Answer Man: Aviston man helped search for missing Pan Am flight

News-DemocratApril 5, 2014 

All of the news about the missing Malaysian jetliner prompted me to remember a time in 1957 or 1958 when I was stationed aboard the USS Renshaw DDE-499 at Pearl Harbor. Along with our three sister ships, we were ordered on a search and rescue mission between Hawaii and the mainland for a downed plane. As I recall, once on the site we found little other than some debris. What can you tell me about this tragedy from 50 years ago that I was part of? -- Fred Shrader, of Aviston

The plane was called the Clipper Romance of the Skies, but this time the romance was doomed.

At 1:51 p.m. CST Nov. 8, 1957, Pan Am Flight 7 took off from San Francisco for Honolulu on the first leg of an around-the-world flight that would end in Philadelphia.

Aboard the Boeing 377 Stratocruiser was a crew of eight and 36 passengers. Included were six members of the Clack family from Midland, Mich., and four members of the Alexander family from Los Gatos, Calif., according to the Fresno Bee and Republican.

The four-prop plane carried nearly 6,700 gallons of fuel, which would have allowed it to fly until about 5 a.m. the next day. At 7:04 p.m., Gordon Brown, the plane's captain, radioed that he had passed the point of no return -- about 1,000 miles east of Honolulu. The update would be the last anyone ever heard from Flight 7.

Oddly enough, that final message came from nearly the same spot where just one year before another Pan American flight had developed engine problems and ditched in the Pacific. Fortunately, pilot Richard Ogg had been able to circle four hours on two engines to reduce weight before splashing down near a coast guard weather ship. All 31 passengers survived.

There would be no similar happy ending this time.

For hours that night, your ships at Pearl Harbor flashed their lights, hoping that the pilot merely had lost radio contact and was looking for the island. The effort was in vain. Early in the morning of Nov. 9 after it was long overdue, a Pan Am spokesman announced that the plane "must be presumed down somewhere in the Pacific."

For the next four days, eight Coast Guard cutters, Navy ships, dozens of planes and two submarines crisscrossed a 100,000-square-mile area in ideal weather looking for signs of the downed plane. Even the aircraft carrier Philippine Sea from Long Beach, Calif., was called in to add its planes and helicopters to the hunt. It reportedly became the largest search deployed in peace time since they had gone looking for Amelia Earhart in the summer of 1937.

Finally on Nov. 14, a Navy pilot spotted nine bodies floating in the water about 128 miles west-northwest of the plane's final reported position. Over the next day, eight more bodies would be recovered, all of which revealed evidence of what must have been several terrifying, catastrophic final minutes:

Twelve of the 17 bodies had life jackets on, implying that passengers were told to prepare for a crash during the plane's 10,000-foot descent.

Three wristwatches were stopped at 7:27 p.m. CST -- just 23 minutes after the pilot had routinely radioed his final position at 1,028 miles east of Honolulu.

The Philippine Sea reported there was evidence of fire in the considerable amount of debris collected, including mail, cushions and other buoyant wreckage.

And, finally, all of the bodies were found shoeless (removing shoes is a common practice while ditching at sea) and all had severe external injuries and multiple fractures.

Early speculation focused on three possible causes: a fire, meteor or a propellor that flew off. One anonymous Navy officer quoted in the Nov. 15 Fresno Bee said he remembered one case in which a propellor came through a fuselage, made a right turn and then sliced through the entire plane.

Later toxicology reports by the Los Angeles County Coroner's office found higher than normal levels of carbon monoxide in a few of the bodies but added it did not prove that it was a cause. Since then, speculation about a disgruntled crew member and insurance fraud has surfaced but no definitive cause has ever been found for the crash which ended a Pan Am streak of just more than 9 billion revenue passenger miles without a fatality.

By the way, at least two other Pacific Ocean air mysteries remain as well:

On March 22, 1957, a U.S. Air Force Boeing C-97C Stratofreighter carrying a crew of 10 and 57 passengers disappeared between Wake Island and Tokyo. It was the worst air accident over the Pacific at the time.

Then on March 16, 1962, a Lockheed L-1049H Super Constellation carrying 107 -- including 93 American soldiers headed to Saigon -- went missing between Guam and the Philippines. No trace was ever found.

Today's trivia

Who was the USS Renshaw named for -- and what movie was the ship in?

Answer to Saturday's trivia: Most healthy dogs start out with 28 baby teeth, which erupt between 3 and 6 weeks of age. Then about three months later, they'll start getting the first of their 42 permanent teeth -- 10 more than humans.

Send your questions to Roger Schlueter, Belleville News-Democrat, 120 S. Illinois St., P.O. Box 427, Belleville, IL 62222-0427 or rschlueter@bnd.com or call 618-239-2465.

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