Around the world in 30 days
To hear 88-year-old Alta Sierra resident Eugene Dunning talk about being a steward aboard a Pan Am-operated Boeing B-314 “Clipper” in 1942 is like stepping into an action-packed World War II epic.
Dunning’s tales aboard the famous aircraft include catering to America’s elite classes, carrying on conversations about eating chicken with Gen. Douglas MacArthur and escorting Premier Yoshida, chief of Japan’s treaty delegation, back to the United States.
Perhaps Dunning’s most adventurous story is the completion of the first around-the-world flight by a commercial aircraft ” the Boeing B-314, named the Pacific Clipper.
According to the former Pan American World Airways steward, when the Japanese bombed Pearl Harbor, the Pacific Clipper’s return route out of the Hawaiian Islands was blocked.
Evacuating Hawaii, crew members’ families and the ground crew boarded the aircraft and were flown to New Zealand, where they disembarked. It took almost 30 days and 23,000 miles to fly the reverse route around the world to make it back to New York City.
“Bob Ford, who was a resident in Penn Valley, was the captain on that flight. As he landed, a radio operator came up to him and gave him an urgent wire,” Dunning said, describing the scene. “And it said, ‘Get the plane back to New York as fast as you can.’ That’s when Captain Ford flew around the world in order to get the plane safely home.”
“They said get the plane home or destroy it,” added Eugene Dunning’s son, Jeff Dunning. “The government was very concerned about the aircraft falling into the Japanese’s hands because it was so advanced for its time. They were worried that the Japanese would use it as a bomber.”
Braving the Congo jungle, ferrying gasoline up African rivers, flying over Japanese submarines, through India and finally home to New York City, the ragtag crew of 14 were able to navigate the globe using archaic navigational tools of the time ” star maps and smoke bombs, which allowed them to calculate the direction the wind was blowing.
“The gas they put into the engines was like the regular premium gasoline that we put into our cars,” Jeff Dunning said in disbelief. “So the engines kept blowing up the entire trip home. They almost got shot down over Australia because all of the countries were on high alert.”
Despite the many obstacles the Pacific Clipper faced, it completed its long journey on Jan. 6, 1942.
“What ended up happening was when Pan Am flew a crew out to ferry the plane home, my dad just happened to be on the crew on the flight,” said Jeff Dunning.
“We were told that we had to go back to New York and pick up the NC02, the Pacific Clipper, because it had been kept on the East Coast for about four months.” Eugene Dunning said.
“When we landed in San Francisco, it was the first known commercial airplane to fly around the world,” Eugene Dunning said.
Barely escaping the grasp of Japanese intelligence, the escape of the Pacific Clipper is a story that has captured the ears of 20th Century Fox studios.
Fox has now hired William Wisher (writer for “Terminator 2: Judgment Day,” “Die Hard with a Vengeance” and “Live Free or Die Hard”) to script and produce a fact-based adventure about the Boeing B-314’s race to fly home safely, according to an article in Variety magazine on June 27.
“Dad’s whole career was flying these Clippers,” Jeff Dunning said, paging through the three different books his father has written about his flying journeys.
“It really was a time to fly,” added Eugene Dunning’s daughter, Barbara Wallander.
To contact Staff Writer Lindsey Croft, e-mail lindseyc@the union.com or call 477-4247.
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