolis (the union moved its headquarters to Washington, D.C., in 1953). Martin remembered that Tobin’s office had a door that “was locked and steel-barred, like a prison cell.” He had to stand in the corridor and shout his questions at the union leader, who yelled his answers back to Martin, usually responding with such curt statements as, “No,” “No comment,” or, simply, “Go to hell.” No reporter, Martin ruefully noted, had ever “got much out of the Teamsters.”

With this experience behind him, Martin decided to use the prestige of his status as a reporter with the Post, and the possibility of finally telling his side of the story in an unbiased manner to the American people, to convince Hoffa to open up to him about his life and work. He adopted the stratagem of calling Hoffa not from his home, but from the Post’s Chicago advertising office, having the switchboard operator place the call, and leaving the Post’s telephone number for Hoffa to call back. “Moreover,” said Martin, “this kept my home telephone number, and hence my address, out of Teamsters headquarters, which seemed only prudent in view of the reputation of Hoffa’s associates.” The strategy worked; after a week of telephone calls, Hoffa finally called Martin back and agreed to an interview at Teamsters headquarters in Washington, D.C.

Ushered into Hoffa’s plush office, Martin spent two hours interviewing the Teamsters president, mindful that their talk was probably being recorded. He was able to convince Hoffa that he wanted to hear his point of view on the union controversy, and Hoffa agreed to tell other union officials to talk to Martin and allowed the reporter to follow him as he did his job, including negotiating contracts with Midwest truckers in Chicago and accompanying him on a flight from Chicago to Miami for the Teamsters’ annual meeting. Martin, who refused to accept an airline ticket bought for him by Hoffa (Martin had anticipated such a move and had bought his own), sat by him for the entire flight, and the two men talked all night with few interruptions, except for one by a stewardess who recognized Hoffa, “which secretly pleased him,” noted Martin.

Instead of asking questions about the investigation, which he knew Hoffa would either be unresponsive about or refuse to answer, Martin concentrated on details about the union leader’s life and his views about the U.S. labor movement. “I liked him,” he said of Hoffa, perhaps because the two men viewed themselves as fighting for the underdog. At one point in his life Hoffa had been arrested eighteen times in one day for his union activities, but he persevered to become president of Teamsters Local 299 in Detroit. The local served as his power base as he clawed his way to the union presidency using, along the way, often brutal tactics and counting on allies who had no qualms about using force to get their way. “I’m no damn angel,” Hoffa said.

As Martin insightfully pointed out in his Post series, the image of Hoffa as “the cocky little underdog battling the United States Government is not false; it is his natural role.” In fact, he went on to write, if Robert Kennedy of the Rackets Committee had not existed, Hoffa “would have had to invent him.” A man without hobbies who neither smoked nor drank, Hoffa, a devoted family man, concentrated all his efforts on behalf of the Teamsters, working to gain its members better working conditions and more money. “Running a union is just like running a business,” Hoffa told Martin. “We’re in the business of selling labor. We’re going to get the best price we can.”

In evaluating the Rackets Committee’s investigation of the Teamsters, Martin reported that it produced a demand for reform legislation to stem in part the influence of racketeers in the labor movement, and he also had an overall good opinion of the work done by Robert Kennedy and his staff. “There was remarkably little politics in the committee’s work,” Martin wrote. “McClellan stood firm against pressure and made no mistakes. Indeed, had all congressional committees conducted themselves so well, congressional committees would have received less criticism in recent years.” But the federal investigators had failed in one task—Hoffa remained Teamsters president and had been acquitted in the two criminal trials resulting from the committee’s work.

