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Memorable odyssey recalled

David Mirhadi
John HartEugene Dunning holding a model of the plane at his home off Ridge Road between Grass Valley and Nevada City.
ALL | GrassValleyArchive

They were called flying boats in Gene Dunning’s youth, when they were called “Clippers” to denote their transcontinental abilities during international travel’s embryonic age.

Back then, Pan American Airlines was the only way to fly, with stewards and flight attendants who served meals on fine china, dressed in suits for the well-heeled elite.

Dunning was one of those young stewards in early1942, serving on the last leg of one long, strange trip in history.

The 31,500-mile, 30-day odyssey began the day the Japanese bombed Pearl Harbor, on Dec. 7, 1941. Captained by Robert Ford, the Boeing B-314 took off from San Francisco and headed west, landing for good exactly one month later, after being rerouted at the request of the U.S. government.

Dunning, 84, is the last surviving member of the crew that flew the plane on its last leg from New York to San Francisco in early 1942, his first year with the airline.

“It’s rich,” Dunning said of his place in aviation history. “It’s great,” he said in very deliberate, measured tones, “and I hope that telling the story will make (relatives of the crew) hearts flutter.”

The experience certainly made Dunning’s ticker skip a beat. So big was aviation in Dunning’s life that he spent 44 years working for perhaps the world’s most famous airline.

“This company meant so much to me,” said Dunning, who in 1996, wrote and published a book, “Voices of My Peers: Clipper Memories” about his life with Pan Am.

During his career, Dunning became a supervisor over thousands of flight attendants all over the world.

The story of the flight, as told from the pages of Ford’s journal which are reprinted in Dunning’s book, begins with the 74-passenger plane in the Pacific, on its way to Auckland, New Zealand.

The plane landed in Java first, where the plane was filled with automobile fuel. Overnight, Ford flew the crew to Sri Lanka. Fighting off enemy fire from a Japanese submarine below, the plane flew to Pakistan and over the Persian Gulf.

The next day, the plane set out for Africa, crossing over Belgian Congo. Once in the Congo, the plane took off on a narrow strip of land, missing by inches a canyon that marked the end of the makeshift runway. By this time, the plane was running on gasoline provided in five-gallon drums stored inside the plane.

From there it was off to Brazil and across the Caribbean Sea to New York’s La Guardia airport. By the end of the trip, the plane had touched down on five continents.

Dunning himself, like many of those in the airline industry during that time, served for the Navy and received numerous medals for his service. He’s visited over 100 countries in his lifetime.

“There was a lot more to it than I thought there was going to be,” said Dunning, who is a prominent member of a class of Pan Am alumni members who gather at yearly reunions to swap stories or exchange commemorative Pan Am license plate frames.

“They’re still going strong,” he says of those he met over a four-decade career. “They might have changed their looks over the years, but they’re still bright kids.”

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