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Round the world
"Proceed westbound soonest your discretion to avoid hostilities ..." Also, 7 other things worth knowing today.
Into the history books we go today, as this week marks the 81st anniversary of the day that a man named Jack Poindexter told his wife in San Francisco that he had to work late, and asked her to hold dinner.
Then he didn't make it home for more than a month.
As you can imagine, there's a lot more to the story. Poindexter was the chief radio officer for the Pacific Division of Pan American World Airways in 1941, and he wanted to tag along on one of the airline's Boeing 314 Clipper aircraft -- the famed "flying boats"—en route to Los Angeles.
The California Clipper, as this plane was known, had some new radio equipment to check out, and he hoped to be back in a few hours. Instead, fate intervened, and Poindexter found himself wrapped up in one of the great unplanned aerial achievements of the first 50 years of commercial flight.
Quick macro history lesson: Pam Am was the first unofficial American flag carrier, led by its visionary and cutthroat founder Juan Trippe.
By the early 1940s, its Pacific service connecting California with Australia, New Zealand, and China was well-established, and its flying boats set a standard for in-flight luxury on those long journeys with multiple refueling stops, that couldn't be matched during its time.
And so, in early December, the California Clipper, registration number “NC18602,” took off on its regularly scheduled flight to Honolulu, en route to a hopscotch trip from one station to another on the way to Auckland. (Poindexter joined the crew without even a change of clothes after the plane's normal radio operator was rushed to the hospital with appendicitis.)
In the air on the second leg of the several days-long trip to New Zealand, the California Clipper got word that the Japanese had attacked Pearl Harbor. The plane's captain, Bob Ford, had been given an envelope with a secret emergency plan in case of war, telling them that:
Pan Am was placing its Clippers at the disposal of the U.S. military, which meant that in mid-air and thousands of miles from home, the California Clipper and its crew had been transformed into a U.S. warplane (complete with a giant American flag painted on the wing), flying through enemy territory.
They should proceed "to the nearest friendly Pan American base known to be unoccupied by the Japanese, doing everything possible to avoid any contact with enemy forces." This meant flying on to Aukland, but via a more circuitous route.
In New Zealand, they waited several days before getting a message from Pan Am, which included the orders that ultimately gave the California Clipper its place in the aforementioned history books:
Strip all company markings, registration numbers, and identifiable insignia from exterior surfaces. Proceed westbound soonest your discretion to avoid hostilities and deliver NC18602 to Marine Terminal LaGuardia Field New York.
In other words: You can't come home the way you got there, so we want you to fly 20,869 miles across places that have never seen a plane like yours before, and where you'll have to scrounge for landing facilities, fuel, and spare parts.
Also, in case I haven't made this clear up to now, the Boeing 314 was a flying boat, meaning it had no wheels or landing gear; only floats. So all takeoffs and landings had to be made on water.
Over the next month or so, Ford, Pondexter, and the other crew members of the California Clipper pulled it off.
Starting in the map room of the Aukland public library, they gathered maps and charts for their unprecedented round-the-world route.
They made it across Australia. Then, on to modern day Indonesia (where they were nearly shot down by Dutch fighter planes, which had no idea they were coming), Sri Lanka, modern-day Pakistan, several stops in the Middle East and both the west and east coasts of Africa, across the Atlantic Ocean to Brazil, Trinidad and Tobago, and ultimately New York.
Along the way, they had to cannibalize their own airplane, make do with lower octane fuel than had been tested in its engines, and generally push well past the safety boundaries of the Boeing 314.
They also navigated human challenges—everything from a formal dinner the captain had to attend with British officers in Triconmalee to an extermination crew working to stop the spread of yellow fever in Natal who turned out to be either spies or thieves; regardless, the men's money and papers were taken.
Eventually, in the predawn hours of January 6, 1942, they reached New York, where they radioed the lone (highly surprised) night shift air traffic controller, flew circles until light since they couldn't land in the seaplane channel in the dark, and ultimately touched down safely.
Their arrival was also a surprise to the crew members' families (including Poindexer's wife, we assume; no word on his dinner). Pan Am had told the families that their loved ones on the crew had survived Pearl Harbor, but had no other details for them.
A few newspapers had reported on the California Clipper's round-the-world journey as it happened, misnaming the plane as the Pacific Clipper; Pan Am decided to change the name of the plane to match the press coverage.
The plane itself went into U.S. Navy service, piloted by Pan Am crews, and was ferrying diplomats before the month was out. By 1943, one of the now-Pacific Clipper's sister airplanes, became the first plane to transport a U.S. president, when FDR used it to fly across the Atlantic and attend the Casablanca Conference.
But, between wartime secrecy and the fact that there were bigger news stories at the time, the story of the California/Pacific Clipper's round-the-world journey stayed more or less unshared for many years.
Most of what we know about it today is the result of a book called The Long Way Home, which was the passion project of another Pan Am radio operator, Ed Dover, who also served during the war. Another writer, John Bull, wrote a condensed version based on Dover's book; I used that as a key source here.
7 other things worth knowing today
The state of Alabama reached an agreement not to use lethal injection again to try to execute convicted murderer Alan Eugene Miller to death, after a botched, hour-long attempt in September to kill him that was described in court papers as "torture." Alabama reached a similar agreement with another death row inmate in 2018; he stayed on death row but eventually died of natural causes. (AP)
A federal court says state courts have to make lawsuits public as soon as they are filed, and can't hold them for a few days until they're no longer newsworthy. (Courthouse News)
A North Carolina man who was threatened with jail for livestreaming a traffic stop is suing police, and his case is now before federal appeals court. Dijon Sharpe, 28, says he records or livestreams any interaction with police, after his cousin served 24 years in a prison for a crime he didn't commit. (The main witness recanted, and the cousin was eventually pardoned.) (WashPost)
Why more hotels are getting rid of bathtubs in favor of showers only. (The Points Guy)
Three stowaways were captured sitting on the giant rudder of an oil tanker after they survived a remarkable 11-day, 2,000 mile voyage from Nigeria to the Canary Islands. The Spanish coast guard posted a dramatic photo of the three men precariously perched atop the rudder of the Maltese-flagged Alithini II as it arrived in Las Palmas, Gran Canaria, on Monday. (NY Post)
Acting to address “a crisis we see all around us,” New York City Mayor Eric Adams announced a major push on Tuesday to remove people with severe, untreated mental illness from the city’s streets and subways. “The common misunderstanding persists that we cannot provide involuntary assistance unless the person is violent,” Mayor Adams said. “This myth must be put to rest. (NY Times)
Cool video about teamwork.
Thanks for reading. Photo credit: Harris & Ewing, photographer, public domain photo via Library of Congress. See you in the comments!