In his time with both Kennedy and Hoffa, Martin also discovered that the two fearsome antagonists shared similar qualities, as they were both “aggressive, competitive, hard-driving, authoritarian, suspicious, temperate, at times congenial and at others curt.” They were also physical men who sought to keep in shape, often by doing push-ups, and in spite of their wealth and power “eschewed frivolity or indulgence and both seemed oblivious of their surroundings. Both were serious men and, in their own ways, dedicated,” Martin later observed. As for their opinions on the long investigation, Martin wrote that Hoffa shrugged off the committee’s relentless focus on his union, saying, “You just put in your time. And when they get tired of kicking us around they’ll adjourn and forget about it.” Kennedy admitted to the writer, “It’s been a real struggle.”

When he had finished his story, Martin offered to show his manuscript to both Hoffa and Kennedy so they could correct any factual errors, but not his interpretations of events. Although Hoffa turned down Martin’s offer, Kennedy spent the better part of a day and well into the night going over the manuscript point by point with Martin at the writer’s hotel room in New York. It proved to be “not an easy negotiation,” said Martin, as Kennedy was as tenacious with the reporter as he had been with reluctant witnesses appearing before the Rackets Committee. “What bothered him the most about the MS [manuscript], I think, were the similarities I noted in the piece between him and Hoffa,” said Martin. “He was amazed and simply could not understand; it had never occurred to him; he had thought of himself as good and Hoffa as evil; I was looking at them from a different angle.”

Once during their discussion Kennedy asked Martin why he had not included statements that could be damaging to Hoffa. “I asked if he could prove them by sworn testimony,” Martin noted. “He said he could not but he knew they were true, he couldn’t understand why I wouldn’t put them in.” The reason Martin was so cautious of course was because of the possibility of a damaging libel action against the Post by Hoffa and the Teamsters. As a lawyer himself, Kennedy should have known this, but Martin put this misunderstanding down to the chief counsel’s youth.

The sometimes contentious back and forth between Kennedy and Martin on the Hoffa story did not diminish Martin’s respect for the investigator, or Kennedy’s esteem for the reporter. Years later, Martin reflected that no matter how much Kennedy viewed Hoffa “as evil and himself as good, he never once objected to my attempts at impartiality. Nor did he ever let those attempts impair our own personal relationship.”

