A Most Unusual Day

Uncle Ed was First Officer (ranking copilot) on the Anzac Clipper, a flying boat westbound over the Pacific on Sunday morning, December 7, 1941. 

The plane had left San Francisco on December 5 but developed mechanical trouble and had to turn back. She was rescheduled for a 2:00 pm departure on December 6, but the pilot, Captain Harry Lanier Turner, requested and received a half-hour delay so he could attend his daughter’s first piano recital in Oakland.

Anzac Clipper at Clear Lake, California, 1941. From Fandom.com, licensed under CC-BY-SA.

The Boeing 314A was the ultimate flying boat. With four huge 1,600-horsepower engines faired into its 152-foot wingspan, it could cruise at 183 miles per hour, with a service ceiling of 19,200 feet and a range of 5,200 miles without refueling. The plane was so large an engineer could creep through a passage in the wing to observe or service any of its engines in mid-flight. 

A DeLuxe Ride

Even with all that power on the wings, passengers could talk normally in its elegant soundproofed cabin. There was a dining lounge amidships, where two stewards catered four-star meals on white linen using real silver and china. Best of all, you could cross the Pacific in a week, not the three or four weeks that a boat took. But you had to pony up $760 for a one-way passage. That’s equivalent to almost $14,000 in 2020 dollars. 

Cutaway view of Boeing 314 Clipper by Kenneth W. Thompson. Smithsonian’s National Air and Space Museum.

The seventeen passengers aboard the Anzac Clipper that day were no doubt well-heeled. Movie stars, royals, and high government officials often rode Pan American’s Clippers. With their morning juice and coffee, they got a reminder from the stewards to set their watches to Hawaii Time, which was 8:30 am. 

In the spacious crew compartment over their heads, Radio Officer W.H. Bell left his console and strode forward to the “bridge”—Pan Am used nautical terms for everything—with a message for the captain: The Japanese were attacking Pearl Harbor, just an hour’s flight ahead of them. 

Photograph taken from a Japanese plane early in the torpedo attack on ships moored on both sides of Ford Island. A torpedo has just hit USS West Virginia on the far side of Ford Island (center). Imperial Japanese Navy. Public Domain.

This was serious, for Pearl Harbor was the Clipper’s actual destination. Hostilities did not come as a complete surprise, however. For months, Pan Am captains had carried sealed envelopes to be opened if war broke out. Captain Turner now reached for his envelope and ripped it open. Meanwhile, the radioman began to hear Japanese and American signals from the furious fight being waged.

“Divert to Hilo”

Pan Am’s secret orders instructed Turner, in the event of an attack on Pearl Harbor, to land at Hilo Bay, on the “Big Island” of Hawaii. He put the Boeing into a slow turn toward the south. Passengers were not told of anything amiss until the Anzac Clipper splashed down two hours later.  

Hawaii map showing Pearl Harbor and Hilo. From Visitpearlharbor.org.

The passengers were gathered in the dining lounge and told that Pearl Harbor had been attacked. The Clipper would refuel at Hilo and fly back to San Francisco as soon as possible. They were welcome to ride back or to stay in Hawaii and make their own way to their final destinations. 

Special Passengers?

Who were these passengers? According to an April 2016 article by Nam Sang-so in the English-language Korea Times, “There were two VIPs on board; His Imperial Majesty of Iran Mohammed Reza Shah Pahlavi, who was on his way home after visiting President Roosevelt promising that he would cooperate with the United States. The other distinguished guest was U Saw, the Premier of Burma (now Myanmar). He too was on his way home also after visiting that same president and was disappointed by Roosevelt’s refusal to honor his plea for the independence of Burma from Britain. As the western globe route back to Rangoon was blocked by the Japanese fleet, he had to take the eastward route home, stopping at the Japanese Embassy in Lisbon and secretly informing the ambassador that Burma would help Japan in the war against America. The confidential Japanese message sent to Tokyo was decoded by the U.S. Navy. He later played a major role in the assassination of Burma’s national hero Aung San in 1947 and U Saw was later executed by his own people.” 

The presence of these two high-level personages is a remarkable claim, inasmuch as I haven’t found it anywhere else; and Mr. Nam does not state his sources. I have sent him an email asking for more information. 

I also heard rumors within our family, years ago, that the passenger list included Japanese diplomats flying home after unsuccessful negotiations in Washington, D.C. Like Mr. Nam’s assertion about the Shah and U Saw, it seems remarkable. 

