The morning of 6th January 1942 was a going to be a cold one. Not that this was unusual for New York, mused the controller manning LaGuardia’s airport’s tower, but it meant he’d have to remember to wrap up extra warm when he headed home.
He looked at his watch. It was 5:54AM. Two hours to go, then. Two hours more to try and stay awake. This was the downside of overnight duty – no planes to manage meant it was always a struggle to stay awake, but the tower had to be manned at all times. Those were the rules. It made sense, he supposed, pouring himself a cup of coffee, but with America now at war surely there were more important things for a trained air controller to…
LAGUARDIA TOWER LAGUARDIA TOWER. OVER.
The sudden burst of sound from the radio caught the controller completely by surprise and he scrambled to try and stop his cup of coffee from falling to the floor.
LAGUARDIA TOWER LAGUARDIA TOWER. THIS IS PAN AMERICAN CLIPPER NC18602 INBOUND FROM AUCKLAND NEW ZEALAND. DUE TO ARRIVE PAN AMERICAN MARINE TERMINAL LAGUARDIA IN SEVEN MINUTES. OVER.
The confused controller gave up trying and let the cup fall.
This made no sense, he thought. It was 6AM and there were no seaplane flights due! And… wait… there was no Pan Am route between New York and New Zealand! That was the other side of the world! No airline flew that far from the East Coast!
The internal intercom next to the radio suddenly crackled into life.
“Erm… LaGuardia… this is Flight Watch at the Marine Terminal…” The voice sounded both amused and confused. “Did ya hear that too?! Sounds like we got ourselves a surprise visitor!”
The controller grabbed the intercom.
“Yeah.. uh… What the hell are we supposed to do with him?! He can’t land in the seaplane channel in the dark! And where the hell did he pop up from anyway?!”
“I guess we’ll just have to hold him until daylight.” Flight Watch replied, sounding just as baffled as he did. “I just hope he has enough gas.”
The controller reached for the radio and thumbed it on.
PAN AMERICAN CLIPPER 18602. THIS IS LAGUARDIA. THE SEAPLANE CHANNEL IS CLOSED UNTIL DAYLIGHT. YOU WILL HAVE TO HOLD FOR ABOUT AN HOUR BEFORE WE CAN CLEAR YOU FOR LANDING. OVER.
The reply came swiftly.
LAGUARDIA ROGER. NO PROBLEM. WE CAN DO THAT. OVER.
The controller paused for a second. He still couldn’t believe this was happening. Maybe he’d misheard, half asleep? But then Flight Watch had heard it too! In the end he couldn’t resist. He had to ask again.
SORRY PAN AMERICAN CLIPPER 18602 BUT SAY AGAIN, CONFIRM YOUR DEPARTURE POINT. OVER.
There was a brief pause, and then the reply came over the radio crisp and clear, leaving no room for doubt.
I SAY AGAIN, INBOUND FROM AUCKLAND, NEW ZEALAND. BY WAY OF THE LONG WAY ROUND. OVER.
The astonished controller leaned back in his chair, punched the air and laughed.
Leaving San Francisco
To Captain Bob Ford, a veteran pilot for Pan American, 1st December 1941 was a just a day like any other. Yes, war was raging in Europe but for now at least the USA was staying out of it. This meant it was business as usual out here on the West Coast at Terminal Island, the place from which Pan American’s clipper services departed on their regular scheduled flights across the Pacific ocean.
Well, almost business as usual. Ford, like most other Pan American employees involved in the airline’s pacific trade, was highly conscious of the fact that relations between the USA and Japan had been gradually worsening for some time. Whilst few expected that it would come to war, even Pan American had recognised that it was no longer an impossibility and begun to work up contingency plans just in case. Those plans were necessary because, perhaps more than any other large American business (and certainly more than any other airline) Pan American had a considerable presence in the Pacific.
By 1941 Pan American was a leviathan of aviation, largely thanks to the vision (and often cut-throat business practices) of one man – Juan Terry Trippe, once described by President Roosevelt as “the most fascinating Yale gangster I ever met.” At the dawn of the aviation age Trippe had spotted an opportunity to make money and had set about building up an aerial empire. That empire had begun with a simple government contract to run mail to Cuba, but by the forties it had grown to span the world.
