Note: Last week I rashly promised that this week’s post would mention my Uncle Ed’s flight to Hawaii in the Anzac Clipper on the day of the Pearl Harbor attack. Oops! I was a week ahead of schedule. Please excuse the error, and enjoy Aunt Mary’s trip to South America instead. Next week: PEARL HARBOR. Really. For sure.
Juan Trippe’s upstart venture, Pan American Airways, was twelve years old when Uncle Ed joined the company as a pilot in 1939.
Pan Am’s Clippers were already changing the shape of the world. In those days of high international tension, Pan American’s interests were so closely identified with the official interests of the United States that flying for Pan Am was like flying for the Navy. In fact, Uncle Ed was a Naval Reserve officer, having received his college education and initial flight training through the Naval ROTC program.
Pan Am assigned him to South America, where the young airline’s routes were most fully developed. So on 20 September 1940, Ed flew with his wife, Mary, and their 3-year-old daughter, Elaine, from Miami to San Juan, Puerto Rico. They traveled there via Antilla, Cuba; Port-au-Prince, Haiti; and San Pedro de Macario, Dominican Republic. Their entire journey, from Miami to Rio de Janeiro, Brazil, would take them a mere three days!
Mary sent a letter home—in pencil on both sides of four sheets of white typing paper— describing the adventure. In her letter she comments that little Elaine was “good as gold” throughout the trip. She complains of food prices—$3.50 for “very little,” she says, at the hotel in San Juan. However—
The trip was beautiful. At one place we landed on a river, and it was a thrill. I’ll always remember when we came down on that muddy water at about 100 mi. per hr. (Elaine and I had never rode in a seaplane before.)
The Capt. is a peach & both stewards were nice. Same Capt. goes tomorrow.
Who could resist the thrill of landing on water at a hundred miles per hour? Especially with such peachy flight and cabin crew. Pan Am, from the start, tried to provide the ultimate luxury experience for their passengers.
On the second night, they stayed in Belem, state of Pará, northern Brazil. Mary did not enjoy the town’s peculiar odor, “which they called distilled wood, but smelled like raw sewage to me.”
We got in late, waited for a long time to get through customs, then rode in a rackety bus for miles into the town.
It was a wild ride. The one who toots first has the right-of-way, so we went tooting madly while native children scampered in all directions.
On the third day, flying from Belem to Rio in a land-based Boeing 307 Stratoliner, they made a mid-day stop at Barreiras, an inland city in east-central Brazil.
That was surely interesting. There’s nothing but the landing field on a high plateau in the middle of the jungle. The natives swarmed out of their huts to stare at us, especially at Elaine and I, as we were the only females on the plane.
The airport manager carried an 8 in. knife, just in case, he said.
A native woman served good coffee in a thatched hut.
We were at 18,000 ft. in the strato-liner, it was very comfortable, but I think I enjoyed the first day in the Clipper most, & Elaine liked to watch the water landings too.
The Stratoliner, a sleek, cigar-shaped vessel that entered commercial service in 1938, was the first airliner to offer a pressurized cabin, allowing it to cruise at altitudes to 20,000 feet. It was basically a B-17 bomber with its fuselage expanded to accommodate 33 passengers and a crew of six, instead of bombs.
Once the young family arrived in Rio, it did not at first match expectations. For one thing, the weather was cold and clammy and remained so for a week or more after their arrival. “Most of our heavy clothes are in the trunk that is being shipped, & I sure wish we had them,” Mary writes. “I have never been so cold I think.”
And the local cuisine took some getting used to.
Food is good & plentiful here but different. Tea is served in the afternoon, but we are always so full that we don’t bother with it.
Coffee is so strong it looks thick, and is combined with hot milk, and is, surprisingly, very good. … Elaine drinks hot boiled milk and likes it too.
A typical lunch consists of hors d’oeuvres (celery, sardines, olives, etc.) chicken or veg. soup, cold veal covered with spiced mayonnaise, scrambled eggs with tomatoes, cottage pie (diced meat with mashed potato covering), rolls, molded pudding or ice cream, coffee.
Everything is served in separate courses. Salad is also available, but we skip it, or anything raw on account of dysentery.
After a week’s leave, Ed reported to Pan Am’s office and began preparing for his first flight from Rio, a four-day trip to Belem. Meanwhile, Mary grew concerned about housing. “The Co. pays expenses here for 7 days & after that we are on our own, so must find an apt. as soon as possible.” Yet, after the first week, they were still living in a beachfront hotel, and “[it] looks as if we will be here for some time.”
After all, it was 1940. There was a war on in Europe. “The place is full of French & Eng. refugees, many of them wealthy who either have, or are looking for Apts. & willing to pay well for them.”
Still, there were consolations to living the high life oin Rio.
We are on the 7th floor & scenery is very beautiful. Sugar [Loaf] Mountain & its cable car going up the side can be seen when it isn’t foggy. All the mts. are tall & narrow & green. …
There are a troupe of show people here, including two midgets that we saw in Long Beach, Cal. when we first went there.
They amuse Elaine as she is bigger than they.
They are friendly & fun to talk to. The woman is knitting herself a dress.
Elaine can count to 5 in Portuguese as well as Eng. & knows a few other words. At dinner she handed her napkin back to the waiter & told him holey & showed him the holes.
Weather has turned warm & we all like it here very well. Everyone is very nice.
I am tired of eating meat & fish. I’ve finally learned how to use a fish knife. The fish fork is held in the left hand, and knife in the right, and then go after it.
The waiters serve each course from a silver tray & manipulate both a fork & serving spoon with one hand. I’m going to practice that when I have time.
Street cars here have an open car as a trailer, marked “Secunda classe (second class)” which is half price. People hang on the sides, too.
Eventually they did find an apartment, for a longer-term stay. But, as is the fate of junior airline employees in every time and place, they did not stay put for long. Sometime between February and December, 1941, they moved back to the United States, settling in Oakland, California, just uphill from Alameda, where Ed began flying Pan Am’s famous “Clipper” flying boats across the Pacific.
Next Stop: PEARL HARBOR. Be sure to tune in.
Larry F. Sommers, Your New Favorite Author
Author of Price of Passage—A Tale of Immigration and Liberation.
Price of Passage
Norwegian Farmers and Fugitive Slaves in Pre-Civil War Illinois
(History is not what you thought!)
My father in law was a pilot with Pan Am and lived in Rio in 1940 with my husband and mother in law. They have all passed away but I found certificates saying they crossed the equator on the 31st day of May 38th year (flying time) what does that mean as May only has 30 days and my husband wasn’t born till 1939. The certificate is Jupiter Rex. My father in law was Capt. Samuel A. Belcher. My husband also flew wit Pan AM. He graduated from U of M. Can you give me any information these certificates. I would be happy to donate them.
Violet, it’s nice to hear from you. That is fascinating family history. Your father-in-law Samuel A. Belcher and my uncle Edward F. Sommers must have known each other, in Rio at other Pan Am stations, and chances are their families did, too. At that time, I imagine all of Pam American World Airways was still a pretty cozy family.
Unfortunately I can’t fathom what that “38th” means on the certificate you have, any more than you can. However, there is a Pan Am historical organization, at https://www.panam.org. A lot of information is posted on that site, and there is also a “Contact” button which might enable you to get in touch with somebody who could interpret your certificates and help you with the donation process.
Good luck and happy flying!