However, Pan Am’s Clippers were a remarkable resource in that pre-World War II world—so I can’t completely discount either account.

At any rate, none of the passengers accepted the offer of a free ride back to San Francisco. They all chose to stay in Hawaii and make their way to Honolulu or wherever they were going.

Eastern Exposure

As the Anzac Clipper and its passengers coped with these events, a frenzy had overtaken Pan American headquarters on the 58th floor of New York’s Chrysler Building. Juan Trippe and his lieutenants worked feverishly to save three other Clippers that also stood in harm’s way. 

  • More than 2,500 miles west of Hilo, the Philippine Clipper, a Martin M-130 flying boat captained by John “Hammy” Hamilton, had just left Wake Island en route to Guam. Hamilton received orders to turn around, fly back to Wake, and evacuate all Pan Am personnel from the tiny atoll. While the Clipper was being refueled at Wake, the station came under aerial attack. After climbing out of the ditch where he had taken cover, Hamilton found the aircraft, though stitched by strafing fire, had not been seriously damaged. She was still flyable. After stripping all non-essential items out of the plane to lighten the load, Hamilton took off with 34 passengers, including two seriously wounded. He flew to Midway, an island which had also been attacked, and the next day onward to Hawaii.
Captain Robert Ford, panam.org.
  • At Hong Kong, the Hong Kong Clipper, a Sikorsky S-42 flying boat, was destroyed in an onslaught of Japanese Zero fighters. Captain Fred Ralph and his crew escaped to the Chinese mainland in an emergency airlift of land-based planes operated by CNAC, Pan Am’s Chinese affiliate.
  • Captain Bob Ford and the crew of the Pacific Clipper, another Boeing 314, were stranded in Auckland, New Zealand, with the Imperial Japanese Navy blocking their way home. Eventually, Pan Am headquarters ordered them to fly to New York the long way around—via Asia, Africa, the Atlantic, and South America. Without adequate maps, prepared runways and ground crews, or even reliable supplies of aviation fuel, the intrepid crew worked their way around the globe. Their epic 31,500-mile, month-long trek brought them back to New York in early January—the first circumnavigation of the globe by a commercial airliner.

Whither the Anzac Clipper?

First Officer Edward F. Sommers gets a kiss from his daughter Elaine. Clipped from the San Francisco Chronicleof December 10, 1941, and scanned.

Meanwhile, the crew of the Anzac Clipper had brought their plane home without incident. They left Hilo the evening of December 8, flew in the dark while maintaining radio silence, and arrived in San Francisco the next day, unshaved and missing about three days’ sleep. The San Francisco Chronicle published a photo of Uncle Ed being welcomed home by Elaine, his four-year-old daughter. 

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Thus ends the glamor era of flying boats—with a bang, not a whimper. The ocean bases Pan Am had painstakingly built at Wake, Midway, and other places, fell to the Japanese. The company’s fleet of nine B-314s were purchased by the U.S. government for a million dollars each. Under the aegis of the U.S. Navy, they flew thousands of hard miles from 1941 until the end of the war. In 1945 the government offered to return them to Pan American at $50,000 apiece, but Trippe declined the offer. Longer-range, land-based aircraft were the future, especially now that most cities fhad built airports.

The B-314s’ war service, however, was noteworthy. They were used for critically important passengers and cargo. They flew badly-needed aircraft tires to China for use by the Flying Tigers. They flew President Franklin D. Roosevelt to and from the 1943 Casablanca Conference with Churchill and other leaders.

Since Uncle Ed was a Naval Reserve officer as well as a Pan American pilot with experience flying B-314s, I can’t help wondering whether he was one of the pilots who flew them for the Navy. Guess I’ll have to ask my cousins. 

Blessings,

Larry F. Sommers, Your New Favorite Author 

2 thoughts on “A Most Unusual Day

  1. Larry, this is a movie treatment! I’d love to see this story on the big screen. This excellent writing and story started my day just right. Thank you!

    • Thanks, Christine. It’s a story that has been in our family a long time, but I don’t think anybody has pulled the pieces together… and as you can see from the story, I’m still missing a few key facts. It’s an era of flight that has been romanticized ever since, but the Clippers really were a glamorous way to travel. The story behind them and behind Pan Am’s success is fascinating and involved a lot of hard work, danger, and frustration. Maybe I’ll post links to a couple of good books about it.

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