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Qantas’ Transpacific Flight History
The ability to fly long-haul is something several of us take for granted. Yet it has come about in the space of one lifetime. Only one hundred years ago, no-one had flown across the Pacific. However, since the advent of jet aircraft, transpacific flying has become a hotly contested space. Usually, no one fights harder than Qantas for a piece of the action. Here’s a look at Qantas’ transpacific flight history.
U.S. mail across the Atlantic by land-based aircraft: Part 2, 1942-46
Part 1 of this report ended with the inauguration of trans-Atlantic air transport service via Ascension Island, midway between South America and West Africa, by the United States Army Air Transport Command (ATC).
Looking back after the war was over, The Army Air Forces in World War II edited by Wesley Frank Craven and James D. Cate rendered this judgment: “Probably no other air base used by the Air Transport Command had such strategic importance as that on Ascension Island.”
When transport flights first began to use the mid-ocean island base as a fueling stop in July 1942, trans-Africa air and ground services were operated by Pan American Airways-Africa Ltd. (PAA-Africa), ATC’s principal contractor, but that arrangement was only temporary.
Militarization of PAA-Africa
Gen. Henry H. “Hap” Arnold, chief of the Army Air Forces, had issued an order in February 1942 to militarize PAA-Africa, but ATC lacked sufficient resources to take over those airfields until later in the year. Pan Am executives resisted militarization to the bitter end, but unsuccessfully. The transition finally occurred between October and December.
Jim Hester told me the story of how his late father, George Hester, was coerced to enlist. (The son inherited his father’s passion for collecting.) PAA-Africa had appointed George Hester senior air traffic manager at Accra, Gold Coast:
“My dad, along with a number of the other key managers at Pan Am Africa, was given the choice of accepting a second lieutenant commission immediately there in Accra and getting his paycheck from the Army Air Corps under their direct command, or being put on the next available flight back to the U.S. and having to report immediately to his local recruiting station to be inducted into the infantry as a buck private.”
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Hester offered to sign on instead as a first lieutenant, and the Army accepted his offer. He was inducted on Oct. 2, 1942. A short time later, he was ordered to Maiduguri, Nigeria, as squadron commander at that air base. While he was there, legendary war correspondent Ernie Pyle wrote a report datelined “SOMEWHERE IN AFRICA” that told how GIs at that remote outpost were “completely divorced from life as they knew it back home.”
[This trip] takes you into parts of deepest Africa that few Americans had ever seen before the war. It makes you realize more than ever how completely global, poking into the farthest and tiniest recesses, this war really is.
Nearly everywhere you go you find some American troops, from mere handfuls up to thousands. They are not fighting troops they are the builders and maintainers of airdromes, who sort of catch our multitudes of airplanes and toss them on to the next station on their long haul from America to Russia, India, China. …
At the most weirdly isolated places they get mail from home quicker than we do in North America. …
The commanding officer at this place is Lt. George Hester of Tubac, Ariz. He spent five years with American Airlines in the States and with Pan American Airways in Central America before coming over here. He likes his work and finds the life interesting and full.
According to The Army Air Forces in World War II,
The forced withdrawal of the Pan American organization from Africa did not affect its contract services in the Western Hemisphere or its flying-boat, and later C-54 and C-87, operations across the South Atlantic to the western coast of Africa. It even operated transports across Africa to the Middle East and India, as did other contractors, but after December 1942 all planes crossing Africa used bases and facilities completely under military control. …
By the end of 1942 the fleet operating on the transatlantic jump had been increased to twenty-six planes—nine C-54’s, four C-87’s, four B-24D’s, five Stratoliners, and four Clippers.
The Cannonball Express
Douglas Aircraft Co. delivered the first C-54 (Air Corps designation for the land-based four-engine DC-4 Skymaster long-range transport airplane) in July 1942. An Air Force historian called this plane “the workhorse where long range and a heavy load were important considerations.”
In August 1942, ATC assigned two C-54s to Pan Am for South Atlantic service. As the transition to militarization of PAA-Africa was nearly complete, ATC contracted with Pan Am to operate B-24s and C-54s on a shuttle service from Miami to Karachi under the carrier’s newly created Africa-Orient Division.
The first group of Africa-Orient transports departed Miami on Nov. 10, 13, 14, and 15 for a rendezvous at Natal, Brazil. On Nov. 16 they took off from Natal at 15-minute intervals, fully loaded with passengers, cargo and mail, for Ascension Island en route to Accra, their first fueling stop on the African continent.
By the time those four-engine transports took to the air over the Atlantic, Pan Am’s contract route to India had been dubbed the Cannonball Express run. The existence of Cannonball was a military secret until mid-March of 1944, when the veil of censorship was lifted so the press could publish the story. The March 13 New York Daily News reported:
Seven days round trip from the U.S. to Northern India. … That’s the new Cannonball Express record rung up by Pan American Airways operating under contract for the Air Transport Command. The Cannonball has crossed the Atlantic 2,200 times and has logged more than 14,500,000 miles of flying for the Army since November 1942.
Pan Am’s own magazine, New Horizons, called it the “fastest express service in aviation history.”
When the company’s publicity department later tried to reconstruct the origin of the name, staff members gave contradictory accounts (which might all be true). Here are two versions copied from the Africa-Orient Division file in the Pan Am archives at the University of Miami Richter Library:
In the first, Jim Howley, an operations division representative at Miami, upon learning that the first aircraft was soon to depart on a new schedule farther than previously flown, remarked, “Oh, this one’s going through on the long-haul like a Cannonball!”
In the second, a Mr. Simmons in the operations division at Natal, “needing some designation to distinguish the Karachi service and its crews from the regular shuttle operations,” dubbed the former “Cannonball Crews.”
Whichever actually occurred first, the name stuck.
An unpublished ATC history told a more nuanced version of the Cannonball inauguration than Pan Am’s new releases:
While all correspondence during the fall of 1942 in connection with this route lists Cairo or Karachi as the terminal points, it was not until February of 1943 that the C-54’s actually got beyond Accra on a regular schedule.
But by February, Cannonball had 60 crews flying 15 airplanes in round-the-clock relays, which from then on comprised a majority of Pan Am’s South Atlantic shuttles. That increased capacity benefited ATC performance over the entire route.
An ATC document titled “Résumé of Transportation Operations for the week ending February 6, 1943” showed a combined total of 22,316 pounds of mail carried over the South Atlantic route by a fleet of 41 aircraft, 37 of which were landplanes, and a backlog of 19,292 pounds awaiting transport. It showed 6,791 pounds carried over trans-Africa and Middle East routes, with a backlog of 5,227 pounds, carried by a fleet of 56 landplanes.
The Cannonball route eventually extended to Calcutta, making a direct connection to ATC flights over the Hump to China, many of which were operated by China National Airways Corp., a Pan Am subsidiary under contract to ATC.
In September 1944, the Cannonball route shifted. Instead of crossing the South Atlantic via Ascension Island and then across Central Africa, the new route went from Miami via Bermuda and the Azores to Casablanca, Morocco, and onward across North Africa to India. By that time, Pan Am’s Africa-Orient Division was flying more ton-miles per day than all of Pan Am’s other divisions and subsidiaries combined.
Despite that huge volume over some of the world’s most daunting and inhospitable areas, the Africa-Orient Division boasted the best safety record of all of ATC’s wartime contractors, with only two planes lost involving passengers and crews, according to an unpublished history in the Richter Library file.
Trans-Atlantic Airmail Service after Militarization
After militarization, the Air Transport Command alone was responsible for all trans-Atlantic civilian, military and Official mail to and from Africa and Asia.
In a Nov. 27, 1942, memorandum, Maj. M. J. Deutsch, postal officer of the ATC’s Africa-Middle East Wing (AMEW) wrote:
AMEW is carrying mail for all or nearly all allied Governments in the world either directly or through transfer to and from connecting carriers. Civil mails are given excellent service with little or no delay at any point in AMEW.
