Hawaii Clipper

No, this is not a typo; no repeated words.  This article is partially about the disappearance of the Hawaii Clipper plane in 1938; partially about why almost no one has ever heard of this.

The PanAm Clippers were flying boats–passenger planes–that flew from mainland U.S. to China.  Because of the Clippers’ (and all boats at that time) limited range, the Clippers hopped from island base to island base, much like a toad hopping rocks:  Hawaii, Midway, Wake, Guam, Philippines, Macao, and China mainland.

On July 28, 1938, the Hawaii Clipper took off from Guam with six passengers and nine crew.  Destination:  Manila.

Hawaii Clipper PosterThe Clipper Vanishes

At 12:11pm, the Clipper navigator reported to Manila that they were about 2 hours away.  Everything was going smoothly, and weather was fine.  At 12:12pm, Panay Island (just south of Manila) tried to contact the Clipper, but there was no response.

Panay sent several other messages, but with the same result.

No rescue team was sent out immediately because the Clippers knew these waters well, and were equipped for safety.  After all, these were flying boats.  At the worst, they could always put down on the water.

As a Time magazine article of August 8, 1938 says:

Trim and seaworthy, she could ride out rough weather as easily as a small yacht. She had four watertight bulkheads. She carried rubber inflatable boats, a stock of small balloons to drop behind her in hare-hounds fashion to show her course, kites for an emergency radio aerial, a shotgun and fishing tackle in case she piled up on a coral reef, enough food for 15 people for a month.

Yet the Hawaii Clipper has simply vanished.  Nothing was found.  No debris.  No oil.  Nothing.

The $3,000,000 Twist

What few people knew at the time:  the Hawaii Clipper was transporting $3M in U.S. currency, serious money for 1938 (about $45,000,000 in 2010).

A New Jersey Chinese-born restaurateur, Wah Sun Choy, was carrying this cash in his position as President of the Chinese War Relief Committee.  This was money that had come from fundraising in the U.S., to be given over to the Chinese government.

One theory was that Japanese agents had skyjacked the Clipper and forced it to fly the 100 miles to Japanese-held Tinian.  But that’s complete pie-in-the-sky theory; no evidence at all to back this up.

The Mystery of the Mystery:  Little Credible Information

The odd thing is that this event has been lost to history.  After the flurry of contemporary newspaper accounts, little has been written about the Hawaii Clipper.

  • There is a book by Charles Hill titled Fix on the Rising Sun: the Clipper Hi-jacking of 1938—and the Ultimate M.I.A.’s.  Hill’s is a book with fun but potboiler details of conspiracies and reverse-engineering of airplane engines.  Hill–is he even alive anymore?–cares so little about the subject anymore that his site, HawaiiClipper.com, has overgrown with spam.  It’s now called My-Home-Gold.  Nice.
  • The State of Hawaii has a gallery of images of the Hawaii Clipper, but little mention of the mysterious event.
  • Not at all a primary source, a site called Historic Mysteries has an article called “The Hawaii Clipper Disappearance” that is interesting only because it wraps up everything in a few short paragraphs and has a newspaper link.


Since my article was first published, a new and authoritative site has come along:  Lost Clipper.  Find images of crew members, passengers (including the elusive Wah Sun Choy), and of the Clipper itself.  Lost Clipper also reprints the CAA investigation into the crash.

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