The War Years
George E. Burns
Pan Am Historical Foundation
Source:  (Click on History)

Pan Am Goes To War

When the United States exploded into World War II, the world's only aircraft that could carry payloads across an ocean were nine Pan Am Boeing 314 flying Clippers and three that Pan Am had sold to Britain. The U.S. government promptly took over all of Pan Am's over-ocean aircraft, crews and operations.  Pan Am, its people and its aircraft, went to war as part of the U.S. military. Officially.

The Secret War

However, covertly Pan Am was already deeply involved in the world conflict. For many months, under a secret War Department contract, it had been building and equipping airfields along the Atlantic coasts of Central and South America; then from Accra, on Africa's West coast, to Khartoum, the jumping-off point to air-supply the war raging in North Africa. Soon, when the U.S. entered the war, Pan Am crews were ferrying bombers and airlifting cargo over these South Atlantic, trans-Africa routes; and ferrying fighter planes, shipped by sea and assembled in West Africa, to Khartoum.

In seven months of 1942, 1,445 war planes, plus tons of supplies and ammunition, were delivered to the British army being pushed toward Suez. At El Alamein, these planes and supplies helped reverse the tide of the campaign. Pan Am then extended its wartime ferry and supply routes, flying fighters and bombers for Russia to Teheran, and hauling cargo to India. Its DC-3s flew The Hump over the Himalayas, bringing fuel and ammunition to the Flying Tigers and supplies to Chiang Kai-shek in China. They evacuated 3,564 women, children and wounded soldiers from Burma as it was about to be overrun.

A Thin Line of Flying Boats

Meanwhile, Pan Am's nine Boeing 314 and two Martin 130 Clippers, now owned by the U.S. government but still flown by Pan Am crews, were the sole thin line connecting America with the distant war zones. For nearly a year, until America began delivering new long-range airplanes in late 1942, the Army and Navy depended on these few Clippers to fly its highest-priority missions.

Boeing 314 Dixie Clipper
Boeing 314 Dixie Clipper

They flew President Roosevelt across the South Atlantic to meet Prime Minister Churchill in Casablanca, and Churchill from Bermuda to London after another meeting. The Clippers flew top military, diplomatic and industrial leaders on secret wartime missions. Thousands of refugees, including European royalty, and wounded servicemen flew the giant flying boats to safety. They flew desperately needed war materiel to the war fronts and the B-314s even played a role in the development of the Atomic Bomb, flying tons of uranium for the bomb from then-Leopoldville, Belgian Congo.

Training the Flyers

Prior to the outbreak of the war, Pan Am possessed the only extensive body of knowledge and experience in long range over water air navigation. This experience was pressed into service when Pan am was charged with training thousands of pilots and navigators in the art of navigation.

Pan Am's spirit flew even on General Doolittle's B-25 air strike that stunned Tokyo: eight navigators in his fleet were among the thousands of American and British airmen that Pan Am trained, at the University of Miami campus, in the art and skills of long-range aviation.

Pan Am's China

Five years before it crossed the Pacific in 1935, Pan Am began eyeing China, a vast expanse with virtually no railroads; with dirt paths for roads; its main traffic arteries rivers; where even short business trips could take painful weeks: a ripe market for air transport.

In 1933, Pan Am bought a 45% interest in China National Aviation Corporation, or CNAC. The government had to own 55% to make it a Chinese airline, and entitle it to bar all "foreign-owned" airlines-specifically Japan, which wanted landing rights. But Pan Am, under William Langhorne Bond, ran and largely funded CNAC.

CNAC's routes traced China's coastal crescent from Peiping in the North to Hong Kong in the south, with a stem stretching west from the crescent's midpoint to Chungking and Chengtu. Its fleet over the years included a Ford Trimotor, Sikorsky S-38s and S-43s, DC-2s, DC-3s, Douglas Dolphins, Commodores, and Condors.

The Chinese government was in Nanking, but communication and transportation were so poor that it could not control the country, and local war lords ruled large areas. When Nanking told CNAC to fly to Chungking, the war lord there said he would shoot any CNAC personnel who did. They had to negotiate with the war lord. Meanwhile, hostilities between Japan and China had broken out near Shanghai. CNAC operated in a dangerous environment from the start.

When Japan invaded China in 1937, the United States, still neutral, called all American personnel home. Many nevertheless stayed. Bond resigned from Pan Am, so as not to implicate the company in his continued operation of CNAC. Pan Am continued his benefits and seniority for the duration.

CNAC, though still run by Pan Am personnel, was a Chinese government airline, at war. CNAC planes frequently evacuated Chinese from cities, even as Japanese troops were entering them. The encircling Japanese eventually cut off all access from the Pacific, leading CNAC became the pathfinders of China's last gateway, over the Hump to British India. By this time, however, the United States had entered the war.

Leaving Hong Kong

William Langhorne Bond, who ran CNAC, was dressing in his hotel room in Hong Kong when the phone rang. Clipper Captain Fred Ralph said the Kai Tak airport manager had told him to take his Clipper off at once. But Manila, his destination, had radioed not to come there. It was the morning of December 8, 1941.

Within minutes they learned Japan had declared war. Bond told the captain to expect Japanese planes over the airport in minutes, get passengers, crew and mail off the plane into the hangar, with all other station personnel. And to pray.

Air raid sirens blared as Bond raced from the hotel, comandeered a sampan-the Star ferries were not running-and got to Kowloon. No one was hurt. Otherwise, he found what he expected. The Clipper, burned to the water line, was sinking. Strafing had totalled five CNAC Condors, a DC-2 and a DC-3.

Safe in the hangar were two DC-3s and a DC-2, which were quickly towed a half mile away and camouflaged. Hours later a Japanese bomb pierced the hangar. Another DC-2 was arriving from Rangoon that night. These four CNAC planes would be Hong Kong's evacuation fleet.

For three years, since Japanese fighters shot down a departing CNAC transport, Hong Kong flights had operated at night only. Bond decided to shuttle as many key persons as possible 200 miles inland over the Japanese lines until the Japanese got within artillery range of the airport. He called U.S. and Chinese government officials to prepare for immediate departure.

At nightfall the three loaded planes took off in quick succession. Some hours later air raid sirens sounded, and British gunners prepared to meet an attack. Fortunately they recognized in time the first DC-3 returning for another load. By dawn, the end of CNAC's work day, the fleet had completed two shuttle runs.

The next day Bond continued mobilizing passengers. Not all were eager to leave. Madame SunYat-sen and the Finance Minister's wife believed that Hong Kong could hold out for three months, by which time the U.S. fleet would arrive and protect them. Persuaded otherwise, they arrived at Kai Tak Tuesday night and asked that a plane evacuate their party, alone, immediately. Bond diplomatically demurred.

On the last flight that night Bond left for CNAC's Chungking base to plan operations.

The afternoon of the third day, Hong Kong radioed him to cancel flights that night. The fourth day, Hong Kong radioed two planes in the air and within an hour of Hong Kong not to land. The window had closed.

In the two nights after the Japanese attack, CNAC had evacuated 275 Chinese and Americans, and removed its headquarters to Chungking.

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