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Death of the Philippine Clipper

31 May 2010

Memorial Day — a day people in the USA have set aside to remember and reflect upon those who perished while serving their country

Memorial for the Martin M-130 Philippine Clipper lost during January 1943 — photo by Joe May

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 🙂

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19 Comments leave one →
  1. Lee Weller permalink
    27 March 2013 01:36

    Unfortunately, you have confused two important events that actually occurred more than a year apart. The Philippine Clipper was strafed at Wake Island just after the December 7, 1941 attack on Pearl Harbor (by a different Japanese contingent). It successfully escaped Wake Island and made its way to Honolulu, completing its scheduled flight. In 1942 Pan Am sold this aircraft (and virtually all other Clippers) to the US Navy. It was in January of 1943, on its return leg from Honolulu to San Francisco, that it crashed carrying US Navy personnel.

    • travelforaircraft permalink*
      27 March 2013 07:24

      Lee, thanks so much for your comment. I could have written the pertinent paragraph more clearly — yes, I sure could have! The dates of the two events as written are actually correct, but written in a terribly disjointed fashion, and I now see why the paragraph is terribly confusing. The first sentence references the day after the Pearl Harbor attack. The next sentence assumes the reader recalls the 21 January 1943 crash date from a paragraph above — as you noted, not the best of writing on my part.

      I will amend it this evening I promise you!

      Thanks again, Joe

      PS I edited your comment per your request.

  2. Lowell and Penny Wilcox permalink
    20 April 2013 23:25

    Always enjoy to see others who have not forgotten the lost within the war. My wife Penny and I enjoyed being part of the Philippine Clipper Family by creating the Memorial on the great Clipper. We are proud to have donated the 7 ton rock with memorial for others to see. We were very fortunate to have met the flight engineer that was on the flight out of wake Island and pan am maintenance person who was left behind and captured by the Japanese and prisoner of war for the duration of the war. We also have the Air Worthyness Certificate that was found at the crash site and burn’t around the edges and aircraft number is still present to see. Retiring from FAA in 1996 out of the field office in Ukiah Ca. We met a lot of Pan Am personnel and enjoyed every minute with them. Lowell Wilcox Retired from USAF and FAA.

    • travelforaircraft permalink*
      21 April 2013 07:23

      What a rich and exciting comment to read! We will get in touch as you have inspired another post 🙂

    • 20 October 2013 17:04

      My grandfather was the 2nd Radio Officer on Pan Am flight 1104. As I was growing up my father rarely talked about his father and reluctantly flew. It wasn’t till I was much older that he sat down with his grandsons and I and introduced us. We realized quickly that to this day it pained him to talk about his dad. It would have been nice to have met him. Growing up I many a time spirited away photo albums filled with pictures not only of my grandfather but the Philippine Clipper itself.

      • travelforaircraft permalink*
        22 October 2013 14:43

        It seems that many of his generation kept mum about things — unfortunate regarding today — perhaps needed to survive The Depression and World War II when few had good news to relate for so long?

      • Jerry Whiting permalink
        22 November 2013 16:18

        Kevin, I assume your grandfather was G.W. Angus. The daughter of John Hill, Flight Steward, is searching for info and would like to be in touch with you. Was your grandfather buried in a nearby cemetery or taken elsewhere? Please contact me.
        EAJWWhiting@aol.com

  3. Mulholland Rocket permalink
    21 January 2014 14:33

    Great account, but you merge the Wake evacuation on Pearl Harbor day with the crash thirteen months later. After the Wake rescue and splashing down at Pearl Harbor, the Philippine Clipper served over a year before the crash in California.

    • travelforaircraft permalink*
      21 January 2014 15:38

      You are absolutely correct in what you say! Our apologies 😛 The copy will be amended shortly to improve its accuracy and thanks very much for your keen observation. Joe

  4. Dianne (Thompson) Carter permalink
    27 July 2014 14:15

    My Grandfather (Clarence P Thompson) was the First Radio Officer on board Flight 1104, Trip No. 62100. His son (my father) was born 5 days after his death.

    • travelforaircraft permalink*
      27 July 2014 16:22

      Hello,

      It is so nice to receive this comment from you. Human history is not history without the human connections which tie it all togather. Your comment reminds us this was not only the unfortunate loss of the aircraft but there was history before it as well as after it. Small consolation that is the memorial stone and plaque I am sure. Thank you, again, for taking your time to submit your comment. Joe.

  5. George Angus permalink
    5 April 2015 15:53

    My father was George Willard Angus and I am his son, George Wendell Angus. Kevin, of course, is my son. I remember vividly the day we heard of my father’s death. Since then, however, I have flown several times. The longest flight was in 1953 from Japan to Travis AFB for discharge from the USAF after the Korean war ended. The aircraft was a C-54 Flying Tigers charter to the USAF, carrying mostly USAF personnel dependents. Our first stop was at Wake Island, then Hawaii, then Travis. I believe the entire trip took 34 hours.
    My father was the head of PanAm’s Communications on the West Coast, as I recall. He joined PanAm in 1931 and served in Panama (where I was born) and Peru. Then our family came to California. After Pearl Harbor, the Navy commissioned my father as a lieutenant. The reason for this, as I understand, was to instruct Australian Coast Watchers in the use of radio equipment of which my father was an expert, learning this trade craft while a Marine
    around 1924 or so. After his discharge, he worked on Ford’s private yacht as a radio operator, but cannot verify. He also worked on Lindberg’s plane, which I also cannot verify. During his career with PanAm, he flew many flights across the Pacific in Clippers. I remember the time he took me to Oakland Airport to see Amelia Earhart take off. This may have been her last flight, but I’m not sure. It was my Dad’s wish to be cremated and his ashes scattered over the Pacific ocean. He took me several times to Treasure Island in Alameda to see the “flying boats” on the ramps.
    Like any son who has lost a father while at an early age, I regret I did not have a chance to know him better.

    • travelforaircraft permalink*
      13 April 2015 10:32

      A lovely story and such rich family heritage. Thank you for writing your story down for us — it is warmly felt. Joe

  6. Clipper 16 permalink
    26 August 2016 19:37

    I visited the site near the Ukiah VOR in 1987. There was a lot of the plane scattered in a small draw that is wide enough to conceal the broken plane. Apparently water erosion over 40 years uncovered much of the aircraft. This site is not easy to find nor is it easy to get to once located. I was quite a climb. A memorial plaque was installed in the late 1980s.

    t

    • travelforaircraft permalink*
      27 August 2016 11:19

      Hello and thanks. I’d like to visit the site knowing what you’ve witnessed. I’ll be sure to get fit for to though 😉

      • Clipper 16 permalink
        29 August 2016 12:22

        If I knew how to send pictures I would include some of the crash site.

      • travelforaircraft permalink*
        29 August 2016 12:31

        Hello,

        Posting the photos of the site would be an excellent remembrance. Also, I cannot find an image of the plaque at the site using either Google or Bing so your images are even more important. I’ll email you separately my home address if you would care to mail them for me to scan and return to you with the digital files, as well.

        Thanks so much 🙂

        Joe

  7. Clipper 16 permalink
    30 August 2016 08:58

    I would be happy to share the photos. It might take me a day or two to find them.

    • travelforaircraft permalink*
      30 August 2016 11:30

      Superb. You and I can literalize its latest chapter and keep it from disappearing for a little longer 🙂

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