Friday, March 14, 2014

Recalling Another Lost Airliner

Today’s headlines and TV news are filled with speculation about what has happened to Malaysian Airlines Flight MH370. The Boeing 777 vanished from radar last Saturday. Each day brings new evidence and new theories of the fate of the plane and the 239 souls aboard. A map in this morning’s Washington Post shows the entire Far East with circles drawn showing how far the plane could have flown on the fuel aboard. While reading the accompanying article, I was struck by how eerily similar the MH 370 mystery is to one I uncovered while doing research for my latest novel, Hold Back the Sun.

Hold Back the Sun begins with a Pan American Clipper flying boat flight across the Pacific from San Francisco to Manila in the Philippines. When this service was begun in the 1930s, the Pacific was a vast stretch of open water with few aids to navigation, as we understand them today. Fuel capacity limited the flights to daylight island-hopping. Nights were spent in posh hotels ashore. The four-engine aircraft rode radio beacons from island to island.  The price of a passenger ticket was the equivalent of about $5,000 in today’s currency.  Only airmail contracts with the U.S. government made the flights profitable. For businessmen, cutting the trans-Pacific travel time from 30 days on a ship to five days flying made the flights attractive.

The last stop before Manila was on the U.S. controlled island of Guam. About 136 miles to the north, the Japanese-owned island of Saipan was home to a major base of the Imperial Japanese Navy (IJN).

At about 12:15 p.m. Manila time on July 29, 1938, The Pan Am flying boat, Hawaii Clipper, reported its noon position by radio to airline stations in Guam and the Philippines. At that time, the plane was about 582 nautical miles east-southeast of Manila and on schedule for arrival in the Philippines. No contact with the aircraft ever occurred after that transmission. The Martin 130 aircraft and its passengers and crew simply vanished. A widespread air and surface search of the projected course found no wreckage, but an oil slick was encountered. Samples of the oil were taken and tested, but proved not to be oil from the aircraft.  With war raging in China and about to begin in Europe, the fate of Hawaii Clipper and the people aboard soon faded from the news. It remained a total mystery until the end of the Pacific War.

In the late 1940s, rumors began to circulate among the relatives of the people lost on Hawaii Clipper. One story attributed to a U.S. Navy admiral was that the plane had been found in Japanese colors at Yokosuka Naval Base by occupying forces.  Another rumor suggested that IJN naval intelligence officers has alleged that they had hijacked Hawaii Clipper west of Guam and flown it to their new seaplane base on the island of Truk.  The purported motives behind this theft were to stop over three million American dollars aboard the flight from being delivered to the Chinese government by a prominent Chinese-American businessman.  Stealing the details of the latest Pratt and Whitney engines that powered the clipper was another possible reason.

The similarities of Hawaii Clipper’s loss to that of Amelia Earhart barely a year before soon spawned a number of theories and enthusiasts.  In 2000, after many years of research, Charles N. Hill published a book entitled, FIX ON THE RISING SUN: The Clipper Hijacking of 1938 –and the Ultimate M.I.A’s. Mr. Hill’s thesis was that two Saipan IJN officers hid in the plane’s baggage compartment, emerged soon after liftoff from Guam, and commandeered control of the flight. He believes that they then diverted the plane to Truk. While enroute, the Japanese officers supposedly forced the Pan Am navigator, George M. Davis, to file false position reports to make Pan Am believe that the plane remained on its planned course. Mr. Hill presents a fairly convincing case that the false position reports contained clues to point investigators to the actual destination—Truk Lagoon. Mr. Hill also documented conversations with native people on Truk in which they told of helping to bury a number of Caucasians in the foundations of an IJN hospital being built at the time.  He was unable to get government permission to dig under the foundations to test the veracity of the stories.

Mr. Hill died without ever getting to prove or disprove his theories.  Guy Noffsinger, a former U.S. Navy intelligence officer, has taken up the quest for the missing clipper. He has a website on the subject at Mr. Noffinger has also traveled to Truk and believes that he has identified the slab beneath which the crew and passengers of Hawaii Clipper are allegedly buried. He plans to return to Truk this year and is optimistic that he will be able to examine the site with ground penetrating sonar and perhaps excavate. I hope that Mr. Noffsinger is successful. Bringing closure to the descendants and relatives of the nine crew members and six passengers lost with the plane would be well worth the effort.

Note: Warren Bell is a historical fiction author with two novels for sale either for Kindle or in paperback from Both are set during WWII, with Fall Eagle One taking place in Europe, and Hold Back the Sun set in the war in the Pacific.