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The Secret Pre-War Story of Pan American's Flying Boats

Free 21-Page Excerpt

China Clipper is dense information and methodically lays out a detailed, historic analysis of America’s secret preparation for war with Japan in the pre-war Pacific.  

But too China Clipper reads like a spy novel.  

The book follows American citizen and Chinese patriot, Wah Sun Choy’s, day-by-day journey across the Pacific on the Hawaii Clipper.  


His goal:  To deliver $3,000,000 to the Chinese Nationalist in their effort to fight Japan who was occupying much of the country.

Below read the book’s Foreword and Chapter One.  

Christening of the Hawaii Clipper at Pearl Harbor about 1935

“...compelling, even romantic…”

San Francisco Chronicle 

Foreward to China Clipper

WHEN I BEGAN THIS STORY, years ago, it centered on the exploits of the legendary flying boat, the China Clipper and on Captain Edwin Musick, Pan American's premier and world-famous pilot of the 1930s. The story is now very different but it remained in this original version until late in the game. What has bubbled to the top is the story of the Hawaii Clipper's last flight to the Far East and the ponderous circum­stances which made that one flight different from all of the others.

I suppose authors usually can point to something that triggered the idea for their books. I cannot. I was born long after the trans-Pacific Clippers first flew to China and even after the China Clipper made its last commercial flight.


So I have no residual compulsion to call up this story. I could go into some detail about this but, in short, this story is not in any way part of my past. I don't even know where or how I first tumbled on this idea or where I first heard the name China Clipper. I only recall that one morning I decided to write about this flying boat.


Well, I did not write about the China Clipper to any real degree but what I did find was another story which is far more intriguing and which is filled with convoluted facts that take off in one direction or another but come back always to the same story. Tracking this story down took years and the time was filled with finding contradicting facts, hitting dead ends, false leads, and frustration. In the end there were surprises and possibilities which I had never imagined when I first began.


When I finally began to concentrate more and more on the Hawaii Clipper's last flight, the story broke very quickly and I remember more than once saying out loud to myself, "I don't believe it." Now, I do believe it.

Upon first, glance China Clipper will appear to be two stories, the adventure of the Hawaii Clipper's last flight and another rooted in the history of the Pacific and how Pan American developed the Pacific air route to China.


They are really the same, though. What I eventually realized was that the Hawaii Clipper's flight crystalized all that had preceded it and that its fate was a product of all that surrounded it. I did not even consider blending these two story lines until I was well into my third year on China Clipper. I have learned that stories, even nonfiction, do not arrive full blown, they evolve. It took months to sort out the information I found and more time to begin the tedious process of placing one bit of information next to another.


It took still more time to think about that construction, discard it, place another piece of information in the same position and then perhaps begin again. And not only has it taken time but it has taken the idle mind, the subcon­scious, to put the pieces together. And then on top of all of this I had to live with images of people I never knew, from a past I did not live, to put all of this together. A writer, I have found, never escapes his work.



But before any of this piecing took place I needed real information.


The broadest outline of China Clipper was found in old newspaper and magazine articles and in scores, even hundreds of books. But the real core of China Clipper was built on information from original sources I found for the most part in Pan American's New York Archives and in the National Archives in Washington, D.C.


The initial research did not take long—perhaps four months—but dredging up hidden pieces of the story which brought it to its final form took years of patience, phone calls, additional reading, wait­ing, revising, and interviews.


One aspect of this story—the incidents of sabotage—eluded me for most of the four years and even now they are not complete. The story of these incidents proved especially elusive primarily because many simply refused to talk or cautiously denied that they occurred. So, finally I was forced to build a composite of what I believe really occurred. First the sabotage incidents are based on the oral confirmation by two men and one woman who said that they personally knew or had heard about these incidents.


They are also based on FBI reports which took three years to obtain by the Freedom of Information Act, on letters from the National Archives, on news clippings and from reports found in Pan American Archives.


The outline of these events is accurate but because all of these sources abruptly end—even the FBI reports—the specifics are debatable. Part of the rea­son for this is, of course, the forty plus years since these events occurred. I also believe some government documents have been lost over the years and that some, for reasons unclear, will not openly discuss this subject.


