"FORTY MINUTES TO PEARL"
Photo, courtesy the Boeing Co.
Over the years, I've discovered and written a number of aviation stories that were so interesting or so much fun that I've re-told them many times. This is one of those stories, and this is one of those times.Forty Minutes to Pearl was first published in the early 1970s.
"I had gone down below and was having breakfast. Everything was all secured. I had a capable crew on the flight deck. The radio operator had tuned to a local Honolulu station, KGMB, and was sitting there listening to Sunday morning music. All of a sudden, that music stopped and over the radio was announced that Pearl Harbor was being attacked by unidentified aircraft."
Captain Harry Lanier Turner had a crew of nine and thirty-seven passengers aboard Pan American's Anzac Clipper that morning. He was near the end of the first leg of a 14 day round trip from San Francisco to Singapore..just 40 minutes from arrival at Honolulu. It was December 7th, 1941.
The Anzac Clipper was a Boeing 314, one of the family popularly called the "China Clippers," and Turner was one of the first skippers to fly the trans-Pacific runs, starting with the airline at Miami in 1929.
Pan Am was a seaplane operation from the start, so that's what Turner (File Photo, right) flew in the early days, but the million dollar, 42 ton Clippers were the biggest of the flying boats. Command was a tremendous responsiblity at any time..but this one day would top them all. .
The story actually begins a couple of hours before scheduled takeoff on December 6th. "On this particular occasion," Turner recalls, "I had wanted to drop in and hear at least the first few notes of my daughter's piano recital, so I telephoned dispatch at Treasure Island and got permission." Then, on the way from Oakland, where the Turners lived at the time, traffic snarls added another ten minutes to the delay. That, followed by an exceptionally long pre-departure briefing on what Turner called the "political atmosphere in the Pacific," made for a late departure of 5:40 PM. But Captains were Kings then..even more so than today..and nobody thought much about it. As it turned out, the Clipper was 40 minutes late but 'way ahead of the game.
It was an uneventful night. Captain Turner recalled that optimum cruise for the Boeing Clippers was around 92 knots. Flying to Honolulu at those speeds usually took between 14 and a half and 16 hours. Fuel was critical on the overwater passages, so nobody tried to make up lost time. Turner said that one trip in the original Clipper, built by Martin, he did it in 25 hours and 42 minutes against terrific headwinds which developed after the point of no return. But on this trip it was a textbook operation until just before 8AM, Honolulu time.
Things were normal with two pilots, an engineer and a radio operator on duty when Turner went down to the salon (Below, courtesy of the Boeing Co.)for breakfast, having spent time at his desk in the rear of the flight deck. When he descended the spiral staircase, they were close enough to Honolulu that First Radio Officer, W. H. Bell, was turned to a Honolulu radio station. Most of the passengers, including the Shah of Iran and U Saw, the Premier of Burma, were out of their sleeping berths and looking for breakfast. Turner had just poured his coffee and was sitting down with his distinguished guests when Bell clatttered down the stair, clearly in a panic.
"His eyes were about the size of saucers," Turner recalled. "He informed me of the fact" of the bombing at Pearl Harbor. "I went back up, he got to the (ear)phones again; I put on a pair of 'phones and at that time it was announced definitely the aircraft attacking were Japanese." At that moment, the Anzac Clipper was just forty minutes from touchdown in Pearl Harbor.
Looking back, Turner said, "The fact that I had delayed this departure by forty minutes was exactly the time that I normally would have been into or over Pearl Harbor, and it goes without saying that we would have been the first (incoming) to be shot down. It was a big craft and they were shooting at anything they could see, and very effectively, too."
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