According to the unpublished Official History of the South Atlantic Division, Air Transport Command:
A picture of the status of transportation operations across the South Atlantic … may be obtained from the following figures [for the week before December 26, 1942]: Four-engine aircraft assigned for transport operations: 4 B-24D’s 9 C-54’s, 4 C-98’s, 5 C-75’s, 4 C-87’s. … Mail movement (pounds) Natal-Africa 2,737, Africa-Natal 307 Total 3,044 Total for all ATC overseas routes 24,681. …Similar figures for the Natal-Miami run were as follows: Two-engine aircraft assigned for transport operations: 24 C-47’s and C-53’s (3 additional planes were assigned, but were not available for use at this time). … Mail movement (pounds) 15,285. Mail backlog (pounds) 745. …
These figures show that there were three cargo aircraft crossing the South Atlantic in each direction daily and approximately four moving in each direction on the Miami-Natal run. About 60 per cent of the Natal-Africa and Africa-Natal traffic was passengers, 30 per cent cargo and ten per cent mail. On the Miami-Natal route, 61 per cent was cargo, 34 per cent passengers, and five per cent mail. …
Half of the mail flown by the ATC overseas also passed through Natal.
On May 13, 1943, Major Deutsch ordered larger mail quotas for every trans-Africa flight, and underlined the point for emphasis:
200 pounds and 500 pounds of mail will be given first priority on each 2 engine and each 4 engine plane respectively, leaving from Accra on every scheduled flight or special mission flight, and mail in excess of this allotment will be carried on space available basis if priority is established. It is further indicated that it is the duty and responsibility of the Air Transportation Officer at each station to see that the movement of mail is expedited. . . . [G]ood mail service can never be attained unless the minimum allotted priority is granted on each plane every day.
Actual loads exceeded those minimums. During the first 20 days of May 1943, “an average of 415 pounds of mail on all two-engine aircraft and 600 pounds on all four-engine aircraft” had been carried from Accra.
After the last Boeing B-314 (C-98) Clipper flying boats were transferred to the Navy in May and June 1943, nothing remained of the prewar commercial airmail apparatus on those routes. Almost all airmail between North America, sub-Saharan Africa, the Middle East and the Far East was now transported by land-based aircraft regardless of whether it was military, diplomatic, or civilian. (Formally, the Civil Aeronautics Board authorized Pan Am’s FAM 18 flying boat winter route flights to collect mail at Bolama, Portuguese Guinea and Fisherman’s Lake, Liberia in practice Pan Am frequently omitted those stops because of the trivial amounts of mail involved.)
Until the fall of 1943, contract carriers, chiefly Pan Am, transported about 95 percent of the mail between Miami and West Africa. The Army Air Forces in World War II explained:
Only a few military crews had been trained for four-engine aircraft because, up to this point [June 1943], nearly all the C-54’s and C-87’s assigned to the command were operated by the contract carriers, which were responsible for their own operational crew training.
To remedy that imbalance, ATC established a training unit at Homestead, Fla., exclusively as “a four-engine school specializing in C-54 instruction but also giving operational training to a number of C-87 and B-14 crews. In November 1943 the Ferrying Division opened the ‘Fireball’ run from Florida to India in which C-87’s and later C-54’s were employed.”
Col. William H. Tunner had been given command of ATC’s India-China Division, including the Hump route over the Himalaya Mountains that connected those countries, in December 1942. On June 30, 1943, he was promoted to the rank of brigadier general.
The Fireball Express, a route parallel to Pan Am’s Cannonball Express run that had begun a year earlier, connected to the Hump route in India. It more than tripled the capacity of the 15,000-mile flyway between America and the Far East, expediting airmail along with passengers and cargo.
In his memoir Over the Hump, Tunner wrote:
It’s easy to think of the Hump as just one route actually, of course, it was many air routes, separated both laterally and vertically, from thirteen bases in India to six in China. At first we had a narrow corridor of only fifty miles to accommodate two-way traffic. … On toward the end we had a corridor two hundred miles wide. … Through this corridor, every day, were flying an average of 650 planes, one taking off every two and a quarter minutes of the day’s twenty-four hours. …
This was all new. No other air operation, civilian or military, had ever before even attempted to keep its fleet in continuous operation all around the clock, in all seasons, and in all weathers. No other operation had such extremes of weather and altitudes. And our cargo was varied, to say the least — from V-mail to mules to machinery. The age of air transportation was born right there on the Hump.
At the time of Pearl Harbor in December 1941, the entire Army Air Corps had possessed just 11 four-engine transport planes. When Japan surrendered, ATC had more than 200 C-54s flying the Hump route alone. The Army Air Forces in World War II summed up the significance of these achievements:
Most important in the long run, no doubt, the Air Transport Command’s crowded airways to China were the proving ground, if not the birthplace, of mass strategic airlift. … The India-China experience made it possible to conceive the Berlin airlift of 1948-49 and to operate it successfully.
Reopening the North Atlantic Air Transport Service
Meanwhile, after clearing the South Atlantic mail backlog in the summer of 1942, Lt. Col. Lawrence G. Fritz, a former barnstormer, airmail pilot, and TWA vice president, had taken charge of ATC’s stalled North Atlantic transport operations. He began by performing a characteristic daredevil stunt.
The Dec. 4, 1944, issue of Time magazine reported:
One day in the fall of 1942 he stepped into a B-24, flew it out into the North Atlantic seeking the worst weather “front” he could find. His plane picked up a load of ice, lost flying speed and dropped into a spin. Fritz, a veteran airline pilot, straightened her out just a few hundred feet from the water. He came back still convinced that he was right. He was handed the job of proving his point as C.O. [commanding officer] of the North Atlantic Division.
ATC’s North Atlantic route had reopened on April 13, 1942, with its eastern terminal relocated from Ayr to Prestwick, Scotland. The service operated an average of three round trips per day, and was never again suspended until after the close of hostilities. The primary purpose of that route was to transport urgent military and diplomatic personnel and communications between Washington and London.
The most urgent letters and parcels were endorsed “bomber pouch” and “bomber mail,” because the Consolidated B-24 Liberators that began these services had been built to be long-range bombers, but had been stripped of their armaments and converted to transports for the sake of increased speed and range. As can be seen in covers from my collection, frequent users of these services were war correspondents and photographers sending dispatches to their papers.
Trans-Atlantic bomber mail was a free service of the Office of War Information, but airmail postage had to be added at the 6¢ per half-ounce military concessionary rate to secure onward air transport within the United States.
Additional Trans-Atlantic Landplane Routes and Extensions
In January 1943, after Allied forces had liberated Morocco, Algeria, and Tunisia, a Transcontinental & Western Air service that flew C-54 Skymasters was established from Washington via the South Atlantic to Accra, then north to Marrakesh, Morocco, for two weekly shuttle flights between Marrakesh and Prestwick in Scotland before returning to Washington. The frequency of the TWA flights doubled in February.
In July 1943, after Axis forces had been driven out of Africa, the Marrakesh route was extended to Cairo and Karachi, laying the groundwork for a faster trans-Africa service than had been possible over the Central Africa crossings.
In March 1944, the Marrakesh-Prestwick C-54 shuttle was replaced by a C-87 shuttle service with St. Mawgan, Cornwall, replacing Prestwick as the northern terminus and with Casablanca replacing Marrakesh as the Morocco call, then onward from Casablanca via Algiers, Algeria, to Naples, Italy.
Early in 1944, a secret ATC route was established between Cairo and Adana, Turkey, via Beirut, Lebanon, when Turkey was still officially a neutral nonbelligerent country. Ground crews were disguised as civilian employees of the “American Transport Company.” Another ATC extension ran from Tehran, Iran, to Poltava, Ukraine.
Also in 1944, ATC opened two additional trans-Atlantic C-54 routes, called Crescent and Snowball, over the Middle and North Atlantic, respectively, operated by military crews.
Crescent, which originated at Wilmington, Del., represented a new route to India via the Azores, after the Portuguese government lifted restrictions that had earlier banned military flights from landing there, and across North Africa.
