Death of the Philippine Clipper
Memorial Day — a day people in the USA have set aside to remember and reflect upon those who perished while serving their country
It was 21 January 1943, in the dire days of WW II for the U.S. and she was en route to San Francisco when she crashed during a descent for landing — losing all 19 on board. A simple marker to remember a traumatic accident.
But that is not the entire story. That story is as mysterious as it is tragic. One can visit the site, though it is in remote hills. There is likely not much to see as the military had the site dynamited and bulldozed shortly after the recovery operation was completed. Officially, the accident was determined to have occurred due to pilot error. But that is not the entire story either.
Any of the great flying boats of the day were strategic assets. They had speed and range with a large carrying capacity for cargo. Unlike the heavy bombers, these aircraft could transport over two dozen people as well as crates and sacks, for long distances per trip. Operating from an island network built by Pan American Airways (PAA) these few aircraft carried only the most important people and the most precious cargos.
This particular trip had its own challenges. The Philippine Clipper departed Guam only a single day ahead of the Japanese invasion later enduring strafing by Japanese aircraft while moored dockside on Wake Island’s lagoon — after arrival in Hawaii 26 bullet holes would be found. Tragically, on another flight thirteen months later she departed Hawaii for California though there was heavy weather there. Learning that their destination in San Francisco could not be used for landing a diversion to San Diego was recommended. Instead she headed to Clearlake, near Ukiah CA, for unknown reasons although it was familiar to PAA clipper captains. Why did she leave when California was experiencing such foul weather? Was it PAA’s decision, or the military’s who now owned and controlled her? Some of the classified information on board was hard earned — collected on several submarine missions launching and recovering swimmers near Japanese held islands. Geological information on beach sediments needed for the planning of amphibious invasions, for example. Also, information on the US Navy’s torpedo performance, or lack of it to be candid, as well as the new Japanese methods of finding and detecting the Navy’s submarines.
The clipper was found, finally, after the largest search effort of the day taking nearly a week’s time. Recovery was difficult as the nearest road was six miles away. What was found was gathered but nothing undiscovered could be left to chance for security reasons, so the site was destroyed, the captain assigned the blame, the war moved on. Nineteen souls met their fate in a violent flaming wreck while in service of their country that day — nineteen families were dealt a cruel irony since their family members were thought to be “safe” now that they were stateside — and World War II raged on, not taking even a second’s pause. So … think of them as well as others who have died in service … drink a toast or wear a red poppy perhaps … the important thing today is to reflect upon and remember them.
This memorial is located at the entrance to the Hiller Aircraft Museum in San Carlos CA, very near San Francisco. Posts on this museum will soon appear, beginning on August 4th.
Note: most of this information was found in an excellent book: Pan American Clippers: the Golden Age of flying boats by James Trautman. The book published in 2007 and is exceptional in its coverage, detail and photos.
Another note: thanks to the comment (below) the post was amended to be clearer and correct 🙂