Accidental Witness To History

The weave of time and history can loop back on itself in many unusual ways.

Air Line Pilot, March 2001, p. 28
By Capt. Paul Ries (Alaska); Illustration by Jack Pardue

During my short tenure with Pan American World Airways, I heard many stories about the early days of the flying boats. Several tall tales of adventures connected with the Flying Clippers floated around the company. The bits and pieces of these legends of aviation history came to be passed down to the succeeding generation of crews on darkened flight decks during prolonged flights while plying the skies over the world’s oceans. Time and again, I heard of one crew who accomplished the unbelievable after the bombing of Pearl Harbor. While the world caught fire in war, this crew escaped the Pacific war zone by flying their Boeing 314 home the long way around the globe. No one I spoke with knew the complete story or if it was, in fact, true. Most information was sketchy, full of holes, or involved a myth of "Purser’s Gold." Nevertheless, I always wondered if the account was true, and if so, how it evolved.

A few years after Pan Am folded its wings, I discovered the truth on the eighth floor of the University of Miami’s Richter Library, where most of what remains of Pan Am’s records have been preserved. In boxes and files is the documentation that fills in some of the details of the round-the-world flight by B-314, NC-18602, originally christened California Clipper. The rescued letters, reports, radio logs, and photographs introduced me to Capt. Robert Ford and the crew who made the flight and created the heroic legend on little more than their wits and dedication.

Hidden among those documents, and somewhat overshadowed by the enormity of the flight as well as the secrecy that military intelligence imposed on the airline and crew during that critical time in history, I discovered a mystery crew member who was nearly forgotten, except for the part he played in the historical context of the event and his place among the rest of the crew in life as the last survivor. His destiny was written by the capricious winds of chance.

In April 1940, Eugene Leach, a 20-year-old ham radio operator from Fremont, Calif., hired on with Pan American Airways to work as a radio technician at the airline’s Treasure Island facility. Two years later, the winds of fate had young Gene installing the latest radio equipment on Pan Am’s launch tenders and operations offices throughout Pan Am’s chain of Pacific Island stations. After completing his work in Noumea, New Caledonia, Leach left the island assigned as a supernumerary crew member and radio operator aboard California Clipper enroute to Auckland, New Zealand, with Capt. Ford’s crew.

A little more than an hour out of Noumea, according to Leach’s radio log, at 0743 a.m., Dec. 7, 1941, Honolulu time, he received the Morse Code transmission that would place his crew in aviation history and change the world forever: The Japanese were bombing Pearl Harbor! In disbelief, Leach handed the decoded message forward to Capt. Ford, who broke the news to the rest of the crew and began implementing the precautionary steps of Pan American’s "Plan A." Capt. Ford ordered that radio silence be maintained and that they divert their course by 50 miles to avoid being intercepted by an enemy who may have pinpointed their position from their previous reports. California Clipper and crew moored up 2 hours late, unscathed, in Auckland, much to the disbelief of the Pan Am launch crew who tended the airplane on its arrival.

After an extended layover in Auckland awaiting further orders, the crew of the Clipper, including Gene Leach, was ordered to bring the flying boat home, taking the long way around, to support the war effort. First, however, they were given a rescue mission—return to Noumea to evacuate the remaining 22 Pan Am employees and families from the war zone to Gladstone, Australia.

The crew’s adventure continued beyond Gladstone for another 21 days, ending Jan. 6, 1942, at La Guardia Marine Air Terminal, after they had circumnavigated Earth near its equator.

In a tortured course to avoid global war zones, the series of flights covered 31,500 miles, bridged three oceans, and crossed 6,026 miles of desert and jungle with little hope of survival for the flying boat’s crew if they had to make an emergency landing. They crisscrossed the equator six times, touching down on all but two of the world’s continents, to set the record for longest over-water leg and highest takeoff altitude for a flying boat, as well as being the first airliner ever to fly around the world.

Capt. Ford and his crew overcame enormous odds to get the Clipper home to U.S. waters, including several almost fatal narrow escapes. Besides evading the deck guns of a Japanese submarine off the coast of Ceylon and being boarded by Nazi agents in Natal, California Clipper, in a case of mistaken identity and wartime jitters, was intercepted and nearly shot down by Dutch fighters as it approached Surabaya. Maintenance and 100-octane fuel were a constant concern and challenge as the crew kept the huge Boeing flying.

Through letters archived in the Richter Library, I was able to find the almost forgotten and last surviving Pan Am crew member who lived and witnessed this piece of aviation history. When I finally met Gene Leach after numerous phone calls and letters, I found a very sincere 78-year-old gentleman still willing to master the latest technology of a new computer, as well as using his ham radio to stay in touch with his worldwide circle of friends.

After years of learning as much as I could about this flight, I had many questions for Leach. When asked what was the most remarkable part of the flight for him, he quietly replied, "That we even made it at all."

Leach attributed the flight’s successful outcome primarily to Capt. Ford as well as to the professional standards that Pan Am set and to which the entire crew adhered. Leach confessed that at the time, he didn’t realize that they were making history or setting records. The fliers were, in his words, "just trying to get home." Nevertheless, I sensed the pride he carried in being part of such an adventure.

As I came to know Leach over the period of 2 years, I discovered a sharp mind steeled with a sense of humor. His lifetime of experience with the early Pan Am as well as in a business he owned later in life had honed a caring and compassionate man. Gene Leach generously allowed me to see through the eyes of a pioneering aviation mariner and to become a witness to a brief moment in the history of my profession. I supposed that he also allowed me to recognize tomorrow’s aviation history in each of my daily flights. For that, he’ll always be remembered.

The weave of time and history can loop back on itself in many unusual ways. By chance, as the final addition to a crew list, 22-year-old Pan Am radio operator Gene Leach became entwined in history at Noumea in early December 1941 aboard California Clipper on her epic voyage around the world and into the history books. As the last survivor and witness to a history-making flight, 80-year-old Eugene Leach died alone at home on April 9, 2000, and once again joined his crew in history.