Historic Clipper site brings back memories for former employees

Paula Helfrich (left), longtime Pan Am employee discusses the history of the airline at Pearl City Peninsula with Jeff Dodge (right), historical architect at Naval Facilities Engineering Command. U.S. Navy photo by Brandon Bosworth

Paula Helfrich (left), longtime Pan Am employee discusses the history of the airline at Pearl City Peninsula with Jeff Dodge (right), historical architect at Naval Facilities Engineering Command. U.S. Navy photo by Brandon Bosworth

Meg Petrone

Contributing Writer

More than 70 years after the Pan Am Clippers came to Hawaii, former Pan Am employees and family members joined together July 18 to celebrate and remember the great journey and accomplishments of Pan Am’s flying days.

During the 1930s, Pan Am “flying boats,” better known as the Pan Am Clippers, used Ford Island as a landing base and terminal. The Clippers subsequently relocated to Pearl City Peninsula due to an increase in activity on Ford Island.

“I remember we were all close and, in time, I started bringing groups of school kids down so that they could learn and see firsthand what Pan Am was doing, and I remember Alex Luca being very instrumental in that,” said Paula Helfrich, who formerly worked for Pan American World Airways.

Luca was in charge of the crash boat, which meant he accompanied the “flying boats” out for takeoff in case of an emergency.

However, on Dec. 7, 1941, Luca’s job intensified. Instead of running a crash boat for “just in case” purposes, he was responding to a horrific scene-the aftermath of the attack on Pearl Harbor.

“Virginia Seams was the first Pan Am member to witness the attack on Pearl Harbor, and she screamed for help immediately. Everyone in the area began dragging the three or four Clippers that were in port to land to try and avoid the bombs,” Helfrich said.

She explained that Luca immediately began running the crash boat. At first, he rescued Sailors in hopes that they would have a chance of survival. Later, he began retrieving the bodies of those who died in the attack.

Shortly after the attack on Pearl Harbor, Pan Am stopped all flights from Pearl City Peninsula.

On Nov. 22, 1985, a plaque was placed at Pearl City Peninsula in honor of Pan Am on the 50th anniversary of its first transpacific flight. A celebration took place for the unveiling of the plaque and many-honored guests were in attendance.

However, just a few days prior to the unveiling, Helfrich and another employee decided to add a little piece of history to the plaque.

“We made a roster of all the employees’ names and years of service with Pan Am and, in the dead of night, we placed it into the foundation before the plaque was set,” Helfrich said.

She explained that the employees of Pan Am were just your everyday people, but said that each employee brought his own unique aspect and that’s what kept things going so smoothly.

During their visit, the former employees and family members walked around Pearl City Peninsula, sharing stories from the past and filling in missing pieces of history.

“I grew up on a farm and I went to college and became a teacher, and I did teach for two years. Then here I was, flying around the world. It was a wonderful experience,” said Diane Vanderzanden, who was a Pan Am flight attendant for 23 years.

“I am a tourist at heart, and I believe that’s how many of us were,” she said.

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Category: News