In a passage that failed to credit Pan Am for procedures pioneered on the Cannonball run, Tunner wrote in his Over the Hump memoir:
On the Crescent run, incidentally, I’d set up a pony-express type of operation, with fresh crews taking over at specific points. The plane itself went straight through, from America to its final destination, without the delaying transfer of passengers and cargo.
Mail carried on these flights ought to be indistinguishable from mail carried on Cannonball or Fireball flights, unless a mishap en route caused an identifying mark to be added.
Snowball, begun in July 1944, provided another route between the United States and Great Britain after the successful D-day landings in Normandy.
The Army Air Forces in World War II explained:
The establishment of this new service reflected the obvious need for an increased airlift to the United Kingdom, the availability of additional numbers of C-54 aircraft, and the existence within the Ferrying Division of a reservoir of crews experienced in four-engine operation. The original routing of the flights was from Presque Isle [Maine] through Stephenville in Newfoundland to Valley in Wales and back through Meeks Field in Iceland to Stephenville and Presque Isle.
On Aug. 31, 1944, four days after German forces retreated from Paris, the first ATC flight landed at Orly Field, the Paris airport. On Oct. 4, ATC began scheduled service between France and the United States that averaged three round trips per day.
From Trans-Atlantic Origins, A Global Air Transport Operation
By the end of 1944, ATC routes served every continent, as shown here on the formerly classified January 1945 route map.
I have illustrated several of my covers that were carried over these routes, which were not served by surface or Navy alternative means.
North Atlantic airmail was the great exception in every respect. Throughout the war, most mail went by surface ship between New York and Great Britain regardless of senders’ instructions and postage prepaid.
Except for mail of the highest priority, such as bomber/bomber-pouch and urgent military airmail, it isn’t possible to prove that a letter went by air unless it has verifiable departure and arrival dates as evidence. Even then, the means of transport varied: Pan Am’s “Y” route, documented by David Crotty, flew Consolidated PB2Y-3 Coronado flying boats across the Atlantic for the Navy.
After the cancellation of Navy contracts in late 1944, Pan Am restored commercial Clipper service between New York and Lisbon. American Export Airlines (AmEx) flew Vought-Sikorsky VS-44 Flying Aces seaplanes over its FAM 24 route, also between New York and Lisbon but with less frequent intermediate calls. Canada also operated a North Atlantic air transport service.
Nevertheless, some covers invite analysis that suggest a higher probability of one choice than the others, such as the illustrated Jan. 2, 1945, cover from Switzerland to New York.
Trans-Atlantic Airmail After the Japanese Surrender
By the time World War II came to an end, the Air Transport Command had built the largest airmail service in history, with the Naval Air Transport Service (NATS) in second place. NATS had begun to dismantle its trans-Atlantic services and to restore them to commercial operation in late 1944, but the Army continued to retain and expand routes under its jurisdiction even as it canceled contracts with Pan Am and other private carriers.
Failing to foresee the opposition his plan would evoke in the halls of Congress, Gen. Harold L. George made a bold attempt to extend the ATC’s authority over commercial air transport, including airmail, into the postwar period.
He announced that ATC would demonstrate its capability and potential with an enthusiastically promoted round-the-world demonstration flight scheduled to depart Washington on Sept. 28, 1945. The flight went forward as planned, but the uproar of opposition quickly put a halt to his scheme for the future.
At the time of the Japanese surrender in September 1945, the Cannonball Express employed 175 Pan Am flight crews. The Hump route was officially closed at the end of November, but later transports from China flew over the Himalayas to India as special missions.
When Pan Am restored service between New York and Leopoldville via Gander Newfoundland Shannon, Ireland Lisbon Dakar, Senegal and Monrovia, Liberia, in January 1946, the route was served by a DC-4 Skymaster until April, when Pan Am acquired new Lockheed Constellation land-based aircraft.
Pan Am’s South Atlantic service from Liberia to Brazil ended May 27, 1946. Cannonball service continued until June 25, 1946, the date when the last C-54 flight returned from the Far East. That was also when Miami ceased to serve as the airmail gateway to Africa and Asia.
The restoration of fully commercial foreign airmail service consolidated all trans-Atlantic operations at New York City.
Never again did Pan Am enjoy the monopoly control of foreign airmail services that had been its exclusive dominion before the war. TWA parlayed its wartime contract services into new commercial routes that provided robust competition, even after Pan Am took over American Airlines services that had been built by AmEx.
For postal history collectors who specialize in trans-Atlantic airmail, July 1946 marked the end of an era. As if to underscore that dividing line, the Post Office Department issued the first new edition of the Official Postal Guide, Part II: International Mail since July 1941.
Our editors will review what you’ve submitted and determine whether to revise the article.
Airmail, letters and parcels transported by airplanes. Airmail service was initiated in 1911 in England between Hendon (northwest of London) and Windsor, to celebrate the coronation of George V. Service was irregular, however, and only 21 trips were made. Continuous regular air transport of letters between London and Paris was established in 1919, and a similar service for parcels in 1921. Other European air links soon followed. Regular airmail service in the United States was begun in 1918 between Washington, D.C., and New York City, using War Department planes and pilots. The first transcontinental airmail service was established in 1920, between San Francisco and New York City.
The superiority of air transport for long-distance continental and intercontinental mail routes soon became apparent. Airmail service was extended to Egypt, Karāchi, Singapore, and other parts of the British Empire in the 1920s and ’30s. Regular transpacific airmail service, from San Francisco to the Philippines (with several stops in between), began in 1935, and regular airmail service across the North Atlantic began in 1939. Since 1946 airmail services have developed rapidly to provide a network connecting Europe and North America with all parts of the world. There are still areas, however, such as in Africa, in which airmail services are relatively poor or incomplete. Air transport of first-class mail without a surcharge has become common within Europe and the United States. Intercontinental air transport of mail is still usually accompanied by a surcharge.
707 Service Across Atlantic - History
Western Air Express began operations in April, 1926 with a fleet of six open-cockpit, two passenger Douglas M-2 biplanes and a contract to fly one air-mail round trip from Los Angeles to Salt Lake City.
Transcontinental Air Transport, Inc.(TAT) was proclaimed &ldquothe Lindbergh Line&rdquo and incorporated in May 1928 by a group of well known financiers and transportation experts who believed that public acceptance of air travel was close at hand. Colonel Charles Lindbergh was named Chairman of the TAT Technical Committee with the hope his name would attract more financing and business.
Brave indeed were the passengers during that beginning era. Tragic accidents occurred during these early years of aviation history. Even the uneventful flights caused passengers' ears to ring and stomachs to churn. If an airline made money, and few did, the profit came from airmail subsidies and not passengers. Changes came in 1930 from an unlikely source, the Postmaster General Walter Folger Brown. He thought the nation needed airlines that carried more people than mail. He summoned airline chiefs to Washington and offered them a deal. If the airlines would merge into units big enough to make economic sense, the government would give them a lock on cross-continental routes. After some tough compromising, three big transcontinental lines emerged.
1. On the central route through St. Louis, TW&A formed on October 1, 1930 when Transcontinental Air Transport and Western Air, Inc.merged.
2. On the northern route through Chicago, what became United came into existence.
3. On the southern route through Dallas, what became American was formed.
4. The north-south routes along the Atlantic Seaboard went to a fourth amalgamation, Eastern.
In April 1934 the airline became TWA , Inc.
Collectively these airlines became The Big Four. Pan American had a monopoly on intercontinental routes. For almost half a century these five had the sky almost to themselves.
A TWA crash put the government into the airline business in a big way. On May 5, 1935, a TWA DC-2 went down near Kirksville, Mo. The crash killed six people, including U.S. Sen. Bronson Cutting of New Mexico. TWA&rsquos crashes tended to be doubly ugly, because many involved well-known people: Notre Dame football coach Knute Rockne in 1931 and Hollywood actress Carole Lombard in 1942. But Cutting was more than well-known. He was also well-loved by his colleagues in Congress. His loss so upset the lawmakers that they set up what became the Civil Aeronautics Board. For the airlines, the CAB served as both Big Daddy and Sugar Daddy.
