Former Pan Am employees revisit old Clipper landing site

(Top) Little remains of the dock Pan Am Clippers stopped at en route to Asia. (Left) A plaque marks the spot at Pearl City Peninsula where the Pan Am "China Clipper" landed in 1935. (Above) "Clipper houses" were used by the crews of Pan Am's transpacific flights to rest between trips.

(Top) Little remains of the dock Pan Am Clippers stopped at en route to Asia. (Left) A plaque marks the spot at Pearl City Peninsula where the Pan Am “China Clipper” landed in 1935. (Above) “Clipper houses” were used by the crews of Pan Am’s transpacific flights to rest between trips.

Story and photos by Brandon Bosworth

Staff Writer

About two dozen former employees of Pan American World Airways, better known as Pan Am, gathered at Pearl City Peninsula on July 18 to reminisce and visit the site where Pan Am’s Clippers landed en route from the U.S. west coast to Asia.

Clippers were “flying boats”: fixed-winged sea-planes with a hull allowing them to land on water. The first Pan Am Clipper to land at Pan American Airways Ocean Air Base Number One at the Pearl City Peninsula was the famous “China Clipper.” It touched down in the waters of Pearl Harbor on Nov. 23, 1935 after 21 hours and 20 minutes of flying time. At least 3,000 people gathered to greet the clipper. Waikiki Before Waikiki

In the late 19th and early 20th centuries, Pearl City and Pearl Harbor were very popular with the yachting community and the island’s wealthier residents. Jeff Dodge, historical architect at

Naval Facilities Engineering Command (NAVFAC), described the area as “Waikiki before Waikiki was Waikiki.” Many prominent Hawaii families had homes at the peninsula, including the Dillingham, Atkinson, Dowsett and Cooke families.

Many of these homes eventually became what were known as “Clipper houses” where crews of Pan Am’s transpacific flights rested in between trips. To accommodate more people, the Clipper houses were furnished with hammocks instead of conventional beds. Today, only two of the original houses are still standing.

Even less of the dock for the flying boats remains.

“The dock was once intact and much larger,” said Paula Helfrich as she pointed to the remnants of the dock. Hefrich worked for Pan American World Airways from 1965 to 1986 and flew the line in six locations all over the world.

“Past where it ends now, there were 400 to 500 yards of wooden docks,” she said. “Planes had an unimpeded ability to coast in and land.”

At one point, Pan Am planes landed at Pearl City Peninsula about two to three times a week, and about 75 Pan Am employees worked at the location. However, the days of the Clippers at Pearl Harbor were numbered.

Like so much else in America, everything changed as a result of the Dec. 7, 1941 Japanese attack on Pearl Harbor.

“There were three or four Clippers in the water when the attack started,” said Helfrich.

“They were dragged on land to get them away from the bombs.”

Pan Am employees quickly went out on boats to lend whatever assistance they could and ended up rescuing more than 250 people. By nightfall, the rescue efforts were essentially over, and workers turned to the sad task of recovering bodies. Remembering 50th Anniversary

Dec. 7 essentially marked the end of Pan Am’s time at Pearl Harbor.

“Soon after the attack they moved to Lagoon Drive,” said Dodge.

In November 1985, there was an event to celebrate the 50th anniversary of the first Pan Am “China Clipper” flight. Diane Vanderzanden, who worked as a flight attendant for the company in Hawaii from 1963 to 1986, participated in the celebration.

“We invited famous people who were friends of Pan Am,” she said. “About seven limos came down a dirt road to the peninsula. It was pretty hot, so we had to hold umbrellas for our guests.”

A ceremony was held at the landing site of the Clippers, and then the guests traveled in a convoy to the Royal Hawaiian Hotel in Waikiki where they were staying.

Pan Am continued to operate in Hawaii until the company ceased Pacific operations in 1986. Besides remnants of the landing dock and a couple of the homes used as Clipper houses, little of Pan American Airways Ocean Air Base Number One in Pearl City remains.

A memorial plaque at Pearl City Peninsula marks the spot where the “China Clipper” made history, ensuring that, while the famed Clipper planes are long gone, they will not be forgotten.

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