Crossing the Pacific by Cruiser

While it’s not quite in the same league as later journeys spanning our largest ocean, the flight of three Douglas World Cruisers that made it to Kagoshima, Japan, in May 1924 marked the first time the Pacific Ocean had been breached by air. By hopscotching up the Aleutian chain and over the Bering Strait, they plied their way—the Chicago, the New Orleans, and the Boston.

And they had to stay out of Russian waters along the way. Intrepid Russian officers paddled out to give them a jug of vodka, however, as they rested on May 15, bobbing in the waves well outside the three-mile limit off shore, according to Sky Master.

The trio of Douglas World Cruisers approach the bay at Kagoshima, Japan. [Credit: First Round the World on media.defense.gov]

When they made their way into Japan’s Kagoshima port, crowds waited on the sand to cheer their arrival. By May 17, headlines filled the newspapers back home, in time for the Saturday editions.

On May 24, the DWC crews went to Tokyo (spelled “Tokio” in Sky Master) to attend a grand reception. It would foreshadow the future, in the Sky Master text, which was published in 1943. Wrote Frank Cunningham: “The sight of American planes, though, upset the Japanese as they realized that even if the world flight planes were friendly ships, the United States might be able to fly fighting planes to Japan. Some writers have stated that the visit of the DWC planes gave aviation a tremendous impetus in the kingdom of the Rising Sun.

“The Evening News of Shanghai, China, May 23, reported an Eastern News Agency dispatch from Tokio saying: ‘The enthusiasm with which the American round-the-world-fliers were welcomed by the Japanese citizens when they safely arrived at Kasumagira [sic] well illustrates the Japanese good will and friendly feeling toward the United States despite the existence of the present Japanese-American controversy over the immigration question. [The U.S. had just passed the Immigration Act of 1924, effectively ending immigration by Japanese at the time.] Tokio today with the whole Japanese nation enthusiastically is fêting and giving welcome to the American airmen.'”

The Fate of the First “Seattle”

When the flight of four Douglas World Cruisers set out on April 6, 1924, to head north towards Alaska, they knew not what fate lay ahead. They did know, however, that the flight plan unfolded over stunning yet challenging terrain—the long, jagged finger of British Columbia and what would become the 49th state, Alaska (still to come in 1959).

Following the trip from Lake Washington to Prince Rupert, BC, the four DWCs made progress in fits and starts, waiting on weather and keeping their crafts from foundering while moored in various storms. But they pressed on. Adding to his previous aeronautical woes, Major Martin suffered an engine failure in the Seattle that forced him down in Portage Bay, on the way. He and Sgt. Harvey were rescued by a Navy destroyer, the U.S.S. Hull, on April 17.

Martin had a new engine—delivered by the U.S.S. Algonquin—installed in his mount and the pair launched for Dutch Harbor, Unalaska, on April 19, where the rest of the crews had pressed on towards at his behest, after holing up for a few days at Chignik. The trio, the Chicago, the New Orleans, and the Boston, made it by April 20, and then spent two weeks waiting for their commander to arrive.

While there, they spent their days keeping their airplanes secure, making minor repairs, and resting up for the journey ahead.

On April 25, news arrived that Martin had made it to Chignik, hugging the shoreline to stay on course through the poor visibility. This lengthened their route considerably, but they made it over the course of one long day.

On April 27—after celebrating Easter on the 26th—the crews replaced the engine on the Boston, which entertained “a distinct knock” according to the diaries of Erik Nelson. All of the engines had suffered burns and cracks to their exhaust manifolds.

At 10 a.m. on April 30, Martin and Harvey departed Chignik for the final push to Dutch Harbor. Unfortunately, striving to make up lost time, they took local advice on “an excellent short cut,” according to Sky Master. “This short cut turned out to be like most short cuts. While Martin was trying to follow the directions he found himself surrounded by fog, tried to climb over it. He didn’t. The Seattle hit a one thousand foot precipice on a mountainside, was badly cracked up. Fortunately, Major Martin and Sergeant Harvey were unhurt.”

When Douglas heard of the missing airplane, he employed “some Navy choice cuss words,” Sky Master continued.

Martin and Harvey used the wrecked airplane as a shelter for two days and nights before starting out to effect their own rescue. They almost fell over another precipice and returned to the Seattle. After striking out again, they lost three days before coming upon a cabin—where they stayed, trapped by a blizzard, for several more days, through May 8. One last push, then, found them in Port Moller, where “surprised cannery people welcomed them,” said Sky Master.