The CAB was Big Daddy when it told the airlines what they could do, where they could fly, the frequency of their flights, what fares they could set and what steps to take to ensure safety. It was Sugar Daddy when it set fares high enough to keep the airlines in business, no matter what. The airlines became, in effect, public utilities with the Big Four on top. With profits all but guaranteed airline managers didn&rsquot have to be astute in the ways of business. The airlines had room for colorful characters like TWA&rsquos Jack Frye, a brash pilot, who took the TWA presidency in 1934.
Frye preferred the cockpit to the boardroom and spent as much time as he could at the controls of TWA&rsquos DC-3s, the most popular aircraft in air travel in the mid-1930s.
But Frye had his mind set on something bigger, the four-engined Boeing Stratoliner. By today&rsquos standards that plane looks bulbous, almost cartoonish. But in the late &lsquo30s, only the pressurized Stratoliner could lift TWA&rsquos passengers above the bumpy weather that the DC-3s had to bull through.
The financial people to whom Frye answered balked at buying Stratoliners. There is a question whether Jack Frye approached Howard Hughes or Howard Hughes Approached Jack Frye. What came next was Howard Hughes buyingh up TWA stock. On August 26, 1940, Howard Hughes owned enough stock to obtain a controlling interest in TWA.
For better or for worse, TWA would never be the same.
The Horizon Widens
Hughes had in mind something grander than the Stratoliner. He envisioned a four-engined airliner that could cross America nonstop at unheard of speeds high above the weather.
Lockheed Aircraft was appraoched and they agreed to design an aircraft to the specifications of something to his specifications. The result was the Lockheed Constellation, a triple-tailed airliner whose streamlined curves lent it an almost feminine grace.
The Constellation became known as &ldquothe Connie&rdquo to a generation of pilots and came to symbolize TWA and Hughes. But in the end the Connie would just about bring down TWA. Before Lockheed could tool up to build Connies for TWA Pearl Harbor intervened. The Army Air Forces commandeered Connie production which finally got under way in 1944.
On April 17, 1944 Frye and Hughes flew the prototype Connie from Lockheed&rsquos plant in Burbank, California to a bunch of eager generals in Washington DC. The Connie touched down in the record time of 6 hours and 58 minutes.
As it taxied past the waiting newsreel cameras the generals turned purple with rage because Hughes had painted the Connie, which he didn&rsquot own, in the red and white livery of TWA and not in the olive drab of the Army Air Forces.
The Army controlled all of TWA&rsquos four-engined fleet and just days after Pearl Harbor, Frye put the airline&rsquos fleet of Stratoliners at the Army&rsquos disposal.
The Stratoliners flew passengers around the globe for the Army with TWA pilots in the cockpits, TWA mechanics servicing the planes and TWA dispatchers doing the planning.
After the war Frye&rsquos patriotism paid off big. All that overseas flying for the Army gave TWA the experience it needed to spread its wings internationally. Even before the war ended TWA put in for a piece of the postwar pie. In 1943 Frye applied for a batch of new routes including London and Paris.
On July 5, 1945, overseas routes were awarded to TWA. On February 5, 1946, TWA began scheduled international service with Lockheed Constellations.
In so doing TWA trod on the toes of Pan Am and its aristocratic chief Juan Trippe. Before the war Pan Am stood alone among America&rsquos airlines in flying across the Atlantic and now it hardly welcomed competition. But if Pan Am had to make room Trippe said he&rsquod accept competition from tiny American Export Airlines. Trippe didn&rsquot know that tiny American Export was merging with giant American Airlines. In 1944 Trippe got the bad news that TWA and American would join Pan Am in spanning the postwar ocean. Trippe pulled all the strings he could in Congress but to no avail.
On Feb. 5, 1946 the first international flight dubbed &ldquoThe Star of Paris,&rdquo a TWA Connie, lifted off from New York&rsquos LaGuardia Airport destined for Paris via Gander and Shannon. Although American soon pulled out of international service TWA stayed the course. TWA continued to expand international service with inaugural flights to Rome, Athens, Cairo, Lisbon and Madrid during the spring of 1946.
TWA was now a major domestic and international air carrier. In 1947 TWA offered the first scheduled transatlantic all-cargo service. On October 30 1955 they put Super G-Constellations into international service from Los Angeles to London.
TWA got a boost from its domestic routes which fed passengers to its transatlantic flights while Pan Am was limited to international flights. Pan Am thought of itself as America&rsquos sanctioned overseas flag carrier and it stuck up its corporate nose at foreign officials and airlines. TWA behaved differently, pitching in to help foreign airlines get off the ground. With their attitude of helping TWA won good friends and a good reputation. In 1950 TWA changed the &ldquoW&rdquo in its name from &ldquoWestern&rdquo to &ldquoWorld&rdquo as befitted its new span.
The Downside of Glamour
At home, thanks to Hughes&rsquo Hollywood connections, TWA developed the reputationa as the glamour airline. When the Hollywood movie stars flew they tended to fly TWA. The airline&rsquos press agents made sure the newspapers got pictures of the rich and famous boarding TWA&rsquos Connies. Hughes vexed his dispatchers by holding flights until dawdling stars could arrive. Big-time Hollywood columnists like Hedda Hopper and Louella Parsons received red-carpet treatment with TWA limousines toting them to and from airports.
Publicity like that attracted hordes of first-time fliers to TWA. Most were well-heeled vacationers who could afford the steep fares of the postwar era. But the glamour image had two big drawbacks. First most of TWA&rsquos routes ran east and west which was fine for summertime vacationers but weak in the winter when vacationers head south. Before long TWA began bleeding financially each winter. This became a chronic condition up to the end. Second the business passengers could have taken up the winter slack but they tended to shun glitzy TWA. They wanted steady, sober service. They wanted the kind of service they associated with United and American. While TWA flew stars its rivals snared the most desirable passengers, the full-fare, frequently flying executives.
Hughes Interests: Airplanes-TWA-Girls
When Hughes died on April 5, 1976 he had long been a recluse in Las Vegas. He had become an emaciated, physically ill, paranoid individual worth about $2 billion, much of it from the sale of his TWA stock in 1965. In the obituaries, his eccentricities overshadowed his accomplishments. As a teen he had inherited his father&rsquos fabulously successful Hughes Tool Co. He rode it through the oil booms that followed and invested part of his profits in Hollywood. There he made some movies daring in their scope like &ldquoWings,&rdquo an aerial epic made in 1930 and &ldquoThe Outlaws,&rdquo a 1940s Western (Hughes invented the WonderBra for Jane Russell tyo wear as she starred in this movie.). But airplanes remained Hughes&rsquo first love and in the 1930s he designed and flew a string of record-breaking speedsters that put him on Page One across the nation.
And it was a plane of his own design that would put Hughes on the path to his bizarre end. While developing the XF-11, a recon plane, Hughes crashed the prototype in Beverly Hills in July 1946. He came close to dying and before long Hughes withdrew from public view. Although he owned a controlling interest in Hollywood&rsquos RKO, he ran the studio from afar and seemingly by whim. This whimisical trait in controlling TWA would become wearily familiar to his underlings at TWA.
Hughes never held a corporate position at TWA. He didn&rsquot have to because he owned the company. But his meddling exasperated TWA&rsquos executives who tended to quit in frustration. Historian Serling called Hughes &ldquothe George Steinbrenner of commercial aviation, a well-intentioned owner who picked capable managers and then drove them crazy.&rdquo Take Carter Burgess, TWA&rsquos president in 1957, the year Hughes decided to &ldquoborrow&rdquo a brand-new Super Constellation. With a co-pilot and a flight engineer conscripted from TWA&rsquos ranks Hughes took off in June for a brief test flight to Montreal.
