COMSUBPAC is Missing – The Last Flight of the Philippine Clipper January 21, 1943

We take flying for granted.

Before I went into the navy, I had been on one flight. Pittsburgh to Cleveland. It was a prop driven plane and I remember the thrill of lifting off the ground and speeding through the air. I don’t remember how old I was but it was a pretty big deal at the time.

Fifty years ago I would learn what long distance flying was all about. After some relatively short jet and airplane rides from Pittsburgh to Chicago to New London Connecticut and later Charleston SC, I had my very first long journey to California. A few days later, I would fly in the back of an Air Force C5 cargo plane to Hawaii.

I would have many flights around the Pacific traveling between Hawaii, Guam, the Philippines, Vietnam and Thailand. Later in my career, I would land in Spain, Scotland and Germany with a few back and fourths across the Atlantic.

During my second career, I got a chance to travel all over the country and back to Europe logging thousands of miles to England, France, Sweden, and Belgium with the customary stops at key points to change planes.

But in all of those flights, I may have been uncomfortable but I never really feared for my life. Flying was just something I did to get to where I was needed next.

On January 21, 1943, one particular flight was not so fortunate

Today’s story is about a flight that did not go well at all. 80 years ago, the wreckage of a transport plane was found near Ukiah California. When the plane went down on January 21, 1943, the crew and all of her passengers would die in a fiery crash in a remote area. One of those people was the Commander of the Submarine Force in the Pacific, Robert H. English.

Robert Henry English (16 January 1888 – 21 January 1943) was a United States Navy commissioned officer who commanded the U.S. Navy’s submarine force in the Pacific Theater of Operations early in World War II.

English was born in Warrenton, Georgia, and he was a member of the United States Naval Academy class of 1911. Early in his naval career he became a submariner. In 1917, while commanding the submarine USS O-4 (SS-65), he received the Navy Cross for his great heroism in rescuing an officer trapped in the submarine USS O-5 (SS-66) after an explosion.

After a series of important assignments, he became commanding officer of the light cruiser USS Helena (CL-50), and during the Japanese attack on Pearl Harbor in Hawaii on 7 December 1941 was one of the first to bring his ship into action.

USS Helena

The Saint Louis class light cruiser, USS Helena (CL-50), was commissioned in September 1939 at New York Navy Yard, New York.   Initially assigned to the Atlantic, she transferred to Pearl Harbor and was at the Navy Yard during the Japanese Attack on December 7, 1941.   Damaged by a single torpedo, Helena would be repaired and return to the Pacific by joining the Guadalcanal Campaign in the summer of 1942, where she rescued survivors from USS Wasp (CV-7) and took part in protecting Henderson Field during the Battle of Cape Esperance in October and the Naval Battle of Guadalcanal in November.  After an overhaul, Helena returned to combat in March 1943 providing gunfire support during the landings at New Georgia and Rendova.  In the early morning during the Battle of Kula Gulf on July 6, 1943, she fought Japanese destroyers and was hit by three enemy torpedoes that broke the cruiser in three parts, resulting in the loss of 168 crewmen.  On April 11, 2018, RV Petrel discovered the remains of Helena while on an expedition in the Solomon Islands.


On 14 May 1942, he became Commander, Submarine Force, United States Pacific Fleet (COMSUBPAC), and was so serving when killed in the crash of Pan American Flight 1104 into a mountain about 7 miles (11 km) southwest of Ukiah in Mendocino County, California, on 21 January 1943. In the accident, English and other Navy officers were passengers on a four-engine Martin M-130 flying boat, being flown by a Pan American Airways civilian crew. The aircraft – dubbed the Philippine Clipper before the U.S Navy purchased it and pressed it into service during World War II – was destroyed in the accident; all 19 aboard were killed.


The Wilmington Morning Star. February 01, 1943


Many High Ranking Naval Officers Aboard Burned Aircraft

UKIAH, Calif., Jan. 31

The sheriff’s office here informed the Navy today that a Navy transport plane, missing for 10 days on a flight from Pearl Harbor to San Francisco had been found wrecked and burned in the mountains 10 miles southwest of here.

All aboard the plane were dead. The big flying transport carried Rear Admiral H. English, Commander of the Pacific fleet sub[1]marine force, and several other high naval officers. In all, 19 persons were aboard.

