A Slow Trip Across the Pacific

by Harry Heist

This story is from a firsthand account. It is not copyrighted unless noted but we request anyone using this for other than personal use to credit the author and the museum.

As a C-124 Globemaster II crew member assigned to Dover AFB in 1958, most (if not all) of our missions were flown to the European Continent and to the Far North; so, when a Pacific trip to Japan came up, just about everyone put their bids in for a place on the crew. Well, with a little pull and being the navigator scheduling officer at the time, it was not that difficult to place my name tag on the mission setup board.

This trip would take us first to our pickup point at Davis-Monthan AFB in Tucson, Arizona, the USAF’s “Boneyard.” From there we would proceed to Travis AFB, California, for our first crew rest. So, following an uneventful flight of ten hours and 30 minutes, we landed at DM close to midnight to an air temperature of 100 degrees. We were told that this was not unusual for Tucson in October. (We were not aware at the time that within 15 years our bird would join others here to be made into scrap.) So, with minimum ground time, off to Travis facing another four plus 20 in the air.

Travis, near Fairfield, was, at the time, home of the 1501st Air Transport Wing assigned to the Military Air Transport Service. The base had several flying squadrons assigned with airplanes including the C-124 Globemaster, C-97 Stratofreighter, and the newly arrived C-133 Cargomaster. All were heavy cargo airlifters except the C-97 whose primary mission was to carry passengers to various Pacific assignments.

Following the normal crew rest of 15 hours, our next leg would be an 11 and one half hour flight to Hickam AFB in Honolulu, Hawaii. What a fabulous place, Honolulu! As we were a bit ahead of schedule, we decided that a 24-hour crew rest was a small reward. Well, guess what? Those 24 hours turned into five days of beach time at Waikiki, the Royal Hawaiian Hotel, Fort DeRussy, car trips through the pineapple fields, watching the surfing pros on the north shore, and a solemn visit to the USS Arizona. Not to forget the Missionary Downfalls at Don the Beachcombers, Hotel Street, Japanese nightclubs, the International Marketplace, and other adventures. But our visit to Honolulu would continue to be more exciting as we were informed that some high-priority cargo awaited us at the terminal and we would drop our load for Japan and proceed back to Travis for another eleven hours in the air. So, with a normal crew rest at Travis we were again headed back to Hickam with another three days under the palms and on the beach at Honolulu. More adventures were to be had on our return trip from Japan, but now the next stop was Wake Island with an en route time of nine hours and 30 minutes.

Since Wake lies at the same latitude as Honolulu, it has a similar climate with an average temperature of 80 degrees and prevailing trade winds from the northeast. The annual rainfall of 40 inches is most welcome since there is no other natural water source on the atoll.

Following the war, Wake grew in importance, and because of its strategic location in the middle of the vast Pacific Ocean, it was a major factor in support of transpacific aviation. It was not only an essential refueling stop for large numbers of aircraft transiting the Pacific but an important aviation communications and air traffic control center. Remains of the Japanese occupation can be found in the form of gun emplacements and the beached Japanese merchant ship Suwa Maru that was torpedoed by an American submarine in 1943.

Following an exploration of the local flora and fauna and, of course tipping a few at the infamous Drifters Reef, our next stop was Kadena Air Base, Japan, with a ten hour and 40 minute flight plan. Kadena is located on the semi-tropical island of Okinawa between the East China Sea and the Pacific Ocean.

Kadena AB’s history dates back to just before the U.S. invasion of Okinawa on April 1, 1945, when a local construction firm completed a small airfield named Yara Hikojo near the island’s village of Kadena. The airfield, used by Japanese war planes, was one of the first targets of the U.S. 10th Army and was captured just hours after American troops stormed the island. What the Americans captured was nothing more than a 4,600-foot strip of badly damaged coral runway. Army engineers quickly made repairs and, by nightfall the same day, the runway could accept emergency landings. Eight days later, and after some six inches of coral were added, the airfield was declared operational and put into immediate service. By August 1945, an additional runway was built and the original runway lengthened and improved to accommodate bombers. Kadena Air Base was born. Following crew rest, we continued our journey on to Tachikawa Air Base, Japan, looking at a short hop of four hours and ten minutes.

Tachikawa Air Base, a short distance via train to downtown Tokyo and home to the 1503rd Air Transport Wing, was the main MATS organization in the Western Pacific. Any visit to Tachi by a MATS crew demanded at least a 24-hour crew rest, permitting a trip to Tokyo and seeing all the sites of Tokyo’s most famous entertainment district—the Ginza. So, after seeing a few floor shows and doing a few ‘other’ things we wound up in a Pachinko Parlor and tried our luck. The Pachinko machine is the Japanese equivalent to our slot machine. The machines light up with bells a-ringing. Couldn’t tell whether we won anything as no one spoke English. At Tachi BX I bought a refurbished machine with about 100 steel balls and had it for many years until my kids decided to see what made it tick and that was the end of it. The balls were of use, however, as they made excellent slingshot ammo. The next destination was back to Wake for a flight time of nine hours and 20 minutes. We really added up the flying time!

It seems that if this trip wasn’t adventurous enough when, during our crew rest at Wake, we decided to see more of the atoll that we had missed during our first visit. Well, this seems like an understatement. Pan American Airways, during the 1930s, was a frequent visitor with their flying boats, such as the China Clipper, using the island as a refueling stop and rest-over on their way to the Orient and Southeast Asia destinations. As a result they needed a place to embark their passengers and that was by using a pier jutting out into the water and deep enough to clear the bottom of the airplane. One of these piers still existed at the time and, unannounced to us, it was to be removed. Well, you guessed right, today was the day that a couple of us decided that we would venture out on to the pier for a better view of the sea and its surroundings. As we were approaching the end of the pier we wondered what all the excitement was a distance away as some people we frantically waving for us to return to shore. They had planted demolition charges to blow the pier within minutes! Why there weren’t warning signs, who knew! All was well and, following a few hours of sack time, we were off to Hickam with ten plus 40 en route.

As if we hadn’t had our fill of adventure during our last two visits here in Honolulu, this one was extra special. During this three-day visit and running a bit low in the pocketbook, it was down to downing cheaper beer rather than the more expensive exotic tropical drinks. Until one late afternoon, we were all sitting around the bar at the Queens Surf Hotel and, low and behold, who walks in (eventually to be the most famous singing group of the time) but the Kingston Trio: Bob Shane, Nick Reynolds, and Dave Guard. As they and we were the only ones in the bar, striking up a conversation was easy and, not to show them we were a poor old MATS crew and scraping up a few extra bucks between us, bought them a few drinks and they reciprocated. No, Tom Dooley, we weren’t going to “Hang Down Our Heads!”

Well, after another stay at Travis we were finally home after 21 days on the road logging 114 flying hours. Within five days I was airborne again headed for a much colder and uninviting climate—Thule Air Base, Greenland.