Six months later, Hughes still had the plane, gallivanting around the Caribbean at the controls. Burgess implored him to return it so TWA could put it to productive use. Hughes refused, whereupon Burgess quit. Hughes hardly cared as his flight engineer Bill Bushey later recalled, &ldquoI gathered from that long time with him that he liked three things, airplanes, TWA and girls.&rdquo Trouble is, he liked the wrong kind of airplanes.
A Bad Case of Jet Lag
In 1952, Hughes spurned an invitation to buy the first jetliner, the British-made Comet. &ldquoIt isn&rsquot safe,&rdquo he said and it wasn&rsquot. A string of disastrous Comet crashes bolstered the public perception of jets as unsafe.
Boeing stood on the brink of changing all that. In 1954 Boeing flew the prototype of a military tanker also designed as a jetliner, the 707. Hughes was having none of it because he had played no part in designing the 707. The planes he worried most about were the propeller-driven Douglas models flown by American and United. In 1955 Hughes committed TWA to buying 25 upgraded Connies, easily a match for the Douglas prop planes flying in the colors of United and American.
Shortly after Hughes signed the Connie contract, rival Pan Am ordered 707s. The jet age was under way and TWA had already been overtaken by other airlines upgrading to jet aircraft.
TWA would be the last of the Big Four to switch totally to jets. In 1958, three years too late, Hughes woke up to the inevitability and finally ordered more than $400 million worth of jetliners and engines. By that time the boom-or-bust nature of the airline business meant he really had no money to pay for them. TWA entered the jet age when it took delivery of its first 707 in January 1959. Convair 880 jet service began on January 12, 1961 to serve TWA&rsquos domestic routes.
In 1959 after some financial sleight of hand from Hughes TWA started flying its first jet on the San-Francisco-New York route. For one month that lone 707 constituted TWA&rsquos entire jet fleet. Long after its rivals were whisking passengers about on jets TWA was chugging them along in Connies. Not until 1967 did TWA retire its last Connie after a flight on April 6 from New York to Lambert Field. Hughes, perhaps with dreams of a Son Of Connie, approached Convair with an idea for something different, a smaller jetliner called the Convair 880. The concept was right but the airplane wasn&rsquot. Hughes&rsquo meddling made the 880 even more of a financial drain on TWA as well as on Convair. The airline&rsquos lenders finally got to TWA&rsquos board and TWA&rsquos board finally got to Hughes. On Dec. 29, 1960 he put his stock into trust and abdicated his reign over TWA&rsquos operations.
From Gold to Doldrums
In many ways the 1960s were a Golden Age of air travel. The airlines zipped past the railroads as a mass mover of Americans who delighted in jet-engine speed and jetliner luxury. In fact luxury was how the airlines competed. Government barred them from competing on fares, so they competed on frills which included in-flight movies, free cocktails, and nubile stewardesses in leggy uniforms. For the most part the airlines served an elite clientele. High fares shut out low-end travelers. In the 1960s flying was a coat-and-tie affair. But it couldn&rsquot last and it didn&rsquot. In fact the system was already falling apart in America&rsquos two largest states, Texas and California. There the small airlines flew strictly within state borders and thus beyond the CAB&rsquos regulatory reach.
These airlines (Southwest was one) could and did compete on fares. Some people in government began to think of price competition as a way to strip away the elitism attached to air travel. Washington heard a new buzzword: &ldquoderegulation.&rdquo Massachusetts Sen. Ted Kennedy picked it up as an issue and in 1977 President Jimmy Carter handed the chairman&rsquos chair at the CAB to a believer in deregulation, Alfred Kahn.
On June 30, 1961 Howard Hughes&rsquo control of TWA was challenged when Charles Tillinghast, Chairman of the Board of TWA filed suit against the Hughes Tool Company for violations of the Sherman Act and the Clayton Anti-Trust Act. A default judgment was issued against the Hughes Tool Company for failure to produce Howard Hughes for pretrial examination. In 1966 Howard Hughes and the Hughes Tool Company lost control of TWA and the airline became a publicly owned company.There were numerous other lawsuits to come over the years dealing with the ownership and control of TWA including a $35 million settlement received by Carl Icahn in 1993.
During April 1964 the first of sixteen 727&rsquos were delivered and s hortly thereafter twenty DC-9&rsquos were ordered. Twelve 747s were ordered in 1967 the $410,000,000 order was the largest in the carrier's history. After three decades of service the last of the Constellations were retired and TWA then became the first all jet airline. On August 1, 1969 TWA inaugurate d transpacific and round the world service.
After United broke ranks with the industry and endorsed deregulation, Congress went along. In 1978 deregulation became the law of the land. TWA was woefully unready. The 1960s had been flush times. TWA led the industry in profits in 1965 and it branched out as TW Corp., a holding company for hotels and restaurants as well as planes. For a few brief, shining years in the 1960s TWA even went truly &ldquotrans world,&rdquo spanning the Pacific as well as the Atlantic. But tough times arrived in the 1970s when TWA began accepting deliveries of jumbo-jet 747s that it couldn&rsquot fill with passengers. TWA became the first airline to introduce 747 schedules non-stop service from Los Angeles to New York on February 25, 1970.
At first deregulation did what its backers hoped it would do. It lured new airlines like People Express into the game and slashed fares. But gradually TWA&rsquos old-line rivals came up with ways to fight back.
1. Computerized reservations systems. Not only did the computers streamline ticket sales, they also gave airlines like American and United a mother lode of data on who flew where on what days, at what time and how often.
2. Yield management pricing. Using the computer data American pioneered the tactic of selling different seats on the same flight for wildly different fares. Tourists who booked early could fly cheaply while expense-account executives who flew at the last minute paid full fare. The computers let the airlines pinpoint how many seats to sell at which fare except at TWA, which was late going online. As investment analyst Brian Harris put it in an interview with Reuters, &ldquoTWA had a guy with paper and a pencil.&rdquo
3. Frequent-flier programs, to mollify the executive paying full-fare to sit beside a hippie flying for half the price. Again, others led, while TWA followed.
4. Two-tier wage scales which paid new employees of old-line airlines the same lower wages that upstarts like People&rsquos Express were paying. American pioneered TWA again lagged.
5. Hub &ldquofortresses&rdquo in which an airline dominates a &ldquohub&rdquo city with flights to and from &ldquospoke&rdquo cities. True, TWA snagged St. Louis in the 1970s but other airlines ran multiple hubs out of bigger-wheel locales like Chicago, Dallas and Atlanta.
6. Inland starts for international flights. For example American could fill a twin-engined 767 for a European flight with passengers at such central cities as Dallas. TWA relied on its international passengers to endure the hassle of changing planes to board a jumbo 747 at New York&rsquos Kennedy Airport.
7. New and more efficient planes. Gradually TWA&rsquos fleet aged into the oldest flown by any major airline. The planes were safe enough but the fuel and maintenance bills grew ever more frightful. In 1983 TW Corp. decided to spin off its ailing airline. The value of TWA&rsquos stock sagged below the airline&rsquos net worth and the wolves began to gather.
On January 1, 1979 Trans World Airlines, Canteen Corporation and Hilton International had formed the parent company named Trans World Corporation. TWA was spun off by the parent corporation in February 1982 and became a separate entity. Although TWA&rsquos money was used to purchase Hilton Hotels, Canteen Corporation, Century 21 and others, when the airline was spun off the money was never returned to the airline. At this time the airline was loosing money and Ed Meyer became Chairman of the Board.
In November, 1984 Ed Meyer attended a symposium in Los Angeles hosted by Drexel Burnham. In attendance at that symposium was Carl Icahn and Meyer made a presentation regarding the fact that TWA was undervalued as a corporation. Immediately Icahn began buying TWA stock and Ed Meyer then got Frank Lorenzo to attempt to take over TWA. The unions joined forces with Icahn in order to block Lorenzo. The choice was between bad and worse Icahn being bad and Lorenzo being worse.