Trippe was a man who always believed in the value – both in terms of money and publicity – of constantly pushing the frontiers of aviation, and nothing represented this better than Pan American’s glamorous “Clipper” services. These stretched right across the Pacific, connecting the US West Coast with the likes of Hawaii, China and beyond to New Zealand. The fleet of planes that serviced these routes was composed entirely of flying boats, simply because these were the only aircraft with the range to get there. In the pre-jet age aircraft simply didn’t have the legs to cross something as vast as the Pacific or Atlantic oceans non-stop, and that meant multiple stops to refuel were necessary.
In order to run long-haul services then, Pan American had been forced to build a huge network of refuelling stations and bases on islands and atolls across the Pacific, and along the coasts of the Atlantic. They’d also been forced to push the very boundaries of engineering in order to build the seaplanes that would service these routes. The creative talent of aviation legends such as Glenn Curtiss and Igor Sikorsky had been commandeered by Trippe and Pan American, first in order to produce planes that could cross the still-vast distances required at all, and then to make them larger and larger in a constant quest to increase the amount of passengers, mail and cargo that could be carried.
The seaplane that Captain Ford would take command of that day represented the culmination of all of that collective development, although in fact it was neither a product of Curtiss nor Sikorsky’s respective workshops. Over 100ft long and with a wingspan of over 150ft, the Boeing 314 was – and remains – one of the largest aircraft ever to take to the sky. It could carry up to 74 passengers (although far less on really long flights) and a crew of 11, and was one of the few planes with enough range to fly all of the legs of the flight from San Francisco to New Zealand.
The particular Boeing 314 under Ford’s command that day was the California Clipper. His crew was largely his usual one with one exception – Jack Poindexter. Poindexter was actually Chief Flight Radio Officer for Pan Am’s Pacific division, and thus these days more likely to be found in his office than on the planes where he had started out. California Clipper had been fitted with some new radio equipment though and Poindexter wanted to see it in action. When he discovered that the California was short a second radioman for the first leg of her trip (the short hop to Los Angeles) he had volunteered to come along.
“I’ll be a little late tonight.” He’d told his wife on the phone. “But hold dinner for me.”
This last minute change aside, all preparations went to plan and soon the California Clipper was airborne and heading for LA.
Off To Hawaii
Poindexter had just called his wife to let her know he had arrived in LA and would shortly be heading back when he saw Oscar Hendrickson, the California Clipper’s Flight Radio Officer, heading his way. Instantly he knew it was bad news.
That news was that Harry Strickland, the second radioman meant to join the California Clipper here at LA, had been taken to hospital with suspected appendicitis. Poindexter instantly knew where this was going. Pan American regulations were that no Clipper flight could go ahead without two radiomen – a necessity given the 15 – 18 hour flight legs involved. With no relief crew available at LA that meant Poindexter was the only man who could take his place. Despite having brought no spare clothes or money, he was going to have to go all the way with them to New Zealand.
“I just got through talking to my wife! ” He protested, although he knew it was in vain. “Now she’ll be really tee‘d off!”
“Do you have a better idea?” replied Hendrickson, apologetically.
Poindexter didn’t, and when the California Clipper took to the sky that afternoon he was sitting at its radio desk next to Hendrickson. With the late afternoon sun glinting off her metallic grey hull, the flying boat turned and headed towards Pearl Harbour.
Unbeknownst to everyone but the Japanese, somewhere out there in the Pacific, a Japanese battle fleet consisting of six carriers, two battleships and their supporting ships was doing exactly the same thing.
Honolulu and beyond
The California Clipper arrived at the Pan American marine facility at Pearl Harbour on 3rd December, completing the longest leg of its outbound flight in the process. There they were joined by one more member of the crew – John Mack, who would be Ford’s First Officer for the rest of the journey. Pearl was a popular stopover spot with the Clipper crews – the hotel facilities were comfortable and the presence of the US Navy on the Island meant there was plenty to do. As a keen surfer, Bob Ford kept a board stashed at the Pan American facility and was soon out riding the waves. The rest of the crew were soon relaxing too, either playing volleyball, sunbathing or playing cards. All the crew, that is, with the exception of Poindexter, who was soon out in Honolulu trying to at least find somewhere to buy a couple of spare shirts.