Friday, July 24, 2020

Landing Amelia: Amelia Earhart at Purdue University

In his more than twenty years as Purdue University’s president, Doctor Edward Charles Elliott made many changes to the West Lafayette campus, making it one of the country’s leading technical and engineering institutions. As the university’s leader, Elliott operated under what he called “a doctrine of chance.” He noted that “chance meetings, unexpected conversations, all play a more important part of an individual’s life than do most planned and carefully executed experiences.”
One of the “chance meetings” Elliott described resulted in a major coup for Purdue when, in June 1935, the president announced the appointment of a visiting faculty member as a career counselor for the university’s female students. The new addition to the staff had already achieved worldwide fame but passed into legend following her stint at the Hoosier school. Purdue had landed Amelia Earhart.
Although Earhart, dubbed “Lady Lindy” for both her resemblance to Charles Lindbergh and her accomplishments both as a flier in the 1920s and 1930s, spent only a short time at Purdue, both she and the university benefited from the relationship. Along with the mountains of publicity garnered from her presence on the faculty, Purdue also became the beneficiary of Earhart’s person-to-person talents as she encouraged female students to embark on careers normally reserved for men.
In Earhart’s case, her husband, George P. Putnam, convinced Elliott and the university to help fund a “flying laboratory” for his wife’s use. Through the Purdue University Research Foundation, and donations from Hoosier businessmen David Ross, J. K. Lilly Sr., and others, the university established in April 1936 an Amelia Earhart Fund for Aeronautical Research that aided the aviatrix in purchasing the twin-motored Lockheed Electra airplane Earhart used on her ill-fated “Round-the-World” flight, from which she vanished in July 1937.
Already famous for her daring aerial exploits, including being the first woman passenger on a transatlantic flight and the first woman to fly solo across the Atlantic Ocean, Earhart and Purdue’s paths first crossed in September 1934 when she addressed the fourth annual “Women and the Changing World” conference sponsored by the New York Herald Tribune. Present at the conference to speak about “New Frontiers for Youth,” Elliott stayed to hear Earhart’s remarks on aviation’s future and the role women might play in its advancement.
Intrigued by the flier’s speech, Elliott arranged a meeting with Earhart and Putnam. A born promoter and a person who regularly hobnobbed with America’s elite, Putnam was immediately impressed with Elliott’s style. “He is a lean, powerful man who combines the brisk attributes of a dynamo with the important qualities of scholarship and human vision. He has a habit of referring to himself with humorous depreciation, as just a Hoosier schoolmaster, but not gentleman from Indiana ever knew his way about more competently than he,” said Putnam.
After the trio dined at the Coffee House Club in New York, Elliott came straight to the point. According to Putnam’s version of the meeting, Elliott told Earhart: “We want you at Purdue.” Earhart expressed little surprise at the offer, merely replying, “I’d like that if it can be arranged. What would you think I should do?” The university president replied that he envisioned Earhart’s role as passing along to Purdue’s approximately eight hundred female students “the inspirational opportunities” open to them in America’s changing society. “I think you could supply some spark which would help to take up the lag between the swift eddying of the world around modern women and the tardier echoes of the schoolroom,” Elliott remarked to Earhart.
With the offer made the three spent the next two hours developing the idea into a workable plan. With her busy schedule, Earhart could not be a full-time faculty member at Purdue but would attempt to spend at least a month at the university during the school year as a career consultant for women. For her efforts she received from Purdue a $2,000 salary. Along with guiding women students toward new careers she also served as a technical adviser in aeronautics to Purdue, which was, at that time, the only university in the country equipped with its own airport.
To Earhart, however, the “problems and opportunities of these girls [at Purdue] were quite as much my concern as aviation matters” when she agreed to take the job. Writing about her time at the university in her posthumously published book Last Flight, Earhart admitted that she had “something of a chip on my shoulder when it comes to modern feminine education.” She noted that women, especially those whose tastes are outside the normal routine, often did not get a fair chance to develop their talents. “I have known girls who should be tinkering with mechanical things instead of making dresses, and boys who would do better at cooking than engineering.” Purdue, which she called “my kind of school, a technical school where all instruction has practicality,” offered her a chance to test those beliefs.
In announcing Earhart’s appointment on June 2, 1935, Elliott termed her acceptance as “gratifying to the university and significant to education.” Emphasizing the flier’s interest in educating women for the future, he added that Earhart represented “better than any young woman of this generation the spirit and the courageous skill of what may be called the new pioneering. At no other point in our educational system is there greater need for courageous pioneering and constructive planning than woman’s education.” Earhart, the Purdue scholar believed, as what he called “a creative artist in the great art of human adventure,” could help the university successfully attack the “most important modern unsolved problem of higher education—the effective education of young women.”
