Simanaitis Says

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INTERESTING ISLAND history lives in the tale of transpacific air travel. In the Golden Years of Aviation, 1919 – 1939, airliners lacked sufficient range for the vastness of the Pacific. But a single airline, Pan American Airways, headed by a singular individual, Juan Trippe, accepted this challenge. A four-stop route was devised from San Francisco to Manila, in the Philippines, thence continuing to China.


Transpacific itinerary, Pan American Clipper, late 1930s. Image from

Three of these intermediate stops were hitherto alien to aviation; two of them, pretty much uninhabited until Pan Am came along. Today, one of the islands continues as a vacation destination, another is off limits because of government budget cuts, and researching the third might get you to a Japanese dating service.


Juan Terry Trippe, 1899 – 1981, American airline entrepreneur. Image from Time magazine, July 1933.

In 1934, politics and diplomacy stymied Pan American Airways in its plans for transatlantic airline service. Instead, Trippe turned to the Pacific. Reaching the Hawaiian Islands 2400 miles from San Francisco was daunting enough. However, a Pan Am Sikorsky S-42 Flying Clipper, with part of its passenger accommodations swapped for extra fuel, made this flight in 1935. From there, it was 1380 miles to Midway, one of the island outposts used by the Commercial Pacific Cable Company in its 1902 – 1903 laying of transpacific telegraph communications.

Not long after the Pacific Cable work, President Theodore Roosevelt stationed 21 U.S. Marines on Midway, in part to protect the cable station, in part to enhance milady’s hats. Fashion of the era called for lots of feathers, and Japanese poachers were dangerously close to wiping out Midway’s bird population.


Midway’s gooneybirds were protected by Teddy Roosevelt and shared their name with Pan Am’s accommodations for transpacific guests. This and the following, U.S. Navy photos.

Pan Am inaugurated commercial transpacific service in October 1936. After Honolulu, passengers spent their second overnight on Midway. The Flying Clipper set down in a lagoon, where a small powerboat and station wagon took them to the specially constructed Pan Am Hotel, nicknamed the Gooneyville Lodge in honor of the local gooneybird (albatross) population.

World War II’s Battle of Midway, June 4 – 6, 1942, was one of the first fought between aircraft carrier forces (the Battle of Coral Sea took place a month earlier).


Midway Atoll, November 1941.

Midway, an atoll of Sand, Spit and Eastern Island, is now administered by the U.S. Fish and Wildlife Service as the Midway Atoll National Wildlife Refuge. Some 50 members of the FWS live there, but because of federal budget cuts in 2013, there are no longer any visitor or volunteer programs.

Pan Am chose Wake Island as its next transpacific stop because of its location, 1260 miles from Midway, 1560 miles from Guam, with little else in between. It’s said Trippe “discovered” Wake by studying 19th century clipper ship logs. In fact, though uninhabited, Wake has a history of sea stories dating from Spanish explorers stopping there in 1567 to replenish water (there was none), to ship wrecks in the 1800s (the German passenger ship Libelle, the British tea clipper Dashing Wave), to its own episodes with early 20th-century Japanese feather-poaching.


Atoll of Wake Island. Image by Todd VerBeek.

Pan Am arrived in 1935, set up refueling and maintenance, along with a hotel in what came to be known as PAAville. This time, the trip from lagoon to hotel involved a 2000-ft. narrow-gauge railway nicknamed the Wilkes Island Rail Road. Wake also had one of the early successes of hydroponic gardening, with vegetables grown for the hotel restaurant.

Wake Island was under Japanese control from December 1941 until September 1945. After the war, it became increasingly important in international air travel.


The Wake Atoll. Image from the U.S. Air Force.

The Wake Atoll, consisting of Peale, Wilkes and Wake Islands, was designated a National Historic Landmark in 1985. There are about 85 people living on its 2.7 sq. mi.

Pan Am was a relative late comer to Guam. Its indigenous Chamorro people arrived from Austronesia as early as 2000 B.C. Ferdinand Magellan visited it in 1521 and Spain claimed the 209-sq.-mi. island in 1565. Spain and the Jesuits decimated the Chamorro population; typhoons, tsunamis and an earthquake didn’t help. The U.S. won Guam fair and square in the 1898 Spanish-American War.

Commercial Pacific Cable was there in 1903. As early as 1921, Guam had a seaplane facility, which Pan Am enhanced in 1935. During World War II, the Japanese had a particularly oppressive occupation of Guam from December 8, 1941, until July 21, 1944, its Liberation Day.


Hotels in Tumon, Guam. Image from

Today, Chamorros make up more than a third of Guam’s 160,000 inhabitants. The University of Guam, Guam Community College and Pacific Islands University are nationally accredited. UoG is one of only 76 U.S. institutions with land-grant status. Tourism is a major part of Guam’s economy. United Airlines, which maintains a hub there, is its largest private-sector employer.

The Japanese dating service connection? This relates to Wake Island and a contentious claim from the Kingdom of EnenKio, a sovereign Micronesian micronation. The website was once secured by a firm linking it to a Japanese dating website.

I tried it, and got “This page can’t be displayed.” ds

© Dennis Simanaitis,


  1. Victor Ceicys
    May 31, 2015

    In 1955 my family traveled using Air Canada as the carrier to fly from Sydney to the USA, the air fare/ticket included hotel accommodations at each refueling stop. Initially In the first leg of the transpacific flight we flew from Sydney’s Kingsford Smith airport to Fiji where we stayed the night, the next day we flew to Honolulu and stayed the night at Waikiki beach at the Moana Surfrider which was one of the two hotels at Waikiki in 1955, not the huge choice available now. We stayed a day at Waikiki enjoying the beach. The next day the final leg of the crossing was to L.A. Then we flew a transcontinental leg to Cleveland. In all an epic and memorable trip for a six year old.

    Interestingly when the equator was crossed, champagne was served to all adults on the flight whereas the few children on the flight were escorted one by one into the cockpit, allowed to sit in the co-pilot’s seat, and were pinned with beautiful official Air Canada pilot lapel wings making lifetime memories. TransPacific flying had an unrepeatable elegance then, probably frightfully dear/expensive. I never asked my parents how much that trip cost, probably wouldn’t have been told if I did, but I have fondly remembered that trip.

    To this day I still remember how we flew into Fiji at the breaking dawn, and how I was mesmerized by the fantastic lighting of the dawn highlighting the green of the Island cradled by the blue of the Pacific. Sixty years later those visual memories are as intense as any that I have ever had, and are as fresh as memories from only a few moments ago.

    I suspect that the Pan Am’s Clipper crossings would have been equally memorable with superb hotel accommodations as part of the experience.

    As Henry N. Manner III would say:

    Yr fthfl svnt,

    • simanaitissays
      May 31, 2015

      Thank you for these wonderful recollections. What a treat for us to share.

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