by Eric Niderost
On the afternoon of January 7, 1943, Boeing 314s Dixie Clipper and Atlantic Clipper took off from the Marine Air Terminal, La Guardia Airport in New York, their destination Miami. Captain Howard Cone, Jr., was at the controls of Dixie Clipper and, as the veteran pilot eased the throttles forward, the giant seaplane began to lift its enormous bulk out of Riker’s Island Channel, long plumes of water trailing in its wake as it gained altitude. It was the beginning of what was to prove a very historic journey.
Both flying boats reached Miami safely after a 71/2-hour flight. Cone and Atlantic Clipper Captain Richard Vidal knew something was up, but they were deliberately kept in the dark for the time being. They knew the assignment was designated “SM 70,” the letters standing for “Special Mission,” but this appeared to be nothing out of the ordinary.
When war broke out in 1941, the United States had only 55 four-engine aircraft, mostly commercial airliners. But the Boeing 314 flying boats, together with the Martin M-130s, had the capacity for transporting large amounts of cargo and/or passengers across vast distances. This made them crucial for the war effort.
A Marriage of Convenience
Pan American Airways teamed up with the U.S. military, a “marriage” of convenience that would last for the duration. It may have been a hasty union brought on by the exigencies of war, but it seemed to work well. Each of the 314s was sold to the War Department for $900,000. Then the flying boats were allotted to the Army and Navy. Although technically government aircraft, much would go on as before. Pan American would operate flight schedules and maintain the aircraft. Airplanes would be crewed by Pan American personnel, not the military.
In return for these concessions, President Franklin D. Roosevelt had originally wanted to requisition all commercial aircraft outright. Pan Am had to be ready to supply flying boats for special missions. The assignments varied. They might be used to transport vitally important cargo or to ferry “Priority One” passengers across the ocean.
Captain Cone and his nine-man Dixie Clipper crew wore tan naval reserve uniforms for the flight, abandoning their customary blue “sea captain” Pan Am garb. The stayover at Miami proved a busy one. The two flying boats were serviced and thoroughly checked, though both had earlier undergone major overhauls.
Captain Cone and Captain Vidal received secret orders during a flight briefing four days after their arrival in Florida. The itinerary was intriguing, but still unrevealing. The first leg of the journey would be to the Caribbean, namely Port of Spain, Trinidad. Belem, Brazil—a city at the mouth of thegreat Amazon River—would be the next hop. After that, the clippers were to proceed to Bathurst, Gambia, a British colony in northwest Africa.
After checking weather details and going over flight plans, Cole and Vidal were finally given passenger manifests. It was certainly a VIP roster, top-heavy with Navy brass such as Admiral William D. Leahy and Admiral Ross T. McIntyre. But the name “Harry Hopkins” gave the first real clue as to the importance of the mission, since Hopkins was a close adviser to President Roosevelt. Cone’s eyes were drawn to the top of the list, which mentioned a “Passenger No. One” but did not further identify the mysterious traveler. A final manifest changed “Passenger No. One” to “Mr. Jones.”
This was a transparent ploy that did not fool anyone, least of all the Pan Am veteran. Cone’s pulse must have raced faster as he grasped the heady implications: Right in the middle of a global war, Franklin Roosevelt would be the first American president in history to take an international overseas flight. While Cone reveled in his good fortune, some 2,200 pounds of luggage was being stowed aboard the two clippers. Red-tagged bags were earmarked for the Dixie Clipper, green-tagged for her sister flying boat moored nearby.
Every effort was made to ensure the comfort of the president and his entourage; nothing was overlooked. Inventory included 900 pounds of bottled water. Captain Cole carefully went over a final preflight check, then went down to Dixie Clipper’s spacious lounge to await his distinguished guest. Important journeys were usually carried out under the cloak of darkness, and this mission was no exception. During the chill predawn hours of January 11, 1943, all was in readiness for the arrival of the commander-in-chief.