(Navy headquarters in San Francisco confirmed that the plane had been found shortly after the sheriff’s office made its report. Navy authorities said the wreckage was hardly recognizable as that of the transport, which was a commercial plane taken over by the Navy.)

The transport was lost on the morning of January 21 when it approached San Francisco during a storm and was unable to get below the clouds to land. It then headed northward, evidently with the idea of landing on Clear Lake, 30 miles east of here. The site of the crash is about 100 miles north- of San Francisco.

The sheriff’s report said the plane, flying through one of the heaviest rainstorms in years in this area, hit a vertical cliff about ’50 feet below the ridge of a 2,000 foot mountain.

The wreckage-was found in a timber-covered area which had been covered by Army and Navy planes in their search along the coast, at sea and inland to the foothills of the Sierra.

Long before the wreckage was definitely identified, soldiers moved into the district and guarded the roads which taper off into the rugged country. No one was allowed to pass the guards.

Mrs. Charles Wallack, wife of a rancher, told of seeing a huge plane she thought was in distress on the stormy morning of January 21. She was on duty as an airplane spotter for the aircraft warning service.


UKIAH, Calif., Jan. 31—CPI—The list of personal aboard the wrecked and burned Navy air transport found near here today: Admiral Robert H. English, Warrenton, Ga.; wife, Mrs. Eloise Walker English, now living at Washington, D. C.

Captain Robert Holmes Smith, commanding officer of a Naval vessel, Rocky Mount, N. C.; wife, Mrs. Francis B. Smith, Cambridge, Mass.

Captain Robert E. Thomas, Navy Civil Engineering Corps, director of the Pacific division of the Bureau of Yards and Docks, Rockford, IL.; wife, Mrs. Helen L. Thomas, Seattle.

Captain Donald C. Godwin attached to Twelfth Naval District San Francisco, Williamstown, N. C.; wife, Mrs. Hazel M. Godwin, Los Angeles. Commander John J. Crane, Toledo, O.; Wife, Mrs. Imogene St. Clair Crane, Vallejo, Calif.

Commander Francis L. Black, attached to staff of commander in chief. Pacific fleet, San Diego, Calif.; wife, Mrs. Anna B. Black, Cambridge, Mass.

Commander William G. Myers commanding officer of a Naval vessel, Washington, D. C.; wife, Mrs. Susan Myers, Washington.

Lieut. Commander John O.R. Coll, gunnery officer of submarine force, Pacific Fleet, Jeffersonville Ind.: wife Mrs. Margaret Coll, San Diego

Lieut. Commander George R. Stone, attached to 14thNaval District, Pearl Harbor Big Rapids Mich. Wife Mrs. Jean Richards Stone River Forest, Ill.

Lieutenant (J.G.) Edna Owella Morrow, Navy Nurse, Pasadena, Calif.

Crew members:

Robert McNair Elzey, Captain, Palo Alto, Calif.

Orvan K. Judd, First Officer, Berkeley, Calif.

John R. Maynard, second officer, Alameda, Calif.

George H. Abel, third officer, San Menlo Park, Calif.

Leo A. Mackota, first engineer, San Francisco.

John T. Eagan, Sr., second engineer, Alameda.

Clarence P. Thomson, first radio office, San Leandro. Calif.

George W. Angus, second radio officer, Oakland. Calif.

John O. Hill, flight steward, San Carlos. Calif.


The Philippine Clipper

The Philippine Clipper was one of three M-130 flying boats designed for Pan Am by the Glenn L. Martin Company. It was built as a trans-Pacific airliner and sold for $417,000 (the equivalent of $8.5 million in 2022). At the time, the M-130 was the largest aircraft built in the United States, until it was surpassed in 1938 by the Boeing 314. The Philippine Clipper entered service with Pan American in 1936, and inaugurated passenger service between the United States and Manila in October 1936.

The Philippine Clipper was at Wake Island when it was attacked by the Japanese on December 8, 1941. It was slightly damaged in the attack, and departed the island shortly afterwards.

During World War II, the Philippine Clipper and sister ship China Clipper were pressed into service for the Navy, though they remained crewed by Pan American personnel. At the time of the crash, the aircraft had logged 14,628 hours of flight time, had flown the Pacific Ocean for eight years, and had survived strafing by Japanese aircraft on Wake Island on December 8, 1941.