There is also an intuitive side of China Clipper, an aspect not easily explained. For instance, I have never flown aboard a flying boat, I have not visited Midway or Guam,


I do not know how to fly an airplane, nor have I spoken to the princi­pal characters simply because most are dead. So there were times that I became part of the story. I have flown many times, seen seaplanes take-off and land. I lived in Hawaii, landed at Wake.


I rummaged through reams of old magazines to get a sense of the era and talked to anyone I could find who had seen, ridden in, or had anything to say about these giant flying boats. I studied every aspect of the trans-Pacific flights.


I found out what time the Hawaii Clipper took of each day, found out when the sun set, I looked to see what the newspa­pers were reporting in July 1938, what movies were playing. I thought about the people aboard the Hawaii Clipper constant­ly.


I even dreamt about flying in the Clippers and some fragments of those dreams appear here. More than once the weight of all of this overwhelmed me and I am sure that some of that anxiety found its way into parts of this story. It all came into play.


There is a line, for example, in which Wah Sun Choy says, "You don't ask for nothing, you don't get nothing." A Chinese waiter at Trader Vic's said that to a friend when asked if salad came with dinner.


The personality that line revealed fit with what I knew about Wah Sun Choy, so I used it. As I said, the framework is accurate, but the specifics are open to debate.


The conversations and incidents which take place aboard the Hawaii Clipper and some of the finer aspects of the sabotage scenes are manufactured but they like the rest of China Clipper are based on hard facts culled from State and Navy Department letters, memoranda of conversations, from company brochures, newsletters, accident reports, Congres­sional records, interviews, and hundreds of sources altogeth­er.

There was also a mood about those six-day flights to China. I think it is here and for one passenger, Wah Sun Choy, I am sure the journey must have been bittersweet.


- Regards, Ron Jackson 

Wah Sun Choy owned several successful restaurants in the New York area 

Middle right Wah Sun Choy's Jersey City restaurant, China Clipper



“… drama and excitement..” Monterey Peninsula Herald 





Juan Trippe, Pan Am founder with adviser, Charles Lindbergh

“…good tale for spy , aviation and WWII buffs…” Nashville Banner  

The Alameda  Pan Am Clipper base, across the Bay from San Francisco

China Clipper above San Francscio

Imperial Navy flying boat "Emily" built by Kawaniski Aircraft similar design to Clipper design - the book explains why the similarity

Upper and lower berths aboard the Clippers - pretty much only used on the overnight flight from San Francisco to Honolulu

Pratt & Whitney twin row Wasp engine

“… new theory on the mystery of the Hawaii Clipper…”

New York Times

Chapter 1 Alameda on San Francisco Bay July 23, 1938



SITTING ON A HARD WOODEN BENCH in Pan American's waiting room, Wah Sun Choy gently tugged on his right shirt cuff and then on his left so that they covered his wrists. Choy did this from time to time to calm himself. It was a nervous habit of such little consequence, though, that neither Choy nor any of his friends had ever really noticed the frequency of the ritual.


Twelve passengers were packed cheek to jowl in the tiny waiting room. Choy surveyed his fellow travelers, dabbing a bead of perspiration as it trickled down his forehead. Then in one sweeping motion he mopped his brow to forestall a reoc­currence of the embarrassment. It was just 2:45 P.M. Time and space seemed to be closing in on Choy.


The crowded room detonated his nervousness as did the thought of the six-day flight to China. In a futile effort to assuage his uneasiness, he reached for the copy of the San Francisco Examiner he had tucked under his leg.

He skimmed the headlines:


Russians Battle Jap Allies, New Dealer Hints Roosevelt Plans to Seek 3d Term, Crazed Mother Slays 2 Children and Herself.


Choy shook the paper and folded back the front page. A small three-paragraph article on page two hit home:




With backing from land, air, and sea bombardment the Japanese army had launched a fierce assault on the Lion Hill Fort near Kiukiang which threatened to force the Nationalists that much deeper into China. Clearly, China's war with Japan was failing.


In his heart Wah Sun Choy expected this sort of news. It was not surprising.


For months Choy had eagerly anticipated this trip, but now a sense of dread rushed through his gut. Pacific politics were at the flash point and there were certain risks in flying to China now. The fighting around Kiukiang was only the most recent example of the dangers in and around China.


