Born in Dalhart, Texas, Noel began his career in photography at the Chicago Daily News in 1925. He served in the United States Army Air Corps as an Aerial Photography Instructor and worked as a photographer for the Washington Post, Wichita Eagle, Kansas City Star, and the Oklahoma City News. Noel joined the Associated Press in 1937 and would spend the rest of his career with that agency.
During World War II, Noel worked for the AP in the Pacific Theater. To escape the Japanese invasion of Singapore, a malaria-stricken Noel paid for passage on a British freighter bound for Rangoon, but the freighter was sunk by a Japanese torpedo. Noel was adrift in the Indian Ocean for three days when his lifeboat encountered another one. An Indian sailor in the other lifeboat asked them for water, but they had none as Noel's lifeboat was out of water as well. Noel took a picture of the sailor and it was published after his lifeboat was rescued two days later. The photograph, titled "Water!", won Noel the Pulitzer Prize. Later in the war, Noel covered the Malayan Campaign, Burma, and India for the AP.
Noel volunteered to cover the Korean War and accompanied the 7th Regiment of the 1st Marine Division. On his way to Chosin Reservoir, he was trapped with a marine unit by enemy forces, but they fought their way free. Two months later, on November 29, 1950, after a convoy was trapped near the reservoir, he went for help in a jeep but was intercepted and captured by enemy forces. He spent the next 32 months in communist prison camps. He unsuccessfully attempted to escape three times, once only failing because he wouldn't leave behind an ill fellow prisoner. He was even able to take exclusive pictures for the AP from inside the camps. Noel was freed in 1953 as a result of Operation Big Switch.
Noel was assigned to Florida in 1958 and retired there in 1966. He died at age 61 at the J. Hillis Miller Health Science Center in Gainesville, Florida following brain surgery, where he had been hospitalized two months earlier due to a stroke.
- Heinz Dietrich Fischer (June 2011). Picture Coverage of the World: Pulitzer Prize Winning Photos. LIT Verlag Münster. pp. 6–7. ISBN 978-3-643-10844-9. Retrieved 20 February 2012.
- Elizabeth A. Brennan; Elizabeth C. Clarage (1999). Who's who of Pulitzer Prize winners. Greenwood Publishing Group. p. 497. ISBN 978-1-57356-111-2. Retrieved 20 February 2012.
- "Pappy Noel, Photographer, Dies; Captured by Chinese in Korea; Won a Pulitzer Prize in 1942 for Picture of Thirsty Seaman in Boat Fleeing Singapore". New York Times. Associated Press. November 30, 1966. p. 47. Retrieved February 20, 2012.
- Philip West; Chi-mun Sŏ (2001). Remembering the "Forgotten War": The Korean War Through Literature and Art. M.E. Sharpe. pp. 88–90. ISBN 978-0-7656-0697-6. Retrieved 23 February 2012.
- John Faber (1 December 1978). Great news photos and the stories behind them. Courier Dover Publications. p. 112. ISBN 978-0-486-23667-4. Retrieved 23 February 2012.