By Jim Trautman 

The history of Pan American Airways in the period of World War II, reminds one of an old Hollywood black and white “B” movie. It is a history filled with daring flights, Nazi spies, American and British operatives and pushing men, women and aircraft to the limit. Even today documents are being discovered that provide new information about that period. In the past ten years documents have surfaced that reveal how “yellow cake” uranium was brought from the Belgian Congo on a Pan American Clipper to be stored in a warehouse on Staten Island and was employed in the top secret Manhattan Project that resulted in the development of the atomic bomb. 

Pan American Airways had several secret important missions prior to the United States entry into the conflict on December 7th, 1941. The airline and its giant Clipper flying boats carried secret cargoes and several important secret agents on its flights into Europe and the Far East. Although the fleet of Clippers did not fly into Central or South America, its other aircraft and crews were involved in blunting the massive German operations in those two areas. These were operations that insured that when the war began the vital Panama Canal would not be vulnerable to attack.

Prior to the outbreak of the war in Europe in September, 1939, Pan American Airways had a fantastic year. Their China Clipper flying boats were featured at the New York World’s Fair with the theme “The World of Tomorrow.”  At the same time on the west coast the China Clippers were departing and returning to San Francisco, California. But these weren’t just your run-of-the-mill takeoffs and landings… these aircraft were departing from the Golden Gate International Exposition which was being held on Treasure Island in San Francisco Bay. The Golden Gate Fair theme was “Gateway to the Orient.”  Both fairs returned in 1940, but many nations did not participate due to the war in Europe. The Clippers were featured in the World’s Fair Guide Books, postcards, advertising, and in several movies. One wonderful advertisement has children and adults waving at the Clipper as it flies overhead onward to exotic destinations.

The Official Guide Book New York World’s Fair – (1939-40)

The Pan American Clippers with their giant American flag painted on both sides of the aircraft under the cockpit windows became a focal point for many people visiting the fairs and again later when the Clippers landed in New York Harbour and San Francisco. The daily schedules printed in newspapers for the arrival and departure of ships also included information about which Clipper would be landing or taking off with a list of the passengers on board. 

The Clipper routes across the Atlantic and Pacific Ocean would become critical during the war, not just for moving items such as uranium or military equipment, but for important generals, politicians, business executives and spies that flew on the aircraft. 

Their route across the Pacific Ocean started in San Francisco on to Hawaii – Midway Island, Wake Island, Guam – Philippines and finally landed in Canton, China. 

There were two routes across the Atlantic Ocean; a northern and southern route. The northern route saw the aircraft depart from Baltimore, Maryland, stop at New York City, then Shediac, New Brunswick, on to Botwood, Newfoundland, and finally Foynes, Ireland. The southern route took it across to a landing in Bermuda and then headed on to the final destination of Lisbon, Portugal. 

The Pan American giant flying boats cut several days from time spent traveling by ship across the oceans and provided a safer travel option, avoiding German U-Boats and Japanese submarines.  There were only a total of 28 flying boats and three of the newest B-314’s were given to Great Britain under a Lend Lease deal. Juan Trippe the founder of Pan American gave each aircraft a name since he had once been in the US Navy. Some of the names were the Atlantic Clipper, Dixie Clipper, Yankee Clipper, Hong Kong Clipper. The Hong Kong Clipper was the first civilian aircraft destroyed at the start of the war in the Pacific by Japanese aircraft. The Atlantic and Dixie Clipper became famous as the aircraft which took President Franklin Roosevelt to meet Winston Churchill at Casablanca in January, 1943. On the return flight FDR celebrated his 61st birthday. 

Where the giant American flag had been painted on the three clippers given to Great Britian, a British Union Jack was painted over them to indicate their nationality. The British changed the names of the aircraft to Berwick, Bangor and Bristol. Prime Minister Winston Churchill loved to sit in the pilot’’s seat on long flights smoking his giant cigar with a glass of whiskey. 

The Pan American Airways China Clipper in its wartime camouflage paint scheme with the large American flag.   Credit the Pan American Historical Society.ety

Like those “B” black and white movies of the late 1930’s and the war years the Clippers became a popular vehicle for carrying spies. Various spy operations were created that made use of the aircraft and one had a Canadian connection through Sir William Stephenson, born in Winnipeg, Manitoba. He became one of the main figures in the James Bond movies. He was the head of the British Security Coordination Service. His American counterpart was “Wild” Bill Donovan head of the forerunner of the CIA the Office of Strategic Services. Both ran their spy operations out of the 32nd and 33rd Floor of Rockefeller Center, New York City. One of the OSS agents would become better known as chef Julia Childs. 

