It was a few minutes before 6 a.m. and still very dark on 6 January 1942, when the control tower at New York’s LaGuardia Airport received a radio message: “Pan Am Pacific Clipper, inbound from Auckland, New Zealand. Capt. Ford reporting. Due arrive Marine Air Terminal LaGuardia seven minutes.”
The tower quickly checked with Pan American Airways operations. There was no flight plan for a Pan Am flying boat to arrive at that time—certainly not one from as far away as New Zealand. World War II had begun for America a month before. Was this a joke? Could it be a German crew flying an American plane? Weather reports were being coded—might this be a coded message that the control tower couldn’t decipher?
Since it was still dark, no one could spot the plane from the airport. Seaplane night landings were forbidden in Bowery Bay, so the Pacific Clipper was instructed to circle and wait for sunrise. While Capt. Robert Ford orbited the New York area, Pan Am officials and military personnel were alerted and rushed to LaGuardia’s Marine Air Terminal building. The giant Boeing B-314 landed a little after 7 a.m., completing the longest continuous—and most unusual—flight of a commercial aircraft during the early days of American involvement in WWII. More significant at the time, it was the first vessel of any kind to reach the United States from the Pacific war zone.
Once the flying boat was moored, Ford and his 10-man crew and three Pan Am employee-passengers, dressed in summer clothing and clutching blankets to ward off the chilly wind, were quickly moved inside the terminal. After hot coffee and a quick breakfast, crew members as well as passengers were interviewed by military intelligence personnel. Newspaper reporters seeking information about the unusual arrival were given only the bare facts for security reasons. They were told the Pacific Clipper, operating in the Pacific between California and New Zealand, had been forced to deviate from its original flight plan and return from New Zealand by continuing westward because of the
December 1941, attack by Japanese naval air forces on Pearl Harbor. The landing at New York marked the end of a nearly complete round-the-world flight of more than 31,500 miles.
The Pacific Clipper’s trip from San Francisco and Hawaii to Noumea, New Caledonia, had been routine until two hours after its departure from Noumea on 8 December (it was still 7 December in Hawaii). First radio operator John D. Poindexter, taking down Morse code dispatches, heard the first reports about the carrier strike on Pearl Harbor. Then came a simple two-word message: “Plan A.” This was a prearranged signal that meant all Pan Am aircraft in flight were to maintain radio silence, land at their next scheduled destination and await instructions. “It seemed incredible that the news could be true,” Homans K. “Swede” Rothe, the first engineering officer, recalled later. “It might have been a mistake or maybe only a test.”
It was neither. Capt. Ford reached in his flight bag for the sealed emergency orders that all Pan Am captains had begun carrying when the political situation started to deteriorate in the Far East. He immediately briefed the crew that the airline would now be operating on a wartime basis and they would continue to Auckland, New Zealand.
The Pacific Clipper was one of three Pan Am Clippers airborne over the Pacific at the time of the attack. Another B-314, the Anzac Clipper, with Capt. H. Lanier Turner in command, was flying with a crew of 10 and 17 passengers from San Francisco to Hawaii, the first leg of a 14-day round trip to Singapore, and was within about 40 minutes of a scheduled landing at Pearl Harbor that morning. It had been an uneventful flight of about 15 hours when Radio Officer W.H. Bell informed Turner about the bombing and confirmed the attackers were Japanese. A landing there was now out of the question.
Turner immediately pulled out his sealed envelope. The instructions were clear: Get the aircraft to a safe harbor as quickly as possible, offload the passengers and camouflage the aircraft. Turner decided to land at Hilo on the Big Island of Hawaii, which had a protected harbor and was farthest from Pearl Harbor. Turner quickly briefed the passengers on the news. Once he landed and told the passengers they could go to local hotels, he announced that he was going to refuel and return as soon as possible to San Francisco. Not a single passenger wanted to make the return flight; all decided to take their chances and make their way to Honolulu any way they could. After the plane was refueled, Turner and crew took off that night and flew the Anzac Clipper the 2,400 miles back to Pan Am’s base on Treasure Island at San Francisco.
The Philippine Clipper, a Martin M-130 under the command of Capt. John H. Hamilton, was reroute from Wake Island to Guam when the radio operator received