Pan American Airways on the Home Front in the Pacific

A graphic poster of a Pan Am clipper plane flying over an Asian harbor with people and vessels working. On the shore of the harbor is a city, and behind that are mountains. The sky is orange and yellow, like a sunrise or sunset.
Transpacific Flight – It’s A Small World by Pan American Airways. Poster by Pan American Airways, 1938.

Collection of the Library of Congress (

Pan American Airways pioneered the transpacific air route between the US mainland and China, using US jurisdictions and territories across the Pacific as “stepping stones.” This extended the American Home Front westward, and sparked Americans’ imaginations and their excitement for the Airline.

The difference between a military installation and the home front can be blurry when civilian contractors are working for the military. In the 1930s, Pan American Airlines (Pan Am) established civilian hotels and facilities on several American Pacific jurisdictions. These served as “stepping stones” that Pan Am used to carry tourists, business people, politicians, and mail from California to China and beyond. Staff from the US and its territories lived and worked at these facilities, solidifying them as part of the World War II American home front.

After leaving the League of Nations in the 1930s, Japan increased its military expansion in the Pacific. This concerned the American government, and they wanted to counter with their own expansion. To honor their membership in the League, they did not want to appear to be using the military. The timing coincided with Pan American Airlines (Pan Am) plans to extend their routes across the Pacific Ocean. It was a perfect partnership that opened a new era in civilian transportation and communications, expanded military-ready technology across the Pacific, and ignited Americans’ imaginations. [1]

Advances in Technology Open the Pacific to American Aviation

Advances in airplane technology in the 1920s and 1930s made commercial air flight possible – for people, mail, and cargo. To protect American interests, the government gave the newly-formed Pan Am a virtual monopoly on international flights in the 1920s. They began by flying mail, reaching places much faster than was possible by ship. In the 1930s, Pan Am established a fleet of flying boats that they called Clippers. Able to land on water, these planes did not use runways and could refuel in shipping ports.[2]

With new flight technology that could handle the long Pacific distances, Pan Am consulted with the navy to establish a trans-Pacific service.[3] No aircraft at the time could travel the whole distance from California to the Philippines in one go. Instead, Pan Am set up refueling stops at Hawai'i, Midway Island, Wake Island, Guam, and then the Philippines. This required shipping supplies, buildings, gear, and staff by boat to each island before the first flight. The first load out of California was 6,000 tons. It included enough food for six months, seven smaller vessels for transferring cargo, a quarter of a million gallons of airplane fuel (packed in 55-gallon drums), two 10-ton tractors, four windmill pumps, prefabricated buildings, four diesel generators, and thousands of gallons of diesel fuel. For the staff, they packed a small lending library, playing cards, paper and writing utensils, bedding, chewing tobacco, gum, pots and pans, and kitchen sinks. Alcohol was strictly forbidden, both on the cargo ship and for workers on-island.[4]

Black and white map shows the route from San Francisco to Honolulu (2410 miles) to Midway (1380 miles) to Wake (1260 miles) to Guam (1560 miles) to Manila (1600 miles) to Macao.
Pan Am’s transpacific route hopscotched from Alameda (later San Francisco) to China by way of islands belonging to the United States.

Popular Mechanics 1935 Issue 4, p. 485.

Stylized map of Pan Am facilities. Each labeled: landing, paths, maintenance, radio quarters, hospital, tennis court, hotel, etc. Dist. from California: 4,893 mi. Date change: 1 day. Time Change: 5 hours. Also shown: coral reefs & lagoon.
Map of Pan Am’s facilities on Peale Island at Wake before World War 2. The illustrator did considerable research to make her story as realistic as possible.

Illustration by Carol Nay from her 1939 book, Timmy Rides the China Clipper.

On Wake’s Peale Island and Midway Atoll’s Sand Island, Pan Am built small towns. With the help of the US Army Corps, they blasted and dredged lagoons to make landing safe for the clippers; used tractors to level building areas; installed radio navigation systems; and built employee housing, power plants, hangars, and desalination plants (to produce fresh water). On Wake, they planted hydroponic gardens to produce food for their employees and future guests. At Midway, the Pan Am facilities were completed in only 45 days. On Guam, Pan Am made use of an abandoned US Marine Corps base at Sumay offered by the Navy, where they built the island’s first hotel. In Hawai’i and the Philippines, they leased land and facilities from active naval bases at Pearl Harbor and Manila.[5] At Pearl Harbor, Pan Am initially used the Navy facilities at Ford Island, but soon moved to their own facilities on the Pearl City peninsula.[6]

The World’s First Trans-Pacific Airmail and Passenger Flights

In November of 1935, Pan Am operated the world’s first trans-Pacific airmail flight. It was a big deal. Radio stations on four continents carried live radio broadcasts, updating millions of people to the location of the China Clipper in real time. Pan Am made the trip from Alameda, California to Manila, in the Philippines, in six days. This cut the travel time between the two cities (8,000 miles) down from over 2 weeks by fast ship.[7] With proof that the route was possible, Pan Am immediately began planning for trans-Pacific passenger service.

