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Book Review
Sunday, December 11, 2011
Pan Am Clipper Diverted by Attack on Pearl Harbor

By Reviewed by Luann Grosscup

"The Long Way Home"

By Ed Dover

Paladwr Press, $16.20

'This work is dedicated to the memory of Capt. Robert Ford, a true master of ocean flying boats and a legend in his own time."

Ed Dover begins his historical account of "The Long Way Home" with a tip of the hat to a Pan Am captain who, 70 years ago, accomplished a feat equivalent to Neil Armstrong's moon landing. Even so, Ford's implausible venture is virtually unknown today.

The year was 1941. The Pan American flying boats had been transporting passengers for a decade but had only recently begun flying across vast expanses of ocean. On Dec. 1, Capt. Robert Ford and a crew of 10 marched in traditional Pan Am-parade formation from the terminal at San Francisco's Treasure Island to the luxurious and behemoth Boeing 314 moored in the bay. Their destination was Auckland, New Zealand, with stops in Los Angeles, Honolulu, Canton Island, Suva, Fiji and Noumea, New Caledonia. The round trip was scheduled to take two weeks.

Boarding his flight in San Francisco, Capt. Ford was given an envelope stamped with the words: "Plan A -- Top Secret -- For Captain's Eyes Only." It had become a matter of course in the past months for all Pan Am captains to be given the cryptic envelopes prior to their trips. If the trip was uneventful, these were to be returned, unopened. But in the case that war broke out between the U.S. and Japan, and with the high probability that the flying boats would become targets for Japanese attacks, captains were instructed that at that time they were to open the envelope and execute Plan A.

Author Dover had been a crew member on the B-314 during the 1940s and writes the account not just as an historian but with the flavor of a first-hand participant, detailing the operation of the flying boat and infusing the narrative with the essence of the era. The historical story unfolds in novel form, with Dover taking artistic license to include conversations that might likely have taken place.

On Dec. 8 (local time) the Pacific Clipper, NC18602, left Noumea for what should have been the final leg of its journey to Auckland. Two hours outside of Auckland, the crew's radio operator picked up the voice of a New Zealand newscaster announcing that the U.S. Navy fleet at Pearl Harbor had been attacked by Japanese bombers. The Noumea ground station verified the attack via Morse code and advised the aircraft to "implement Plan A."

Plan A gave detailed instructions about whom to contact and where to land, depending on which leg of the trip the crew was on. Ultimately, the clippers were to be returned to the U.S. post haste in order to be conscripted into military service. In the meantime the problem was how to get them back, the Pacific no longer being safe to cross as the flying boat's enormous presence could be easily detectable by enemy forces.

Other Pan Am clippers away from home that day would implement their own Plan A. But none were to receive instructions quite as astounding as those that Capt. Ford received from Pan Am's New York headquarters: "Normal return route canceled. Proceed as follows: Strip all company marking, registration numbers and identifiable insignia from exterior surfaces. Proceed westbound soonest your discretion to avoid hostilities and deliver NC18602 to marine terminal La Guardia Field New York. Good luck."

Indeed. The Pacific Clipper could not return the way it had come. They would be taking the long way home, akin to the dark side of the moon. The crew would now have to circumnavigate the globe, taking a flying boat designed to set down only on water over large expanses of land, going where Pan Am had never gone before, flying routes that had not yet been charted and traveling with total secrecy and radio blackout to areas where there was no guaranteed mechanical support, fuel or even places to put down.

After stripping the markings from the plane's surface and loading spare parts and engines, the next order of business was to visit the Auckland library to find atlases and school geography books by which to chart the next legs of flight. The entire route was at Ford's discretion.

Dover details the ensuing gripping journey that included precarious takeoffs and landings, flying some legs on automobile fuel, scrounging for resources with no money, nearly being shot down by the Dutch Air Force near the war zone and shot at when the plane violated forbidden airspace over Mecca. He brings the reader onto the flight deck on the Pacific Clipper's uncharted course as they weaved their way through the Far East, the Middle East, Africa, across the South Atlantic, Brazil, the Caribbean and, finally, back to New York.

On Jan. 6, 1942, the control tower at La Guardia Airport received an odd radio transmission: "Pan American Clipper NC18602, inbound from Auckland, New Zealand."

It took a moment for the impact of the transmission to sink in for the confused air traffic controller.

"Say again -- confirm your departure point."

The Pacific Clipper radioed in their final transmission: "I say again, inbound from Auckland, New Zealand, by way of the long way round for about the past month. It sure will be good to get home again."