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The morning of 6th January 1942 was going to be a cold one. Not that this was unusual for New York, mused the night-shift air controller at LaGuardia’s tower, but it did mean he’d have to wrap up extra warm when he headed home.
He looked at his watch. It was 5:54 a.m. Two hours to go, then. Two hours more to stay awake. This was the downside of overnight duty: no planes to manage meant it was always a struggle to keep alert, but rules were rules and the tower had to be manned at all times. It made sense, he supposed, pouring himself another 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 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 drop, shattering on the floor.
This made no sense, he thought. It was still before six and there were no seaplane flights due. Then, a new wave of confusion hit him: New Zealand was — almost literally — on the other side of the world from New York. There was no Pan Am route between those two places. 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. If Flight Watch hadn’t heard it too then he’d have probably imagined he was dreaming. 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.
San Francisco, December 1941
To Captain Bob Ford, a veteran pilot for Pan-Am, 1st December 1941 was just a day like any other. Sure, 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 Treasure Island, the place from which Pan Am’s clipper services departed on their regular scheduled flights across the Pacific ocean.
Well, almost business as usual. Ford, like most other Pan Am employees involved in the airline’s pacific trade, was aware that relations between the USA and Japan had been worsening for some time. Whilst few expected that it would come to war, even the airline itself had recognised that it was no longer impossible.
By 1941 Pan American was a leviathan of aviation, largely thanks to the vision (and often cutthroat business practices) of one man — Juan Terry Trippe.
Described by President Roosevelt as “the most fascinating Yale gangster I ever met,” Trippe had spotted an opportunity to make money as the aviation age dawned and had set about building up an aerial empire. It had begun with a simple government contract to run mail to Cuba, but by the forties Pan Am had grown into a passenger and cargo carrier that spanned the world.
Trippe was a man who always believed in the financial and publicity value of constantly pushing the frontiers of aviation. Nothing represented this better than Pan American’s glamorous “Clipper” services. These stretched right across the Pacific, connecting the US West Coast to the likes of Hawaii, China and New Zealand beyond. The fleet of planes that serviced these routes consisted entirely of flying boats. They were the only aircraft with the range to get there. Even they couldn’t do it non-stop.
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 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 number of passengers, mail and cargo that could be carried.
The seaplane that Captain Ford took command of that day represented the apex of that collective development. 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 and a crew of 11, and was one of the few planes with enough range to fly all of the long legs required to island hop from San Francisco to Auckland.
“Hold dinner for me”
This particular Boeing 314 was the California Clipper and Ford’s crew was largely his usual one. There was one exception — his radio officer, Jack Poindexter. Poindexter was actually Chief Flight Radio Officer for Pan Am’s Pacific division, and thus these days more likely to be found back in the office than on the planes. California Clipper had been fitted with some new radio equipment, though, and Poindexter wanted to see it in action. So 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 Los Angeles.
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 Harbor.
Somewhere out there in the Pacific, a Japanese battle fleet was doing exactly the same thing.
Honolulu and Beyond
The California Clipper arrived at the Pan Am 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 were plenty of things to do too. Bob Ford was also a keen surfer and kept a board stashed at the Pan Am facility there. Soon he was out riding the waves while the rest of the crew relaxed, playing volleyball, cards, or sunbathing. All the crew, that is, with the exception of Poindexter, who was soon out in Honolulu trying to find somewhere to buy a couple of spare shirts.
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 as if trying to escape the enormity of what he’d just heard.
It was now 7th December, the California Clipper having left Pearl three days before. The plane was now 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 was a fellow Pan Am radioman who had joined them at New Caledonia. He wasn’t rostered to be part of the crew, but his own flight had experienced issues. In return for passage to Auckland he’d offered to help Poindexter and Hendrickson man the radio for the final leg of the trip. He’d 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 doubt in Brown’s mind. And then the reality of what this meant hit him: if the Pacific was no longer a friendly sea then they were cut off. They had no route home.
Brown headed 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 Am ground station in Noumea, New Caledonia, from whence they had just departed. The station was broadcasting morse code on a constant loop, itself a bad sign, and 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, 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 issued on every flight for a number of weeks now — since Pan Am decided to prepare for a war.
Inside, Ford found he had new orders.
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 meant continuing to Auckland.
Ford had been a Navy pilot before joining Pan American. He knew exactly what to do. They needed to get away from their regular route — it was the first place any Japanese forces would sweep — and find a new path to Auckland. Rod Brown was dispatched to the map table to do so, and Leach was ordered to shut down the radio. From now they would continue in radio silence.
This done, 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. He strapped it to his hip.
The California Clipper’s war had begun. And she was a long, long way from home.