On September 26, 1985, Carl Icahn acquired controlling interest in TWA. On October 26, 1986, TWA acquired Ozark Airlines and merged Ozark into TWA operations. Icahn took the company private on September 7, 1988. When Icahn sold the London route authorities to American Airlines, District 142 challenged the sale. The DOT, however, approved the sale with the exception of the St. Louis-Gatwick and Philadelphia-London authority which Icahn later sold to USAir for $50 million.
Icahn Takes the Controls
As the wolves began gathering Frank Lorenzo stood first in line. He had started with tiny Texas International and then grabbed up Continental and later Eastern. Lorenzo flew Continental into bankruptcy on purpose so he could void its union contracts.
TWA&rsquos executives knew that some corporate raider would grab TWA and they leaned toward Lorenzo. Their reasoning was that unlike the other raiders Lorenzo was at bottom an airline man. He&rsquod treat TWA as an airline and not as a Christmas tree laden with candy-cane assets to pluck off. But TWA&rsquos unions dug in their heels. Anybody but Lorenzo they said. They got Carl Icahn. In fact they all but seduced Icahn by offering him alone contract concessions. In return corporate raider Icahn promised to keep TWA intact, promising to grow it with new airplanes.
Icahn filed for reorganization under Chapter 11 of the Federal Bankruptcy Code on January 30, 1992. On November 3, 1992, TWA emerged from bankruptcy with $1.8 billion in debt, most of which was secured with TWA&rsquos assets. Six months later, the Creditor&rsquos Committee announced an agreement with the three unions: IAM, IFFA, and ALPA for concessions in exchange for equity in the airline.
But soon enough the workers soured on Icahn who was in fact a corporate raider in it to make a huge profit no matter the tactics. In the early spring of 1986 his flight attendants struck. Icahn simply hired low-wage subs. For several months the newcomers learned on the job, bumbling their way through. Icahn loved it after all, the newcomers cost less. He never seemed to care that above all else what an airline sells is its service. TWA lost its reputation for excellent inflight service during this long strike. Icahn moved TWA corporate headquarters to Mt. Kisco, NY which was close to his home.
On December 31, 1985 District Lodge 142 reached an agreement with Carl Icahn establishing the first ESOP wherein the employees would own 15% of the company and the Icahn group would own 85% of the company . Once again TWA was first , this was the first ESOP in airline history. The agreement was made possible by the assistance of General Vice President John Peterpaul and Grand Lodge Representative Tim Connolly.
Icahn made war on his own workers and in turn the workers took it out on the only people they could, the passengers. Abroad a string of terrorists targeted TWA, long a symbol of the United States. Passengers started to shun TWA.
One flight is largely like another with the only thing setting them apart is the level of service provided. A fumbling flight attendant or a surly ticket agent can bleed an airline of passengers.
But in the short run Icahn made money. Early in 1988 he boasted that he had turned TWA around. In reality he invested none of the profits in airplanes except for the 50 small jetliners he picked up when he merged plucky little Ozark Air Lines into TWA in 1986 giving himself a lock on the St. Louis hub. What Icahn did was move money around with the slick sleight of hand that gave the 1980s such a bad name. In the end he would claim that he lost millions on TWA but many would insist that he drained TWA to invest in other ventures and then walked away with hundreds of millions. The bottom line was that Icahn loaded TWA with debt with the interest payments alone the big killer of what was left of TWA.
When the balance sheet slumped Icahn horrified TWA&rsquos unions by selling off prime assets in the form of gates and landing slots at Chicago&rsquos O&rsquoHare. He sold off the priceless routes to London&rsquos Heathrow Airport, the hub for much of the world. In 1992 after TWA filed for a prepackaged bankruptcy the airline came close to collapse. Pilots and machinists averted it by coming to terms with TWA. But as part of the deal Icahn had to go. He cashed out early in 1993 leaving the airline in the hands of its creditors and its employees. U.S. Sen. John Danforth, an old foe of Icahn, hailed the change by saying, &ldquoPeople who believe in the airline are going to be running the airline. You really respect them for what they&rsquove endured and the spirit that is theirs.&rdquo
As for Icahn, aviation writers Barbara Sturken Peterson and James Glab summed him up this way in their book Rapid Descent, &ldquoHe lurched from one idea to the next, with little regard for their eventual impact on the company. Under regulation, Icahn might have been saved from himself. But a regulated airline would have held no interest for the likes of Icahn.&rdquo
Carl Icahn resigned as Chairman of the Board and relinquished all control and interest on January 8, 1993. T he employees owned 45% equity and creditors owned 55% of the airline when it emerge d from reorganization on November 3, 1993.
Ascent and Descent
The new employee-owners had their work cut out for them. As investment analyst Glenn Enge told the Associated Press, &ldquoThe brand name TWA is well-known but that doesn&rsquot mean it&rsquos well-liked.&rdquo Still, TWA workers started smiling in front of the passengers again. They had some good reasons to do so.
The company packed up its papers and moved its headquarters back to St. Louis from Mount Kisco, N.Y. In November 1993 the company emerged from 21 months of bankruptcy with its debt load a lot lighter. In March 1995 23 businesses in the St. Louis area kicked in millions in advance for 110,000 TWA tickets which was a vote of confidence in St. Louis&rsquo new hometown airline. That summer TWA boosted its daily departures from Lambert Field to 348, a record. Another carefully planned trip into bankruptcy lasted only eight weeks, ending in August 1995. Early in 1996 TWA announced plans to obtain new Boeing 757 jets, a step officers hailed as a signal that the lean years were behind. It came to a head on July 17, 1996. That&rsquos when the company proudly announced a profit of $28.5 million for the second quarter, its best showing since 1989 and a sign of better times to come. A few hours later, a TWA 747 went down in flames. So did the optimism. The plane, Flight 800 bound for Paris, blew up off Long Island, shortly after taking off for Paris from New York&rsquos Kennedy airport. All 230 souls aboard perished.
Was it a terrorist bomb? An antiaircraft missile? A structural failure? Months of investigation pinpointed the central fuel tank as the site of the blast but failed to pin down a cause of the blast. Some people began to wonder whether TWA would suffer the fate of Pan Am. Shortly before Christmas in 1988 a terrorist bomb blew a Pan Am 747 out of the sky over Lockerbie, Scotland, killing 259. Before long Pan Am folded. The loss of Flight 800 jarred TWA&rsquos corporate structure. Three months after the plane went down Jefferey H. Erickson said he was quitting as the airline&rsquos president thus continuing the managerial merry-go-round.
Within days TWA announced that it had lost $14.3 million in the year&rsquos third quarter, the only major airline to post a loss. The bad news bled over into the new year. In January 1997 the airline cut way back on domestic flights out of Kennedy, suspended service from New York to Frankfurt and Athens, and said it would ground many of its 747s. The surgery pained its pride but TWA said its international operations out of Kennedy were draining the profits run up by its domestic operations in St. Louis.
TWA pride took a few more painful hits in short order. Tiny Transaero, a Russian airline with a handful of planes, said it was considering buying TWA. For the third straight year Fortune magazine listed TWA as &ldquoleast admired&rdquo among 431 corporations.
The Final Chapter
For a time TWA seemed to shed drag and gain lift. The company put its creaky fleet of jumbo jets out to pasture. Brand-new jets, smaller and more efficient, started flying in TWA&rsquos brand-new paint scheme. Starting in 1997 TWA watched the clock more closely. From way back in the herd TWA jumped to the top as the industry leader in on-time arrivals. Newspaper stories regularly quoted airline analysts as saying that TWA had taken off and was headed in the right direction. But like Flight 800 TWA never finished the trip.