Flight 1104 departed from Pearl Harbor on Oahu in the Hawaiian Islands at 5:30 pm on January 20, 1943. The nine-man Pan Am crew consisted of four pilots, three engineers, two radio operators, and a steward. The flight was captained by Robert M. Elzey. By mid-January 1943, Captain Elzey had accumulated about 4,941 flying hours, of which 3,359 were while in the employ of Pan American.

The Passengers

The 10 passengers on board were all U.S. naval officers. Among them was Rear Admiral Robert H. English, the commander of the U.S. Pacific Submarine Fleet, the submarine component of the United States Pacific Fleet. Rear Admiral English planned to visit submarine support facilities at the Mare Island Naval Shipyard bordering San Pablo Bay, and was accompanied by three of his senior staff officers. Another passenger was Lieutenant Edna Morrow, a Navy nurse diagnosed with terminal cancer who was on her way home to die. Also on board was Captain Robert Holmes Smith, formerly in command of the USS Sperry (AS-12) submarine tender, and recently promoted to Commander of Squadron 2, Pacific Submarine Fleet.

Until the crash, the flight was routine, as evidenced by radio transmissions during the night. A strong tailwind put the flight three and a half hours ahead of schedule.

On the morning of January 21, 1943, the aircraft ran into poor weather as it flew north over California towards San Francisco. Heavy rain, strong winds, thick cloud cover, and fog forced the captain to descend to a lower altitude. At 7:30 am, the far off-course aircraft crashed into a mountain at about 2,500 ft (760 m), descending at an angle of 10°, whereupon it clipped a number of trees before crashing, breaking up, and burning. Over a week passed before the wreckage was located, and after it was found, the area was cordoned off by soldiers to protect any surviving classified military documents that may have been carried aboard.

The Civil Aeronautics Board investigated the crash and decided the probable cause was pilot error.

Failure of the captain to determine his position accurately before descending to a dangerously low altitude under extremely poor weather conditions during the hours of darkness.

— Civil Aeronautics Board, CAB File No. 1413-43

Status: Accident investigation report completed and information captured

Date: Thursday 21 January 1943

Time: 07:30

Type: Martin M-130

Operator: Pan American Airways (Pan Am)

Registration: NC14715

MSN: 557

First flight: 1934

Total airframe hrs.: 14628

Engines: 4 Pratt & Whitney R-1830-S2A5G

Crew: Fatalities: 9 / Occupants: 9

Passengers: Fatalities: 10 / Occupants: 10

Total: Fatalities: 19 / Occupants: 19

Aircraft damage: Damaged beyond repair

Location: 11 km (6.9 mls) SSW of Ukiah, CA  (United States of America)

Phase:  En route (ENR)

Nature: Domestic Scheduled Passenger

Departure airport: Honolulu (unknown airport), HI, United States of America

Destination airport: San Francisco Municipal Airport, CA (SFO/KSFO), United States of America

Flight number:  1104


Crashed into a mountain at an elevation of about 2,500 feet. Weather was poor . The aircraft, flying in a northerly direction, had descended into mountainous terrain at a 10-degree angle, clipped trees, struck the ground, broke up and burned.

Probable Cause:

PROBABLE CAUSE: “Failure of the captain to determine his position accurately before descending to a dangerously low altitude under extremely poor weather conditions during the hours of darkness.”


The Aftermath

Rear Admiral Charles A. Lockwood succeeded Admiral English as COMSUBPAC and left Freemantle Australia for Pearl Harbor that same month.

He would serve in that position until the end of the war.

In 1942 and early 1943, U.S. submarines proved little threat to Japanese warships and merchant ships alike. As a result of Lockwood’s initiatives, the “silent service” suddenly began racking up many kills, including key enemy warships. Most importantly, U.S. submarines were responsible for severing Japan’s shipping routes to their colonies in Southeast Asia, by sinking close to half of their merchant ships. The Imperial Japanese Navy was caught off guard and never recovered.

For his exceptionally meritorious service in his last assignment, Rear Admiral English was posthumously awarded the Distinguished Service Medal.

The war would have many twists and turns until victory was declared in 1945. It would be curious to see what might have transpired if English had not passed away on that day.

Mister Mac

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