It was the veritable calm before the storm, and when the California Clipper departed Pearl Harbour on the morning of the 4th the crew could scarcely have known how close an escape they’d had, and that three days later the Pearl they knew would have gone forever – destroyed the Japanese fleet now just seven hundred miles away steaming under cover of a storm.
A day that will live in Infamy
“Jesus H Christ!” Shouted Eugene Leach, tearing the headphones from his head and pushing himself back from the radio desk almost as if trying to escape it.
It was now 7th December and the California Clipper was on the final leg of its journey to Auckland, having stopped off as planned at Canton Island, Fiji and New Caledonia on the way. Leach had joined them at New Caledonia. A Pan American radioman who had been summoned to Auckland, in return for passage he’d offered to help Poindexter and Hendrickson man the radio for the final leg of the trip. Leach had been listening for local signals coming out of Auckland when he’d picked up the news.
“What’s up Gene?!” Asked Rod Brown the plane’s Second Officer, who’d been close enough to witness the radioman’s reaction and now moved to his side.
“The Japs have attacked Pearl Harbour!”
“You’ve got to be kidding.”
“No! No!” Leach insisted, “Just now… they bombed Pearl Harbour! No joke man!”
Seeing the expression of horror on Leach’s face soon dispelled any questions of doubt in Brown’s mind. Suddenly the reality of what this meant hit him. If the Pacific were no longer a friendly sea then they were cut off and had no route home. He quickly turned towards the cockpit to warn the Captain.
Ford took the news quietly and calmly.
“You’re sure about that? You better confirm it.”
Leach was already attempting to do exactly that, and soon he had managed to lock onto the long-range signal from the Pan American ground station in Noumea, New Caledonia, from whence they had just departed. The station was broadcasting in morse code on a constant loop. The translation left no room for doubt.
PEARL HARBOUR ATTACKED. IMPLEMENT PLAN A.
For a moment there was silence on the flight deck. Then Ford reached into his jacket pocket, pulling out a sealed brown envelope and breaking the spell. He was the only member of the crew to whom the last part of the coded message made any sense – it meant it was time to break open the envelopes that he, and every other Clipper Captain, had been secretly carrying on every flight for a number of weeks now. He did so.
To: Captain, PAA Flight 6039 – SFO-LAX-HNL-CIS-SUV-NOU-AUK and return flight 6040.
From: Division Manager, Pacific Division
Subject: Special instructions to avoid hostile military activity.
Pan American Airways, in cooperation with the Chief of Staff, United States Army, Commander-in-Chief, Pacific Fleet Operations, the Secretary of War and the Secretary of State, has agreed to place its fleet of flying boats at the disposal of the military for whatever logistical or tactical purpose they may deem necessary at such time as hostilities break out between the United States forces and the military forces of the Imperial Japanese government.
In the event that you are required to open and read these instructions, you may assume that hostilities have already occurred and that the aircraft under your command represents a strategic military resource which must be protected and secured from falling into enemy hands
Ford read on. Plan A, for the California Clipper, meant continuing on to the nearest friendly Pan American base known to be unoccupied by the Japanese, doing everything possible to avoid any contact with enemy forces. This mean continuing to Auckland.
Ford, who had been a Navy pilot before joining Pan American, knew exactly what to do. Rod Brown was dispatched to the map table to find a new route to Auckland, one that deviated from the standard flight path upon which the Japanese might expect to find them. He ordered Leach to shut down the radio completely. From now they would continue in radio silence. Meanwhile the rest of the crew were filled in on events, and all lights were extinguished. Finally, Ford unlocked his flight case and pulled out his .38 revolver, strapping it to his hip.
The California Clipper’s war had begun and she was a long, long way from home…
Click here to read part two of the story of the California Clipper’s lengthy journey home.