The three remaining DWCs would press on, departing on May 3, while they still awaited the news of their commander and his maintenance officer.

Dateline Seattle: April 6, 1924

His 32nd birthday—and what a present for Donald Douglas.

The Douglas World Cruisers, now the four of them assembled at Sandy Point, in Washington State, floated at their moorings on April 4, with fog conspiring to ground them for the day.

The crowd dispersed, only to return the next morning. Would this be it? April 5? But no, that morning, Major F.L. Martin—the flight’s commander—broke the prop on ship number one, the Seattle.

The morning of the 6th held promise, and the promise held as the quartet departed at long last, to the cheers of the crowd.

Donald Douglas and Lt. Eirk Nelson share a candid moment on departure day. [Credit: Douglas/”Sky Master”]

An image of Douglas and Nelson shows the easy stance between them—they’d struck up a friendship during Nelson’s months of duty in stationed in California preparing the ships for the flight. Douglas’ face remains gaunt, perhaps from the illness he’d just come through, or from the stress and worry ahead of the biggest moment of his professional life to that point.

Bets went against the four airplanes making it around the world—or even making it through Alaska. But they launched for Prince Rupert, British Columbia, under the escort of a gaggle of well-wishing aircraft. They would only follow along for a few miles… and then the Cruisers were on their own.

A Pit Stop at Pearson

On their way up to Seattle, the Douglas World Cruisers could not make the journey nonstop.

At least not three of them traveling together, the Seattle, the Chicago, and the Boston. The trio landed on March 19, 1924, at the Vancouver Barracks, in Vancouver, Washington, just across the Columbia River from Portland, Oregon.

They attempted to continue northbound, but the weather forced them to return to the Barracks to wait it out.

“The flight arrived at Vancouver, Wash., at 12:05 p.m., time of flight being 1 hour, 5 minutes. Vancouver is directly across the Columbia River from Portland. We were met by the mayor of Portland, the mayor of Vancouver, General Kuhn, the Commanding General of Vancouver Barracks, and many others of prominence in addition to a large crowd from Portland and Vancouver.”

-Major F.L. Martin, Army Air Service, Pilot of the Seattle [courtesy of the National Park Service website: https://www.nps.gov/articles/douglasworldcruiserspearson.htm]

A Douglas World Cruiser being serviced at the Vancouver Barracks on the flight up to Seattle. [Credit: Willard Carroll/National Park Service]

Round-the-World: Pre-Game Flight

The quartet of airplanes made their way up from California to the Seattle area beginning on March 17, with high hopes.

From Sky Master: The Story of Donald Douglas: “For half a year the Air Service had been working on the final plans on their aerial expedition. The flight was to leave from Santa Monica, cover some twenty-two countries and approximately 25,000 miles, [and] return to Santa Monica in August.

“The foreign lands to be visited or flown over were Canada, Alaska, Russia (the Kamchatka Peninsula), Japan, China, Indo-China, Siam, Burma, India, Persia, Mesopotamia, Syria, Turkey, Greece, Bulgaria, Rumania, Yugoslavia, Hungary, Austria, Germinay, France, England, Scotland, the Danish Faerce Islands, Iceland, and Greenland.

The globe-circling course as viewed from the North Pole also carried the images of several crew from the Douglas World Cruisers round-the-world flight. [Credit: From “Sky Master: The Story of Donald Douglas,” by Frank Cunningham]

“During the flight, the airmen were to soar over numerous bodies of water, such as the Gulf of Alaska, North Pacific Ocean, Yellow Sea, China Sea, Gulf of Siam, Bay of Bengal, Persian Gulf, The Straits, English Channel, the North Sea, the North Atlantic Ocean, the Denmark Strait, the Davis Strait, and the Gulf of St. Lawrence.”

But that was if the intrepid adventurers could make it past the western coast of the United States.

Misfortune descended upon Captain Martin’s airplane, the Seattle. As he flew up the San Joaquin Valley towards points to the north, Martin made a forced landing. From Sky Master: “He didn’t know it then, but that was nothing compared to what was to come a short time later.”

Women of Douglas Aircraft

The foundation for the Douglas Aircraft Company started with a woman’s financial support: Charlotte Douglas married Donald in 1916, and cashed in a life insurance certificate she had in savings of $2,000 in 1922 to help launch Douglas Aircraft following his break with Davis.