Among the Bugaboos
Competition from ex-owner Icahn. As part of his buyout deal Icahn got the right to buy big blocks of TWA tickets at wholesale and sell them at retail. Not only was the deal a running financial wound it also gave TWA the shabby image of the poor man&rsquos discount airline. Confusion over what kind of airline TWA wanted to be ensued. For a time TWA courted high-end business travelers with a passion by initiating a business class service but the strategy fell short. TWA&rsquos sudden affection for the high end priced out many of the low-end leisure travelers who usually filled so many seats. At the same time high-end travelers remained wary of TWA. They tended to stick with airlines that had multiple hubs and thus better connections. There were diverging flight paths for costs and revenue and try as it might TWA could never bring its glory-day costs in line with its sorry-day income. A poor credit rating meant that TWA paid dearly for its aircraft leases and couldn&rsquot afford the hedge contracts that let other airlines ride out upward spikes in the price of fuel.
TWA went into 1998 hoping to turn a profit no matter how paltry. After all, other airlines were enjoying a record year. But TWA lost $120 million, its 10th straight year of red ink. Some airline analysts said TWA could muddle through. They likened the airline to a homeowner with a second mortgage and a heavy credit-card debt. Although he&rsquos in trouble, in the long haul he can keep his head above water for now if he can stay current with his bills. Others were less chipper. After the 1998 numbers came in another analyst said, &ldquoWe&rsquove just had the two strongest years ever in the airline industry. They shouldn&rsquot have had a loss of this magnitude.&rdquo It couldn&rsquot go on. After United Airlines cozied up to US Airways in a merger deal, the sky darkened for marginal operators like TWA which had by now become America&rsquos eighth-ranked airline. TWA President Bill Compton spoke bravely in June of the airline&rsquos fixing itself. But just about that time, fuel prices bumped up again.
By year&rsquos end, the stock market had lost all faith in TWA with the share price falling to $1.02, down about two-thirds from where it had started the year.
The news that American Airlines would swallow TWA was marked by sadness but not by surprise. TWA had probably flown on longer than market economics gave it the right to thanks largely to all the employee sacrifices at contract time.
Now the red-and-white birds and the proud name would disappear, just like Eastern, Braniff and Pan Am. TWA ceased flying under American Airlines as an LLC on July 1, 200
Copyright © 2011 The TWA Museum at 10 Richards Road
The role of intelligence
U-123, led by Reinhard Hardegan, took part in the highly successful 'Operation Drumbeat' © Intelligence was the other major factor in this second Battle of the Atlantic. Both sides at various times were able to read the signal traffic of the other. Britain's ability to break the Enigma codes, and the resulting 'Ultra' intelligence was a priceless advantage, particularly after the Royal Navy (not, as a recent Hollywood movie would have one believe, the Americans) seized an Enigma machine from a captured U-boat in May 1941. Armed with information about where U-boats were patrolling, the British were able to move convoys in safe areas, away from the wolfpacks.
A handful of U-boats . accounted for nearly 500 Allied ships.
However, the code-breakers at Bletchley Park had a constant battle to keep their information current. German changes to the naval Enigma code at the beginning of 1942 led to a rise in Allied sinkings, as the flow of Ultra intelligence temporarily ceased.
This problem was compounded by the fact that although the USA had entered the war, it did not immediately put into place some protective measures - such as introducing convoys, and 'blacking out' coastal towns. A handful of U-boats operating on the North American and Caribbean seaboards area in the first half of 1942 accounted for nearly 500 Allied ships. The period of this campaign, called Operation Drumbeat, was the second 'happy time' for the German submariners.
707 Service Across Atlantic - History
Map of volume and direction of the trans-Atlantic slave trade, Voyages: The Trans-Atlantic Slave Trade Database, courtesy of David Eltis and David Richardson, Atlas of the Transatlantic Slave Trade.
The trans-Atlantic slave trade was the largest long-distance forced movement of people in recorded history. From the sixteenth to the late nineteenth centuries, over twelve million (some estimates run as high as fifteen million) African men, women, and children were enslaved, transported to the Americas, and bought and sold primarily by European and Euro-American slaveholders as chattel property used for their labor and skills.
The trans-Atlantic slave trade occurred within a broader system of trade between West and Central Africa, Western Europe, and North and South America. In African ports, European traders exchanged metals, cloth, beads, guns, and ammunition for captive Africans brought to the coast from the African interior, primarily by African traders. Many captives died just during the long overland journeys from the interior to the coast. European traders then held the enslaved Africans who survived in fortified slave castles such as Elmina in the central region (now Ghana), Goree Island (now in present day Senegal), and Bunce Island (now in present day Sierra Leone), before forcing them into ships for the Middle Passage across the Atlantic Ocean.
The slave deck of the "Wildfire" ship brought into Key West on April 30, 1860, illustration, Harper's Weekly, June 2, 1860, courtesy of the Library of Congress.
Scholars estimate that from ten to nineteen percent of the millions of Africans forced into the Middle Passage across the Atlantic died due to rough conditions on slave ships. Those who arrived at various ports in the Americas were then sold in public auctions or smaller trading venues to plantation owners, merchants, small farmers, prosperous tradesmen, and other slave traders. These traders could then transport slaves many miles further to sell on other Caribbean islands or into the North or South American interior. Predominantly European slaveholders purchased enslaved Africans to provide labor that included domestic service and artisanal trades. The majority, however, provided agricultural labor and skills to produce plantation cash crops for national and international markets. Slaveholders used profits from these exports to expand their landholdings and purchase more enslaved Africans, perpetuating the trans-Atlantic slave trade cycle for centuries, until various European countries and new American nations officially ceased their participation in the trade in the nineteenth century (though illegal trans-Atlantic slave trading continued even after national and colonial governments issued legal bans).
Large Canoe and Village Scene, possibly Liberia, mid-19th century, courtesy of University of Virginia Special Collections Library. Example of shallow water vessels used in West and Central Africa to counter European attacks and thwart early attempts at mainland colonization.
ESTABLISHING THE TRADE
In the fifteenth century, Portugal became the first European nation to take significant part in African slave trading. The Portuguese primarily acquired slaves for labor on Atlantic African island plantations, and later for plantations in Brazil and the Caribbean, though they also sent a small number to Europe. Initially, Portuguese explorers attempted to acquire African labor through direct raids along the coast, but they found that these attacks were costly and often ineffective against West and Central African military strategies.
For example, in 1444, Portuguese marauders arrived in Senegal ready to assault and capture Africans using armor, swords, and deep-sea vessels. But the Portuguese discovered that the Senegalese out-maneuvered their ships using light, shallow water vessels better suited to the estuaries of the Senegalese coast. In addition, the Senegalese fought with poison arrows that slipped through their armor and decimated the Portuguese soldiers. Subsequently, Portuguese traders generally abandoned direct combat and established commercial relations with West and Central African leaders, who agreed to sell slaves taken from various African wars or domestic trading, as well as gold and other commodities, in exchange for European and North African goods.
Over time, the Portuguese developed additional slave trade partnerships with African leaders along the West and Central African coast and claimed a monopoly over these relationships, which initially limited access to the trade for other western European competitors. Despite Portuguese claims, African leaders enforced their own local laws and customs in negotiating trade relations. Many welcomed additional trade with Europeans from other nations.
Manikongo (leaders of Kongo) receiving the Portugeuse, ca. pre-1840. The Portuguese developed a trading relationship with the Kingdom of Kongo, which existed from the fourteenth to the nineteenth centuries in what is now Angola and the Democratic Republic of Congo. Civil War within Kongo during the trans-Atlantic slave trade would lead to many of its subjects becoming captives traded to the Portugeuse.
When Portuguese, and later their European competitors, found that peaceful commercial relations alone did not generate enough enslaved Africans to fill the growing demands of the trans-Atlantic slave trade, they formed military alliances with certain African groups against their enemies. This encouraged more extensive warfare to produce captives for trading. While European-backed Africans had their own political or economic reasons for fighting with other African enemies, the end result for Europeans traders in these military alliances was greater access to enslaved war captives. To a lesser extent, Europeans also pursued African colonization to secure access to slaves and other goods. For example, the Portuguese colonized portions of Angola in 1571 with the help of military alliances from Kongo, but were pushed out in 1591 by their former allies. Throughout this early period, African leaders and European competitors ultimately prevented these attempts at African colonization from becoming as extensive as in the Americas.