For seven years Japan had feasted upon the flesh of China—first smashing Manchuria in 1931 and in 1937 invading Peking, burning Shanghai, raping Nanking, and bombing Canton. Now desperately reaching for the elusive victory,


Japan had grasped China in a stranglehold designed to squeeze the life out of the country.


Since spring Japan had maintained an effective two-­thousand-mile land and sea blockade, which had sharply cut the flow of supplies and money into China. The blockade was not impenetrable though.


Pan American Airways' three trans-Pacific Clippers pierced the blockade at Macao, and though the flights carried little physical support, they were an important psychological connection with the West.


While the United States labeled the line "commercial," Japan saw the weekly flights to China as a direct challenge to its military power. America's isolationist policy in the Pacific was an illusion and Japan knew it.

From Hawaii to Manila, from the Aleutians to Samoa, America had been entrenched in the Pacific Ocean for decades. Pan American's Clipper bases at Hawaii, Midway, Wake, Guam, and the Philippines—islands that had long been considered remote—extended America's frontier to the doorstep of China.


Few Americans fathomed the military implications of the trans-Pacific air route, but on the other side of the Pacific Japan saw very clearly that the Pan American line bisected its own highly strategic islands in Micronesia.


Japan had tolerated the Pacific flights to Hong Kong and Macao for nearly three years; but in 1938 it decided that the flights compromised the success of the blockade.


Earlier in the year the Japanese vice minister for foreign affairs, Kenosuke Horinouchi, forwarded a carefully worded dispatch to the American ambassador to Japan, Joseph Grew, asking that the United States stop the Clipper flights into Macao:

"... According to most recent reports received by the Japanese government, Chinese airplanes are frequently active in the vicinity of Canton, and consequently, the Japanese Navy cannot neglect preparations for ordinary offensive operations. British airplanes in Hong Kong are for the present refraining from flying over the vicinity of the Manshan Islands.


"In view of the possibility that, due to flights over such area by airplanes of the Pan American Airways, some unfortunate error involving the Japanese Navy might occur, I have the honor to request that measures be urgently taken with a view to flights over the Manshan Islands not to be undertaken for the time being."

The United States refused to recognize this request because it violated the principle of the freedom of the seas, but Pan American took the warning seriously enough to fly into Macao only when the seas around south China were clear of all military activity.


The blockade was a clear-cut threat, but there was another far more insidious danger which was more difficult to confront. In late June through early July, Acting Secretary of Commerce Colonel J. Monroe Johnson had heard rumors that one of the Clippers might soon be sabotaged. The talk had been vague and the rumors died down, but the fear of a potential disaster lingered with Johnson through late July.

Secretary Johnson was among the very few who had heard these rumors; certainly those flying aboard the Clippers knew nothing about them.


On July 23 the China Clipper, the most famous of Pan Am's Pacific flying boats, was inbound from Hong Kong, the Philippine Clipper was en route to the Far East, and at 3:00 P.M. the Hawaii Clipper, Flight 229, was scheduled to be off for the Orient.


Wah Sun Choy planned to visit his mother and sister in Hong Kong and if things worked the way he planned, see his brother, Frank, who was flying a fighter on the northern Chinese war front.


But as Choy was about to board the Hawaii Clipper he could not help worrying about the real purpose of his trip: the delivery of the $3 million to Chiang Kai-shek.  Choy felt tired, let-down, and his concern about safely delivering the money to Chungking, the Nationalist capital, sapped his enthusiasm for the flight.


The six-day trip to China should have been one of the high points in his life; he had dreamt about it since the line opened and he had worked hard for it.


The wealthy president of a small Jersey City-based corporation, Wah Sun Choy owned three restaurants. Two were located at Jersey City's Journal Square, the Plaza Tea Garden and the China Clipper Cafe, and one at 3 Doyers Street in Manhattan also called China Clipper.


Choy was so enamored with the trans-Pacific flying boats that he had decorated his two Clipper restaurants with photographs of the China Clipper.


In addition to overseeing the restaurants, Choy had put in long hours over the past year working to bolster the sagging Nationalist war effort against Japan by serving as the chairman of the Chinese War Relief Committee.