Earhart, fresh from a lecture tour that saw her give twenty-nine speeches in one month, arrived on Purdue’s West Lafayette campus to assume her duties on November 6, 1935. The Lafayette Journal and Courier heralded the famous flier’s arrival in Indiana with a page-one headlines declaring “Amelia Earhart Leaves Air to Guide Purdue Girls in Careers.” With Earhart scheduled to be at the university only three weeks, the newspaper noted that she would “have little opportunity for leisure during her sojourn on the campus.”
The reporter’s prediction quickly came to pass. In her first few days at Purdue, Earhart attended a luncheon for the home economics department, served as guest of honor at a Mortar Board luncheon, met the student body at an afternoon tea in the Memorial Union building, and spoke at a special convocation at the Memorial gymnasium.
Given workspace in the dean of women’s office and living in South Hall, Earhart became a familiar sight on campus. Students flocked to the flier’s side, especially at dinnertime, and tried not only to imitate her style of dress (which was casual, to say the least), but her mannerisms as well. “These were the days when table manners were considered somewhat important,” noted Helen Schleman, in charge of the dormitory where Earhart stayed. “Amelia’s posture at table, when she was deep in conversation, was apt to be sitting forward on the edge of her chair—both elbows on the table—and chin cupped in hands. Naturally, the question was ‘If Miss Earhart can do it why can’t we?’ The stock reply was ‘As soon as you fly the Atlantic, you may!’”
Earhart managed to fit in well with dormitory life at Purdue. Marian Frazier, who lived in the same dorm as the flier, remembered that it seemed as though Earhart was always “terribly busy,” noting that she heard Earhart working away at her typewriter as late as midnight. Frazier also recalled studying one night when Earhart suddenly appeared and asked to borrow a pen for a short time. The excited Frazier could not keep the news to herself so, when her celebrity neighbor returned the borrowed pen, she was greeted by a roomful of coeds, all wanting to catch a glimpse of the celebrated pilot.
The flyer’s casual style and dress (slacks instead of skirts) became the envy of Purdue’s coeds and raised others’ eyebrows. Robert Topping, in his history of the university, reported that some faculty wives—the “local guardians of mores and morals in the conservative 1930s atmosphere of West Lafayette”—were scandalized by one incident when Earhart, dressed in her usual slacks, went into town one afternoon and visited Bartlett’s Drug Store. Not only did Earhart have the temerity to wear improper clothing, she further shocked the wives by sitting (unescorted by a man) at a stool, ordering a soda and smoking a cigarette. “Such hussy behavior was barely tolerable in a conservative campus town,” Topping wrote.
Along with facing the faculty wives’ wrath, Earhart also had to endure questions from some faculty members about whether she was qualified for her job. A. A. Potter, Purdue’s dean of engineering, said that he did not think Earhart belonged at the university because she lacked the proper education (although she had enrolled at Columbia University as a premed student, she never graduated). Acknowledging Earhart’s courage, Potter nevertheless told a reporter that the flier “had too poor an educational foundation to utilize her courage and that was her disadvantage.” Another faculty member, a woman, had an answer ready for Potter: “The dean is a scholar and he doesn’t understand that you have to motivate kids before you can get them to be scholars.”
Despite these challenges, Earhart stuck to her main task—counseling Purdue’s women students about potential careers. Toward that end, she prepared a questionnaire seeking answers from them about such issues as why they were in college, if they wanted a career, how marriage might affect their choices, and what part a husband might play in their life. Of those responding to the questionnaire, Earhart found that approximately 92 percent indicated that they wanted a career. According to Putnam, his wife wanted to find out about the student’s after-college plans to help university officials in reconstructing courses so that they might be more beneficial. “She thought too that such exploration might help the students themselves to clarify their own thinking, to agree with themselves on a general objective, perhaps even a specific one,” Putnam noted.
Earhart discussed with Purdue administrators the possibility of creating a “household engineering” course for those women who wanted to remain homemakers. “Many a stay-at-home girl,” said Earhart, “would welcome practical training in what to do when the doorbell fails to function, the plumbing clogs . . . and the thousand-and-one other mechanical indispositions that can occur about the house, often easily enough fixed if one has rudimentary knowledge how to fix them.” Disliking discrimination between men’s work and women’s work, she also pointed out the need for male students to gather some experience in homemaking, noting that most men “enter into marriage with little training in domestic economy, know little about food and how it should be prepared, little about child training and their duties as parents. What, I wonder, is going to be done about all that.”
