Pan Am’s “Pacific Clipper” was just a few hours out of Auckland, New Zealand when the Radio Operator picked up the transmission of the news that Pearl Harbor had been attacked and that the USA was at war. It was Dec, 1941 and the Captain, Robert Ford, quickly realized that they would not be able to return via the route they had came over the South Pacific. It took a week before the US Embassy in Auckland gave them the word that the Pacific Clipper was to return the long way, westbound around the world to their home base at New York’s LaGuardia Marine Terminal.
For Ford and his crew of nine, it was a daunting assignment. Facing a journey of over 30,000 miles, over oceans and lands that none of them had ever seen, they would have to do all their own planning and servicing, scrounging whatever supplies and equipment they needed; all this in the face of a beginning war in the Far East with Japan and an ongoing war in Europe.
Their first stop was in Noumea to pick up the Pan American staff stationed there and evacuate them to Queensland. From there they flew to Darwin, then a rough frontier town. The fuel there was stored in five gallon jerry cans and each can had to be hauled up over the wing and emptied into the tanks. They were uncertain as to how far the Japanese had advanced into the Dutch East Indies, but it was the only route available to them. They flew the fourteen hundred miles to Surabaya where there was a squadron of RAF Bristol Beaufort fighters stationed. A flight of the fighters met the Flying Boat and discussed on the their radios whether they should shoot it down, The Pan Am crew could hear the conversation but they could not transmit to the fighters. Finally an RAF controller said to allow the Clipper to land, but to shoot it down if it did anything suspicious.
As it happened, the Clipper sat down in a stretch of calm water just outside the harbor but the welcoming launch would not approach them until they had taxied into the harbor; as they found out later they had landed in the middle of a minefield. Another unpleasant surprise came when they learned they could not refuel with 100 octane aviation gas. However there was plenty of automotive gas available, so they had no choice but to refuel with it. The next leg of the flight would be over the Indian Ocean with no place to refuel. The two flight engineers transferred the remaining aviation gas into two main fuselage tanks and filled all the other tanks with the automotive fuel.
After Ford had achieved cruising level using the aviation fuel, the Clipper was switched over to the automotive gas. The Wright Cyclones shuddered a little and then settled down to their usual drone. They would operate on the lower octane fuel but at a reduced power output.
As they approached Ceylon, Captain Ford lowered the Clipper out of the cloud cover so as not to miss the island, when they spotted a Japanese submarine on the ocean surface. They could see the crew running to man the deck guns as Ford quickly jammed the throttles forward to climb power and got back into the cloud cover. They landed on the water at Trincomalee, where their report of seeing a Japanese submarine was discounted as rubbish by the Royal Navy Commodore in command of the base.