Through a series of social events—mainly dinners, called rice bowl par­ties—Choy helped raise the $3 million safely tucked aboard the Hawaii Clipper.


All of this, the romance of the trans-Pacific Clippers, the anticipated adventure of the flight, the unending work for the Relief Committee and the opportunity to help China fueled his child-like excitement for this trip.


Choy's buoyancy was contagious and on Wednesday, the night before he flew to San Francisco, his friends threw a lavish bon voyage party for him at the Plaza Tea Garden. Everyone had a grand time. There was plenty to eat and drink but underlying the false cheer everyone knew that the $3 million would not turn the tide against Japan—only direct backing from the United States could do that.


As Choy looked about at his eleven fellow passengers in the small, white waiting room, he thought with some bitter­ness that they, like the United States, were just going about their own business.

Of the twelve about to board six were flying only as far as Honolulu.


One of those, Henry Huntington, a St. Louis manufacturer, was racing to the bedside of his brother, who had collapsed shortly after arriving in Honolulu on the pre­vious flight of the China Clipper.


Traveling with Huntington was Dr. Fred Reichert, a San Francisco surgeon, who had been engaged to perform emergency brain surgery on Hun­tington's brother immediately after their arrival in Honolulu.


Homer Orvis, an executive with the Cotton Exchange in New York; Eric Nelson, a New York mechanical engineer; and Marvin Murphy, an executive from Philadelphia, were flying to Hawaii on business.


Darwin Teihet, advertising director for the Hawaii Pineapple Company, had just completed busi­ness on the mainland and was on his way home.


Rudely, Choy was shaken from his thoughts when a bell from a speaker directly above his head rang once and a voice announced, "The crew will board." Embarrassed with the way he jumped when the bell sounded Choy smiled at Ken­neth Kennedy sitting next to him.


Kennedy, one of the six scheduled to fly to China, was Pan Am's Pacific Division traffic manager and had made this flight many times over the years. As traffic manager Kennedy was charged with making periodic trips across the Pacific to check on ticketing, market­ing, and the general health of the Pacific operation.


Kennedy had worked for Pan Am since 1935. After fighting in France during the First World War Kennedy temporarily went into banking, and then, in the early 1930s, moved into aviation with the Boeing School of Aeronautics. Following this he became United Airlines' traffic manager. When the Pacific route opened he eagerly snapped up the opportunity to join Pan Am.


This morning Kennedy's wife, Marjorie, had driven down to the Alameda Pan Am base from their home in the Oakland hills. Unlike the others waiting to board the Hawaii Clipper, Kennedy was not excited about the trip; the flight was just part of his job. Rather, Kennedy was more concerned about a recent notice he had received telling him that Oakland planned to build a new freeway down Mountain Boulevard and that they would have to vacate their house shortly.


Some minutes after the crew boarded the bell rang twice and the same voice announced, "Passengers for the Hawaii Clipper will please board."


One by one the twelve men stood up and filed through the narrow door to the pier. At the end of the dock the men waited near the tail of the Clipper until their names were called. When Ivan Parker, the ship's steward, called their names they stepped up a set of metal stairs to the top of the hull and then descended into the flying boat.

Numbered NC-14714, the Hawaii Clipper was the third of three flying boats built by Glenn L. Martin at his Middle River, Maryland plant and used by Pan American in the Pacific.


Though each of the three Clippers had its own personality and individual quirks, each was identical in appearance; not even the pilots who flew them regularly could tell one from the other without looking at the name painted on the bow.


Sleek, forward-looking in a manner unlike any other flying boats, the Martin Clippers were the sum of the most advanced technology of the era, the product of the finest engineering talent in the United States. They were the largest successful heavier-than-air aircraft, the culmination of nearly three years of planning and construction.


And they were more than good-looking machines; they were rugged and capable of withstanding the worst.


Traditionally, flying boats had been awkward, uninspired aircraft dutifully making their rounds over the world's seaways. But the Martin flying boats changed the dated image.


They were an uncompromising leap forward in aeronautical technology. The genius of dozens of engineers blended the stalwart lines of a heavy duty seaplane with the polished airiness of modern design. Aerodynamics and streamlining led the way in 1930s design of everything from ashtrays to belt buckles, from skyscrapers to toasters reflected this and the Clippers were the living symbol of this look into the future.