Leaving California in January of 1936 was another ship filled with Pan Am cargo headed for Midway and Wake. On board were two prefabricated 45-room luxury hotels; a locomotive and supplies for a narrow-gauge railway; tons of frozen food for the future passengers; and construction crews to build, wire, and plumb the hotels.[8] The hotels were virtually identical, with central lobbies with two wings extending outward. They had wide porches and verandahs, private guest rooms, and full dining rooms. Each guest room had a bathroom and hot water shower. Other facilities included docks, warehouses, offices, employee barracks, tennis courts, and shops.[9] Pan Am looked to Guam for employees, hiring many Chamorro men as laborers, hotel and wait staff, and drivers.

Black and white photo of a one story building. The center entrance has “Pan American Airways System” over it. Several people sit inside a vehicle driving on a shell-covered roadway. There are small plants and scrub grass.
The Pan Am Hotel on Midway, 1930s. Pan Am used similar “woody” style cars at all of their Pacific hotels.

Courtesy Pan Am Historical Foundation /

The hotel on Midway was called the PAA [Pan American Airways] Airway Inn or the Pan American Hotel at Midway. By the time it was being used by the US military in World War II, it was known as “GooneyvilleLodge” after the albatross on the island.[10] Elsewhere on Midway was a naval air station and submarine base, which were off limits to Pan Am workers and passengers.[11] On Wake, the Pan Am complex was known as PAAville or Wake Village, and was the atoll’s first permanent settlement.[12]

In October of 1936, the first Pacific passenger flight made the trip. The China Clipper was a “flying miniature hotel,” and could hold about 50 passengers. A hundred and fifty thousand people watched her leave Alameda on October 21. She arrived in Manila six days later.[13] The aircraft interior was luxurious, with a lounge, berths, and a dining room with white linens. Liveried staff served meals from the full kitchen on Pan Am-branded china. There were also crew quarters and a full kitchen.[14]

In Hawai’i, passengers stayed at the Royal Hawaiian Hotel at Waikiki Beach while clipper crew stayed at the Alexander Young Hotel in downtown Honolulu. In the Philippines, passengers stayed at the Manila Hotel.[15] At each overnight refueling stop, tourists disembarked from the clipper via a dock or powerboat. Once on land, Pan Am employees drove them to the hotels in vehicles imported for that purpose. Passengers passed the time exploring or playing games, dined from fine china and slept in their luxury rooms before departing the following morning.[16] In 1936, an October 30 dinner at Midway consisted of anchovy canapé, celery, queen olives, chicken broth, prime roast beef au jus, mashed potatoes, spinach, fruit salad, green apple pie, cream cheese, and café noir (black coffee).[17] In Guam, Manila, California, Hawai’i and other port towns and cities, Pan Am passengers mingled with other visitors and local elites.[18]

Stylized color image showing Pan Am crew and passengers on board the China Clipper.
A cross-section drawing of the China Clipper, showing the flight deck, kitchen, crew quarters, lounge, and berths (detail).

A cross-section drawing of the China Clipper, showing the flight deck, kitchen, crew quarters, lounge, and berths.  Collection of the National Air and Space Museum (SI-89-1216-A).


Several round tables with white table cloths, napkins, and good china fill a room. Many have 2 to 4 people (mostly men) sitting at them. They are being served by men in white uniforms. The lobby of the hotel is visible through an open door.
The interior of the Midway Hotel dining room, 1930s. The servers include Chamorro men hired from Guam.

Courtesy Pan Am Historical Foundation /

Pan Am’s revolutionary trans-Pacific service ignited Americans' imaginations. In the midst of the Great Depression, the China Clipper became a symbol of a better future, wealth, and adventure. Clippermania spread throughout the country. There was a popular song and matching dance moves; clippers showed up on product labels, postage stamps, souvenirs, tie racks, playing cards, and as toys. A passenger boat in Biloxi, Mississippi launched in 1937 was named Pan American Clipper.[19] As early as 1936, authors featured clippers in books for adolescents that hinted at the building unrest in the Pacific. They also appeared in books for youth with content helping their young readers adjust to the conflict. Clippermania continued well into the War, and even after.[20]

