Mystery lingers over missing ‘Hawaii Clipper’ seaplane

HAGATNA, Guam – The mysterious disappearance four months ago of a Malaysian Airlines Boeing 777 with 239 aboard and, of course, the Lockheed Electra piloted by Amelia Earhart that vanished 77 years ago this month, continue to hold the fascination of millions around the world.

But here in Hagatna, the capital of Guam and throughout this isolated U.S. island territory in the western Pacific, another baffling, lesser-known aircraft disappearance also remains in question.

That question is “What happened to Pan American World Airways’ amphibian airplane the ‘Hawaii Clipper’ with 15 aboard that vanished in the late 1930s while en route from Guam to the Philippines?”

The saga surrounding the disappearance of the Martin M-130 flying boat began July 23, 1938 – exactly 76 years ago today – when its captain, Leo Terletzky, lifted the craft into the air from Alameda Bay south of Oakland and headed for Manila.

The slow-moving, four engine-plane, which had a cruising speed of only 130 miles per hour, made overnight stops at Honolulu and Midway and Wake islands before reaching Guam five days later.

Upon landing at the U.S. Marine Corps facility, now part of Naval Base Guam, the nine-member crew and six passengers bedded down for the night at the Pan Am hotel adjacent to the airplane’s mooring and pier.

At 7:38 p.m. the next day — July 28 — the crew and passengers came aboard the airplane and Capt. Terletzky took off from Guam’s Apra Harbor and headed west on a non-stop flight to Manila, a distance of 1,610 miles.

Less than an hour later, Hawaii Clipper radio officer William McCarty made a routine radio check with the Pan American radio operator in Manila and said, “Standby one minute... I’m having trouble with radio static.”

This was the final message from the clipper.

It had vanished into thin air.

Dozens of further attempts to reach the plane were futile, and at 9 a.m. the following day, when the aircraft was scheduled to land in Manila, all U.S. Navy and Army ships, planes and commercial vessels in the area were alerted to the plane’s disappearance and a massive sea and air search began.

The 430-foot U.S. Army Transport Meigs, which was carrying passengers, military equipment and cavalry horses, soon came upon a large circular oil slick in the vicinity of the clipper’s last estimated position.

The Meigs’ crew scooped up samples of the oil, but on-board tests determined that the substance was “bunker” fuel used by ships, not airplanes.

(Four years later, the Meigs was one of six U.S. ships sunk in Darwin Harbor, Australia, by Japanese bombers during Japan’s first air attack on the Australian mainland. Two of the Meigs’ 66-man crew were killed in the attack. The underwater wreck of the Meigs is now a popular dive site.)

The search for the Hawaii Clipper was called off after a week when no wreckage, human remains, lifeboats or other oil slicks were spotted, and a Civil Aviation Administration investigation held three weeks later was unable to determine what befell the aircraft and the 15 aboard.

Like the conspiracy theories that surfaced following the disappearance southeast of Guam a year earlier of Amelia Earhart, her navigator, Fred Noonan, and their twin-engine Electra, speculation and wild fancies as to what happened to the Hawaii Clipper also began to proliferate.

One of these alleged that Japanese agents had stolen aboard the clipper before it had left Guam for Manila, and had hijacked it to a Japanese base in the Pacific to foil the delivery of millions of dollars supposedly aboard the plane that were to enlarge the coffers of the Nationalist government in China, which had been invaded by Japan in early July of 1937.

The lost Hawaii Clipper was one of three long-range M-130 clippers and several Sikorsky S-42 flying boats that constituted Pan American’s trans-Pacific passenger, airmail and freight service which began in August, 1934.

The two other clippers also met tragic fates, but at least their final destinies have been accounted for.

These aircraft were as follows:

The Philippine Clipper, which survived the Japanese air raid on Wake Island following the Pearl Harbor attack, but crashed in Northern California in January, 1943, while serving as a Navy transport. All 19 aboard were killed, including a Navy vice admiral.

The China Clipper that also was in service as a Navy transport was destroyed when it crashed on the Caribbean island of Trinidad in January, 1945, while en route to West Africa. Twenty-three passengers and crew were killed and there were seven survivors, including the pilot and co-pilot.


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