The Hawaii Clipper resting on San Francisco Bay embodied all of the modern values—it was long, low, fast, and easy on the eye.


None of this came easily.


Before the ships reached construction, months of planning and detail work went into the design of the flying boats. Months were spent in preliminary wind-tunnel testing to produce an efficient wing/hull relationship which would allow the Clippers to rise easily from the water.


Following wind-testing, water-tank tests were con­ducted to perfect a hull contour, which would give the giant boat stability in rough open seas while maintaining the capa­bility of quick, efficient take-offs.


Specialists in structural steel design made thousands of computations to determine the greatest strengths that could be attained from the conflicting requirements of external aerodynamic streamlining and inter­nal bracing.


Taking a note from paper-box manufacturers, designers corrugated part of the upper hull to achieve maximum strength with minimum weight. Borrowing from shipbuilders, the Martin engineers designed the Clippers with double bot­toms to help prevent sinking if the hull were damaged.

Instead of cumbersome and structurally dangerous wing pontoons, large seawings or sponsons extended from the hull at the waterline and gave the Clipper unusually good stability in the water.


Although primarily designed to keep the flying boat on an even keel, the sponsons served triple duty by also holding 1,900 gallons of gasoline and generating additional lift once the ship was airborne.

All of this produced a 26-ton flying boat which was the first aircraft in the world sufficiently powerful to carry the equivalent of its weight as payload.


This was a remarkable advance which meant that the Clipper was the only aircraft in the world that could carry enough fuel in addition to passengers and freight to make the long Pacific hauls. When fully loaded the Martin Clipper could fly an astounding 3,200 miles non-stop at 130 miles per hour.



It was something no other aircraft could duplicate. It was beyond belief.


To most passengers this information was meaningless; what they noticed and cared about was that the Martin flying boats were comfortable. While still in the design stage engi­neers produced a full-scale model of the interior so they could study the position of control cables, wiring, plumbing, and structural supports in relation to the most comfortable seating arrangement.


Once the interior had been designed, the passen­ger compartments were soundproofed to allow conversation at normal levels.


The blue and green colors used in the sixteen-foot lounge were coordinated in a harmonious, relaxing scheme.

In the design and construction of the three flying boats Martin also built in every known backup system and safety device. The Martin engineers, with input from Pan American, designed six watertight compartments into the Clipper's nine­ty-foot hull so that if a Clipper were damaged and forced down at sea, any two compartments could keep it afloat—even in moderately rough seas.


Two main radios were carried; if both failed, a small emergency set was available along with a trailing antenna.


Also in case a Clipper were forced down each carried flares, an auxiliary generator, rubber life rafts, concentrated foods, canned water, condensed milk, even a salt-water still. Shotguns, fishing bait and tackle were stored in the emergency locker. In all there were enough supplies to sustain fifteen lives aboard the Clipper or in a life raft for ninety days. But the chances of a disaster or some mechanical failure were incalculably small.


The Clippers' engines were the best in the world.


In 1935, Martin originally equipped the Clippers with four Pratt & Whitney twin row Wasp engines. Each fourteen-cylinder engine was geared, supercharged, and fitted with a Hamilton Standard Constant Speed Propeller to produce 800 horsepower. Just a few months prior to Flight 229, Pan Am refitted the three Clippers with new 950-h.p. Pratt & Whitney engines and new Hamilton Hydromatic Propellers.


Any two engines could keep a Clipper aloft.

All in all, the Martin Clipper was, quite simply, the finest aeronautical product to date.

Choy looked out of his window at the white caps on the bay. Though he was warm it was really unseasonably cool, just 60 degrees.


The usual afternoon wind was building, blowing the afternoon fog through the Golden Gate. Choy leaned his head on the bulkhead directly behind his seat trying to steady the quivering muscles in his neck. It was no use, it would not be the relaxing trip he had planned. The troubles in the Far East were much too serious to even temporarily displace with some romantic notions about the trans-Pacific Clippers.

Wah Sun Choy knew war was on the horizon and the millions he was carrying, vital to the Chinese war effort.

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