Pan Am Opens Additional Routes to New Zealand

After the success of the US to China route, Pan Am established routes between the United States and New Zealand. The first planned route went from Hawai’i to Kingman Reef, to Pago Pago in American Samoa, and to Auckland, New Zealand. This was a dangerous route. Kingman Reef, controlled by the US Navy, was underwater at high tide. Instead of building facilities, Pan Am moored a ship that would provide lodging, food, and supplies. At Pago Pago, there was very little room in the harbor to safely land or take off.[21] In December 1937, the Samoan Clipper left Honolulu with its first cargo of mail to New Zealand, and returned shortly after New Year’s day in 1938. On January 9, Pan Am asked the crew to make another mail run to New Zealand. Between Pago Pago and Auckland, the clipper sprang an oil leak and exploded. The Samoan Clipper, her crew of 7, and her cargo were lost.[22]

Black and white photo of the exterior of a one-story building with awnings over the windows. In the background are palm trees and hills.
View of the Pan Am Hotel at Sumay, Guam. Nashville Banner, December 11, 1941.

Nashville Banner (Nashville, Tennessee) December 11, 1941, p. 3.

In 1939, with more powerful clippers in production, Pan Am began working on a safer route to New Zealand. This route took the clipper from Hawai'i to Canton Island, Fiji, and Noumea, New Caledonia and on to New Zealand. In July 1940, clippers began making the journey to Auckland.[23] Pan Am passenger and mail service ran on regular routes connecting California to Hawai’i, New Zealand, the Philippines, and beyond until the US entered World War II.[24]

Pan Am Staff and Facilities Are Casualties of Japan’s Attacks in December, 1941

When Japan attacked the US in December of 1941, they hit the Pan Am facilities on Guam, Midway, and Wake Island. On Guam, the hotel, crew quarters, and fuel tanks were hit, and two employees were killed (though reports stated there were no injuries among Pan Am personnel).[25] The hotel was destroyed during the battle between the US and Japan to recapture Guam in 1944. In 1974, the only remaining evidence of the hotel was a concrete slab, remains of a porch, sloping ramps leading up to the slab, a low iron fence, and remnants of what may have been a small park.[26]

Black and white photo of the exterior of a one-story building with awnings over the windows. Staff dressed in white escort guests into the hotel. One guest kneels to watch the birds.
The outside of the Pan Am hotel on Wake, 1930s.

Courtesy Pan Am Historical Foundation /

At Midway, Japanese shells hit the company’s radio facility, laundry, and other buildings.[27] The first attack wave at Wake Island included strikes on the Pan Am facilities, leaving a wing of the hotel, the docks, machine shop, office building, staff quarters, and the airport manager’s home burning or destroyed. The Philippine Clipper, sitting in port, was only slightly damaged by bullets from a .50-caliber machine gun.[28]

After the first attack, Pan Am employees emptied her of cargo and seats. Although overloaded, the Philippine Clipper left Wake carrying Pan Am's passengers and their white staff. In a contemporary account published in papers across the nation, a survivor claims that “Not a person was killed… among the Pan American personnel.” This excluded the 45 Chamorro Pan Am employees who were left behind, ostensibly because there was not enough room for them. Of these men, 10 died. Five died in the first attack wave; five more died when the Japanese hit the hospital and the rest of the Pan Am compound in the second wave.[29] When the Japanese took control of Wake Island, they sent most of the surviving Chamorro, US military, and military contractors to Prisoner of War camps. The 99 civilian contractors kept on the island to perform forced labor were later massacred. The US regained control of Wake Island when Japan surrendered in 1945.[30]

Military Use and Post War

Black and white photo of a concrete floor and low wall remnants, overgrown with grasses and trees.
Ruins of the Pan Am hotel on Wake, 1983.

From Erwin Thompson (1984) “National Historic Landmark Nomination: Wake Island.” National Park Service, May 13, 1984.

As soon as the Japanese attacked American territories in the Pacific, Pan American switched their operations from peacetime to a pre-arranged wartime footing. Once all of the clippers had landed, brought their mail and passenger cargo to safety and refueled, Pan Am’s facilities were put under control of the US military.[31] In the Philippines, Pan Am staff were among those incarcerated by the Japanese at camps like Santo Tomas.[32] On Midway, the Navy used the former hotel as a barracks. After World War II, Pan Am resumed trans-Pacific flights. But with improvements in technology, the era of the clipper was over. Airplanes replaced clippers --they could fly farther and use the infrastructure of runways built by the military during the war.[33]
Color photograph of the ruins of a concrete structure extending into the bright turquoise lagoon of Wake Island. Across the lagoon are the other two islands that make up Wake.
Ruins from the Pan Am era extend into the lagoon at Wake. 

Photo courtesy of Bonnie Gilbert.

This article was written by Megan E. Springate, Assistant Research Professor, Department of Anthropology, University of Maryland, for the NPS Cultural Resources Office of Interpretation and Education. It was funded by the National Council on Public History’s cooperative agreement with the National Park Service.

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Last updated: November 16, 2023