Thursday 1 September 2022

The Hawaii Clipper: Mystery, Tragedy and The U.S.-Japan Pacific Rivalry

Right: Watson Choy the San Francisco-born Jersey City-based Chinese-American entrepreneur who was taking $3 million dollars worth of gold certificates to the Chinese Nationalist Army, and left: The Saturday, July 30, 1938, edition of the New York Daily News hints at the possibility of sabotage.

The disappearance of the Hawaii Clipper, a Pan American-operated seaplane in July 1938 is a mystery-tragedy set against the backdrop of the geopolitical rivalry between the United States of America and the Empire of Japan which was centred on the expansive Pacific Ocean region.

On July 29th, 1938, the "Hawaii Clipper", a PanAm-operated seaplane disappeared between Guam and Manilla, Philippines, just over half-way through a 9,000-mile journey from Alameda, California to Hong Kong.

A large-scale air and sea search of an area where an oil slick was discovered was launched by the United States army and naval forces but was unsuccessful. The clipper was not found landed safely in the ocean as was hoped. Nor was any wreckage found. Later analysis of the sample oil found in the area of search was attributed to bilge water from a ship.

The last message from the Clipper which was sent as it navigated through the typhoon cradle of the Pacific Ocean informed air control in California about having problems with rain static.

The cause of the crash which claimed fifteen people could thus be put down to severe weather. The flight captain was also claimed by some to have been a poor pilot whose lack of professionalism negatively impacted on the crews he commanded.

However, the tragedy of the Clipper has been surrounded by a mystery which accommodates two potent and interconnecting conspiracy theories:

1. The revelation that Wah Sun Choy (Watson Choy), a Jersey City-based Chinese-American entrepreneur was carrying $3 Million in gold certificates (worth approximately $50 million today) to China which he intended to give to the Kuomintang Party of the Nationalist leader Chiang Kai-Shek invited the theory that the plane may have been the victim of a hijacking perpetrated by Japan.

Apart from Choy, the presence of two other passengers who may have been construed as having an anti-Japanese agenda fuelled this theory. Edward E. Wyman was the vice president of export sales for the Curtiss-Wright Corporation which wanted to sell fighter aircraft to the Kuomintang, while Major Howard C. French, commander of the 321st Observation Squadron, was on his way to monitor the Japanese bombing of Canton.

One version is that Japanese agents armed with revolvers stowed away in the baggage compartment of the Clipper emerged later to stage the first skyjacking in history. Another story has the Clipper being forced to land at sea by an intercepting Japanese military seaplane.

In both scenarios, all the passengers were taken to a Japanese controlled island and executed. The bodies of the victims are claimed to have been buried on an atoll in the central Pacific. The supposed hijackers are often identified as service personnel of the Imperial Japanese Navy.

2. The disappearance without trace of the Clipper occurred one year after the equally mysterious disappearance of the famed aviatrix Amelia Earhart. This has invited a theory that the money being carried by Watson Choy was a ransom paid by the United States government to secure the release of Earhart who subsequently lived out the remainder of her life in New Jersey under the alias of “Irene Bolam”.

In the absence of concrete evidence through documentation and DNA analysis, both theories cannot be said to have a basis in fact. But while the second theory involving Earhart appears even more fanciful than the first one, the subtext that Amelia Earhart was using a portion of the Pacific segment of her circumnavigation of the globe to spy on Japanese installations on the express wishes of President Franklin Roosevelt does not at all sound far-fetched.

It is important to note that the clash between the expanding empire of Japan and the rising power of the United States over economic and military hegemony in the Pacific was one which both nations had been preparing for since at least the 1920s.

It is not beyond the realms of possibility that Earhart was on a spying mission:

. Kermit Roosevelt sr. (the son of President Theodore Roosevelt and father to Kermit Jr. the CIA Middle East Station chief who orchestrated the overthrow of Mohamed Mossadegh of Iran) provided useful intelligence data related to Japan to the authorities during leisure trips on his yacht when sailing in the Pacific.

. In 1931, the U.S. government authorised the aviator Charles A. Lindbergh to be sent as a spy to the west shore of Hudson Bay to investigate the possibility of using seaplanes for warfare, as well as to seek out points of low resistance as potential bridgeheads.

It is possible that the Japanese military may have shot down the plane she and her navigator Fred Noonan were flying in if they used a flight path near security sensitive Japanese areas.

However, no evidence from Japanese records exists of an order being given to shoot down her plane or to execute Earhart and Noonan as has been alleged.

The loss without trace of small planes in the vast expanse of the Pacific is not an exceptional phenomenon. And unless the sea gives up the dead or evidence that the passengers on the Clipper and Earhart & Noonan were executed and buried on one of the Pacific islands, both losses may be concluded to have arisen from crashes enabled by the forces of nature, of mechanical failure or of pilot error.

© Adeyinka Makinde (2022)

Adeyinka Makinde is a writer based in London, England.

Further reading:

Hawaii Clipper | 29 July 1938, 04:11 GCT | This Day in Aviation

Vanished!: What Happened to the Hawaii Clipper? | HistoryNet

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