The Portuguese dominated the early trans-Atlantic slave trade on the African coast in the sixteenth century. As a result, other European nations first gained access to enslaved Africans through privateering during wars with the Portuguese,rather than through direct trade. When English, Dutch, or French privateers captured Portuguese ships during Atlantic maritime conflicts, they often found enslaved Africans on these ships, as well as Atlantic trade goods, and they sent these captives to work in their own colonies.
In this way, privateering generated a market interest in the trans-Atlantic slave trade across European colonies in the Americas. After Portugal temporarily united with Spain in 1580, the Spanish broke up the Portuguese slave trade monopoly by offering direct slave trading contracts to other European merchants. Known as the asiento system, the Dutch took advantage of these contracts to compete with the Portuguese and Spanish for direct access to African slave trading, and the British and French eventually followed. By the eighteenth century, when the trans-Atlantic slave trade reached its trafficking peak, the British (followed by the French and Portuguese) had become the largest carriers of enslaved Africans across the Atlantic. The overwhelming majority of enslaved Africans went to plantations in Brazil and the Caribbean, and a smaller percentage went to North America and other parts of South and Central America.
Elimina Castle, or St. George Castle, Gold Coast (present day Ghana), from the Atlas Blaeu van der Hem, 1665-1668. The Portuguese established Elmina on the Gold Coast as a trading settlement in 1482. It eventually became a major slave trading post in the trans-Atlantic slave trade. The Dutch seized the fortress from the Portugeuse in 1637.
Working the Lakes
Miners, loggers, and farmers sent the riches of the Midwest to market across the Great Lakes.
In the mid-1800s, the people streaming into the Midwest&mdashand the grain, lumber, and iron pouring out&mdashcreated a maritime industry across the Great Lakes. Fleets of ships served industries around the lakes and helped create thriving port cities, such as Cleveland, Milwaukee, and Chicago. For all their value and beauty, the waters were dangerous, too. Thousands of ships lie at the bottom of the Great Lakes.
The Merchant Marine Were the Unsung Heroes of World War II
“The sailor from the merchant ships was in those days known to America as a bum,” the former mariner and author Felix Reisenberg wrote. “He was associated with rotgut whiskey, waterfront brawls and quickie strikes that held up big passenger ships at New York, New Orleans and San Francisco . . .”
The era was the earliest stages of the United States’ involvement in World War II, and Nazi Germany was already bringing the war right to the nation’s shores – with shocking results. U-boats devastated merchant shipping off the U.S. East Coast and Gulf Coast, attacking vessels within sight of beaches in Virginia, North Carolina and Florida, and at the mouth of the Mississippi River. America was too undermanned and ill-equipped to defend its own shoreline. U-boats used the glow of American coastal cities to silhouette merchant ships for torpedo strikes, like ducks in a carnival shooting gallery.
On those ships were not military personnel but merchant mariners -- civilian volunteers with the U.S. Merchant Marine, hauling vital war cargo for the Allies. Merchant mariners were the supply line that provided virtually everything Allied armies needed in order to survive and fight on foreign battlefields. The seamen had no military standing or government benefits, but they possessed an unusual variety of courage and gave their lives for their country as valiantly as those in the armed forces did.
Surviving a U-boat attack often meant running a gauntlet of dangers, including fire, explosions, icy water, sharks, flaming oil slicks and long odysseys in open lifeboats. “You were taking a chance, that’s for sure,” recalled Jack Rowe, a merchant mariner from tiny Gwynn’s Island in Mathews County, Virginia. “But a lot of people were taking chances. You couldn’t just say, ‘Why me?’”
The Mathews Men: Seven Brothers and the War Against Hitler's U-boats
Standing lookout on a merchant ship was nerve-racking, especially around dawn and dusk, when the colors of the sea and sky merged into a gray haze, and any ripple of motion or flash of color might be the plume of a torpedo. “Occasionally a man will get the jitters and will be noticed walking the deck at night when he should be asleep,” recalled mariner Raymond Edwards. Once a torpedo struck, every moment became precious and every decision irreversible. “Even two seconds could mean the difference between life and death for any member of the crew. Running in the wrong direction might cut a sailor off from all means of escape. Jumping overboard at the wrong spot or at the wrong instant might easily cost a life. If a sailor is lucky enough to be alive after a torpedo hits his ship, it takes quick thinking and fast action to get him off the ship and into a lifeboat. Many are saved by sheer luck.”
The U-boat war was particularly unforgiving to merchant mariners. The Merchant Marine suffered a higher casualty rate than any branch of the military, losing 9,300 men, with most of the losses occurring in 1942, when most merchant ships sailed U.S. waters with little or no protection from the U.S. Navy. In March 1942 alone, 27 ships from six Allied nations were sunk off U.S. shores. Statistically, America’s coastal waters were the most dangerous, the scene of half the world’s sinkings. The experience of being torpedoed was so common that the president of the Boston Seaman’s Club founded a -Fathom Club” for those who had survived it. “I hope the membership won’t become too large,” he added, but it grew larger every day as rescue ships brought oil-soaked survivors to the docks at Halifax, Boston, New York, Norfolk, Morehead City, Miami, and Havana. Many of the mariners who survived torpedo attacks went right back to sea, often sailing through the same perilous waters, only to torpedoed again. One mariner was torpedoed ten times.
Despite their sacrifices, the members of the 40-Fathom Club were viewed by the American public with some ambivalence. Mariners were in such demand that shipping companies had lowered their standards and filled out crews with drunks, idlers, thieves, brawlers, and card sharps. The Merchant Marine’s image was further eroded by the presence of Communists in the maritime unions, although most mariners had no interest in radical politics.
But they were deplored by some Navy leaders for refusing to bend to military discipline. Other critics complained the mariners’ wartime bonuses raised their pay higher than that of military men— ignoring the facts that mariners received no government benefits, paid income taxes, and earned money only when their ships were at sea. If their ships were torpedoed, they stopped getting paid the moment they hit the water. They were off the clock when swimming for their lives. And their civilian status would shut them out of a lifetime’s worth of military benefits including health care, money for college and low-interest loans.
Not everyone piled on the Merchant Marine. President Franklin D. Roosevelt praised mariners in speeches, and his wife, Eleanor, credited them with “supreme courage” and suggested they be issued uniforms. Helen Lawrenson, a writer for Collier’s magazine, waded into a dingy seamen’s bar in Greenwich Village and was charmed by a group of mariners who went by the names of Low Life McCormick, No Pants Jones, Screwball McCarthy, Foghorn Russell, Soapbox Smitty, Riff Raff, and Whiskey Bill. Ten of the twelve mariners she met had been torpedoed at least once, and one of the other two complained, “I feel so out of place. I’m a wallflower, a nobody.” Lawrenson wrote that the mariners cut decidedly unromantic figures, guzzling “vast and formidable quantities of beer” while belting out sea ditties with raw lyrics. Beneath the surface, however, she found them intensely patriotic, casually fearless, and wise to the workings of the world. “They were the best informed, the most widely traveled, and the most truly sophisticated men I have ever met,” she concluded.
The New York Times characterized merchant mariners as the war’s unsung heroes: “No one steps up to the bar to buy them drinks. No moist-eyed old ladies turn to them in the subway to murmur ‘God bless you.’ The cop on the beat, gentle with the tipsy soldier or the unsteady gob [Navy man], is apt to put his nightstick to the britches of a merchant sailor who has tippled heavily in the town’s bars to celebrate his rescue from the sea.”
Most of the mariners who sailed against the U-boats are gone now. The few thousand who remain have come to regard Memorial Day as a celebration that has never fully included them. But it’s still not too late to remember, belatedly, how much we owe them.
From THE MATHEWS MEN: Seven Brothers and the War Against Hitler's U-boats by William Geroux, published by Viking, an imprint of Penguin Publishing Group, a division of Penguin Random House LLC Copyright © 2016 by William Geroux.