Volumes to Tell
When 9-year-old Richard "Dick" Freeman (BSAE '50, MSIM '54) met Amelia Earhart on the Purdue campus in the 1930s, he was already passionate about flight. "When she said something about my having pretty blues eyes," he recalls, "I said, 'Yes, and I'm interested in airplanes,' and she replied, 'I encourage you to continue.'"
His father, Verne Freeman, a Purdue agriculture faculty member and associate dean, had taken his son to campus that day. "I was stoked," the younger Freeman says. Around the same time, the boy took his first plane ride, circling Lafayette and West Lafayette. "I remember saying, 'I'm really in the air.'"
From Young Dreams to Purdue Degree
His interest in aviation never waned, fueling his education, career, pastimes, and even documentary film. All the while, he remembered that day in the Armory when the aviator, who had been a visiting women's counselor at Purdue, stood on a wooden platform to speak. Her twin-engine Electra, funded by $40,000 from the Purdue Research Foundation, was at the Purdue Airport.
Nearly 40 years passed before he decided to learn more about her and her 1937 disappearance. That was prompted by a chance encounter on a trip to the Marshall Islands. The oft-repeated speculation that she crashed in to the Pacific Ocean and died in its depths is not what happened, Freeman believes. Earhart landed on a different island than intended in her first round-the-world flight, he says, and she lived until April 2002.
Freeman's own venture in aviation began as a Purdue undergraduate in air transportation, which included learning to fly. He also earned a degree in naval science and tactics and a master's in industrial management, all as a Boilermaker.
Industrial Executive, Missile Designer
After fulfilling military duties on a stint in Korea, he spent 20 years in industry—five at General Motors in Ohio, then four at Romeo Wooldridge, a division of TRW, in Denver.
In 1962, he accepted a post to manage the missile programs at Hughes Aircraft Company in Los Angeles, where he was involved in designing the Maverick, an air-to-ground tactical missile still in use today. "Hughes is where I really used what I learned at Purdue—flight control and stability of missiles, primarily air-to-surface," Freeman says.
After six years, he moved on to E-Systems Inc. in Dallas for four years, then Rockwell International in Los Angeles from 1972 to 1974. That year, he founded his own company, International Pacific. For the past three decades, he has provided engineering consulting services on electronics products and some aerospace applications from his base in Corona del Mar, California.
Freeman has twice been recognized by Purdue for his career achievements, in 1973 as a Distinguished Engineering Alumnus and in 1999 receiving the Outstanding Aerospace Engineering Award, along with Neil Armstrong and others.
Long Interested in Old Planes
Throughout his life, Freeman maintained his passion for aviation. He even contemplated buying old aircraft, visiting the Marshall Islands looking for them, and once coming close to owning an old Zero fighter aircraft, a Mitsubishi A6M5, Model 21, likely used at Pearl Harbor.
He was also involved in producing a two-hour documentary, Zeros of the Pacific, for Japan's Nippon Television. "Essentially, it was about some old aircraft and artifacts that remained at one of their World War II bases in the Marshall Islands.
The Earhart Search
On one of these trips to the Marshall Islands in the 1970s, he stumbled on news about Earhart contradicting prevailing beliefs. A local island iroje, or chief, was helping him locate old planes. Freeman would sketch what he was interested in, and the man would say if he'd seen such a plane. When Freeman drew Earhart's Electra, the man told him, "I saw her land." In halting English, he told of her plane's wing breaking off and beach landing.
"I was stunned," Freeman recalls. "At that point, I wasn't searching for her. I was looking for World War II aircraft with the idea of restoring them." The exchange set him on a course to learn more.
His search has been long and intense, and his home shows it. An entire room is loaded with books, documents, aviation artifacts, propellers, and photographs. "My wife won't let the cleaning lady in there," he laughs.
His quest brought him back to Purdue many times to access Earhart materials in the library's special collections, which led to his serving on the library advisory committee.
Two items convinced him Earhart did not die 70 years ago on the flight from New Guinea for Howland Island.
The first is a May 13, 1938, telephone transcription from the Franklin Delano Roosevelt Library in Hyde Park, New York, a branch of the National Archives. It's conversation between Secretary of the Treasury Henry Morgenthau and Eleanor Roosevelt's secretary, Malvina Thompson "Tommy" Schneider. And it indicates there was more to the story than had been told.
Freeman believes Earhart survived a crash on a different island and was imprisoned for several years in the Shangtung Province of China. When the prison was evacuated in 1945, those released sent 10-word telegrams to family members. One, addressed to G. P. Putnam, Earhart's husband, read, "Camp liberated; all well. Volumes to tell. Love to mother."
That's the second item that convinced him she lived longer. Freeman believes Earhart returned to the U.S., but not to Putnam, who had since remarried. She lived near her sister in Roslyn, Virginia, using a different name and living to be 104, he says.
What he learned in his search proved to be a dilemma for Freeman. He has often spoken to children's groups about Earhart, and he understands the reverence for her.
"I think the American public is perfectly happy believing she went down in the ocean," he says. "We want to believe she was a heroine who plunged into the ocean."
Meanwhile, Freeman's fascination with aviation and Earhart continue. "I've flown millions of miles, and my interest in flight continues. But today, I'm mostly a voyeur."