Sir William Stephenson the Spy Master in his World War I uniform.  
  Credit: Intrepid Society

Since New York City was a main hub for passing along information vital to the war effort, both Stephenson and Donovan set up an operation at the Clippers’ stopover in Bermuda where where 1,200 British operatives would search the mail on its way to Lisbon and New York City, looking for coded messages. The operation snared a major Nazi courier who was working as a steward on the Pan American flight to Lisbon and back. Rene Mezenen would carry information on spies operating on the east coast and provide shipping news that was sent onto the U-Boats operating on the US Atlantic coast. Lisbon, had become a major center to pass along information to the Nazi spy operation the Abwehr. When Mezenen was arrested, he claimed that even if the aircraft was taken apart no one would discover his hiding place. 

British diplomat Sir Anthony Eden at Botwood with the Clipper in the background. The aircraft may be one of the three given to the British during World War II.   Credit: Botwood Heritage Society Archives.

The operation coordinated by Donovan and Stephenson discovered that there was a Nazi plot to plant a bomb on the Clippers. The Nazis knew that the Clippers carried important passengers and the loss of key passengers would damage the Allied war effort. 

The Clippers carried “Wild” Bill Donovan on many flights and on one flight in March, 1941, having traveled over 26,000 miles visiting   England, Ireland, Spain and North Africa, he felt he had learned things that could be of great value to the US in defence.” He immediately went to brief FDR and the briefing resulted in sending Lee-Grant tanks and other equipment which assisted the British in the North African Campaign. 

Some of the other famous people that flew on the Clippers were Shirley Temple, Bob Hope and his troupe, (on their way to entertain the troops) Ernest Hemingway, John Kennedy, Sir Anthony Eden and Mrs. Roosevelt, who signed the guest book at Botwood with her code name Mrs. Smith. 

The Bob Hope entertainment troupe in Botwood, Newfoundland.
 Bob Hope, singer Francis Langford, Johnny Romano and Jack Pepper. Pan American refueling stop.  
  Credit Botwood Hertiage Society Archives

To pass the time on the flights everyone would play the World War II “Short Snorter” Game. The name referred to a short, stiff drink. The passengers would sign $1 dollar bills and the goal was to see by the end of the war who had the most names on a bill. Another game rule was that if someone met a “Short Snorter” and they could not produce their bill they were required to purchase the first round of drinks. In 2017 the Marlene Dietrich collection of 82 bills with hundreds of autographs fetched $5,200 at auction. 

General George Patton Jr., Winston Churchill, Harry Hopkins, Lord Louis Mountbatten and Mrs. Roosevelt were just a few who played the game. There is a historical site that has a picture of her signing bills for the troops. The site is interesting; as soon as you click onto the site big band music begins to play and there are news reports of the war. It’s filled with information and is a historical piece of World War II, not known by many. A sad but unmentioned fact of the game was that the players knew that many would never survive to meet again at the end of the war. One other piece of trivia related to the flights of the Pan American Clippers was the invention of Irish Coffee.

Mrs. Cobb owner of the little restaurant in 
Botwood,  Newfoundland.   
Credit:  Botwood Heritage Society Archives

In 1943 a Clipper flying from Foynes, Ireland to Botwood had to turn back due to strong headwinds. The passengers were an unhappy lot and the chef at Foynes, Joe Sheridan, mixed whiskey and coffee topped with whipped cream. When a passenger asked if it was Brazilian coffee, he replied no, it was Irish. Sheridan eventually moved to San Francisco and became famous for his Irish Coffee.  Sadly, there are no remaining Clippers; not one resides in an air museum.  Those that weren’t destroyed during the war were worn out and too expensive to operate. But in the Clippers Golden Age, they are an incredible part of World War II history.  The stories connected to them and their exploits are endless. 


  1. Excluding the war, was it a better time? I think perhaps for the elite. Now, Joe Shmoe can fly from N.Y. to Europe for $799 bucks. He has to stay in some flea-bag hotel and eat a lot of fish and chips. As long as the place has a hot water shower and I’m not sharing a room with some blote, I would be able to enjoy my visit. In the old days the gentreed were treated much better. Todays super rich fly on private jets which have comfortable seats. Nice food and pampered service is a thing of the past. It was fun while it lasted.

  2. ernie ooms says:

    I am currently working on a plastic model of the China Clipper.It was produced in 1957 by the Strombecker Co, Long gone. I found it as a collectable on the internet. It is the only Clipper kit I have ever found after years of searching.
    But I can’t find the paint scheme used! Unfortunately all the pictures are in black and white.
    I would really like an idea.
    Ernie Ooms

    1. Lynne Dokurno says:

      Not sure what to suggest! Perhaps one of our readers can offer a suggestion? If we receive any ideas, we’ll let you know.

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