In her personal dealings with student, Earhart, using her own experiences as a trendsetter, painted no rosy picture of instant acceptance for women entering new careers. Marguerite Coll, who studied electrical engineering at Purdue, recalled Earhart clearly explaining to her and two other female students “what some of the obstacles are in the way of women who want to go into what’s always been known as a man’s field. She was encouraging though. She didn’t see why, if a woman had special talents along that line, she couldn’t gout and show ’em!” 
That kind of advice worried some people. According to Putnam, one Purdue professor declared that if Earhart kept on encouraging the university’s coeds to pursue careers they “won’t be willing to get married and lead the quiet life for which Nature intended them.” In one regard the male professor might have been right. As an unidentified female student proclaimed after Earhart’s stay at the university had ended: “No one every pepped us up so.”
Talking with students, Earhart developed what she called “surface impressions” about the university that she shared with the school’s administrators. She noted that there appeared to exist at Purdue rigid boundary lines between different disciplines. “It seems to me there should be much more interchange of instructors and subjects between these, which would lead to the education of people rather than to the selected specimens numbered and tagged Home Ec[onomics] or EE [Electrical Engineering] or what-not,” said Earhart. She added that lowering the walls between schools might help eliminate the “condescending attitude” on the part of male students toward their female counterparts. “Today,” said Earhart, “it is almost as if the subjects themselves had sex so firm is the line drawn between what girls and boys should study.”
Although she only spent a short time at the university, Earhart’s ties to Purdue played a key role in securing for her the money and equipment necessary for attempting what became her final flight. On April 19, 1936, the university announced the establishment of the Amelia Earhart Fund for Aeronautical Research, made possible by the Purdue Research Foundation. With contributions totaling $50,000 from such philanthropists as J. K. Lilly Sr. and David Ross, and later donations of cash and equipment from such companies as Western Electric, Goodyear, and Goodrich, Earhart purchased a “flying laboratory”—a twin-motored, ten-passenger Lockheed Electra aircraft. The plane, built in Burbank, California, included such special features as extra gasoline tanks for extended flight, an automatic pilot, and a two-way radio.
The announcement received nationwide attention, as newspapers from New York to Los Angeles trumpeted Earhart’s “flying laboratory” to their readers. Noting that “aviation is a business to me and my ambition is that the project shall provide practical results,” Earhart first planned to use the plane for a year to gather research material on such areas as speed and fuel consumption, oxygen use, radio communication and navigation, and the effect of prolonged flight on humans. After completing her research, Earhart then hoped to make an “interesting” flight in the all-metal Electra. “But circumstances,” she noted, “made it appear wise to postpone the research and attempt the flight first.”
The flight Earhart so offhandedly mentioned turned into a monumental undertaking—an attempt to become the first woman to fly around the world. Once that feat had been accomplished, the plane would become the Purdue Research Foundation’s property. Royalties from a book Earhart expected to write about the experience and moneys from exhibiting the aircraft were to have been used by the foundation to further pure and applied scientific research in aeronautics. As preparations for the flight were being made, Earhart was asked time and time again why she had decided to attempt the flight. Her answer came right to the point: “Because I want to.” She called the trip a “shining adventure, beckoning with new experiences, added knowledge of flying, of peoples—of myself.” Also, Earhart noted that with the flight behind her, she would become more useful to herself and to the aeronautical program at Purdue. 
On June 1, 1937, Earhart and her navigator, Fred Noonan, took off from Miami, Florida, in the Electra on the first leg of a planned around-the-world flight. The trip proceeded smoothly until the difficult 2,570-mile flight from Lae, New Guinea, to Howland Island. The two never reached their destination. In spite of a massive search, no trace could then be found of the plane and its crew. On the day she disappeared Earhart had been scheduled to deliver a lecture at Purdue on the subject, “What Next in the Air?” Two weeks after Earhart disappeared, Elliott telegraphed Putnam the following message: “George, she would not want us to grieve or weep; she would have been a heroine in any age.”
Although Purdue’s investment had crashed somewhere in the Pacific Ocean, the university received tangible benefits from its association with Earhart, including nationwide publicity. Also, Purdue’s female students had a unique opportunity to interact with a person who typified women’s changing role in modern society. As for Earhart, her time at the Hoosier university offered her a chance to test both her skills as a pilot and educator. Looking back at that short period in his wife’s career, Putnam said that Earhart’s job at Purdue provided her with “one of the most satisfying adventures of her life.”