Charlotte also led the team of women who hand-stitched the fabric covering the wings and fuselages of the Cloudster and Douglas World Cruisers, and performed subsequent detail work within the shop.

Women crafted the fabric covering for the fuselage and wings of the Douglas World Cruisers. [from “Together We Fly: Voices From the DC-3” by Julie Boatman Filucci]

She served as the social director, a counterpoint to Donald’s reserved nature, up until their bitter divorce in 1953.

Douglas, however, was far from finished with having women serve in vital roles for the company.

Peggy Tucker began her time with DAC in the 1930s as a driver, and worked her way up into roles ever closer to “Doug”—to the point where they began an affair leading to their marriage as soon as the ink was dry on his divorce.

As Peggy Douglas, she installed herself literally as the gatekeeper to the executive suite—not as a secretary but as the corporate deputy to Doug.

How did that work out? Read the rest of the tale in “Honest Vision: The Donald Douglas Story.”

A Clutch of Cruisers Leave Clover Field

March 17, 1924, marked a St. Patrick’s Day to remember for the Scottish Douglas clan of Southern California.

While recovering from the illness that had barred him from attending the events surrounding the impending departure of the Douglas World Cruisers, Donald Douglas surely smiled at least a little bit. For his ambition to grow the Douglas Aircraft Company by means of incredible feats of aviation history were about to take flight.

Robert Arnold, grandson of Douglas and Gen. Henry “Hap” Arnold, recalled his mother Barbara’s memory of her own grandmother’s recollection of the occasion. “Granny [Arnold came] up for some of these events from San Diego, and during one of them, Hap put her in the back seat of [one of] the World Cruiser[s] and took her up for a spin. And Granny was about 4 foot 10 inches and always wore big hats, and always a charming and, for her time, a highly educated woman.”

The Douglas World Cruisers lined up at Clover Field on the departure day, March 17, 1924. [Courtesy of the Santa Monica Public Library]

“Doug” watched the send off in a checkered cap and horn-rimmed glasses, striving to look the part of the nonchalant man-of-the-world he strove to be.

On the morning of the grand departure, the airplanes stood ready to go, but fog blanketed Clover Field. After a two-hour delay, three of Cruisers lifted off. It was 9:30 a.m., according to “Sky Master.”

What about the fourth? Lt. Nelson’s airplane, Ship Number Four, the New Orleans, sat in San Diego, only just completed the day before. Nelson made his way up the coast solo to join his compatriots in Seattle.

Douglas World Cruiser Departure, Almost!

Of all the best laid plans, the launch of an around-the-world flight still ranks as a prodigious undertaking—and that’s in the modern era, with reliable aircraft, satellite imagery, and global weather sourcing. Any number of calamities grave and minor could conspire to scuttle the start of the epic journey proposed by the U.S. Army Air Corps for its quartet of Douglas World Cruisers.

Still, hope springs eternal—and certainly it did in the Roaring Twenties. March 16, 1924, was selected as the target, and the city of Santa Monica hosted its World Flight Day on that pleasant Sunday. With a high of 65 degrees F and no precipitation, it would have made a perfect day to take off from Clover Field for points north but for one thing.

The entire Douglas family—at the time, Donald, Charlotte, Donald Jr (born in 1917), William (1918), and Barbara Jean (1922)—fell ill to whooping cough and missed the festivities. The family would catch up to the mighty DWCs as they were prepped to go in Washington state a couple of weeks later.

And who would fly these ships of wood and metal and fabric around the world? Each one would carry a pilot and a technician—one to fly and one to keep it flying—and the roster represented what the Air Corps considered to be its top ranking pilots, as well as ones capable of the mission ahead.

In Ship Number One: Major F.L. Martin, commander of the World Flight and Commandant of Chanute Field in Rantoul, Illinois; and Staff Sergeant A.L. Harvey, mechanic.

In Ship Number Two: Lt. Lowell Smith, a transcontinental ace and holder of the world’s endurance record at the time; and Technical Sergeant A,H. Turner, technician.

In Ship Number Three: Lt. Leigh Wade, former test pilot at McCook Field; and Staff Sergeant A.H. Ogden from the First Pursuit Group in Detroit.

In Ship Number Four: Lt. Erik Nelson, engineering officer for the World Flight; and Lt. John Harding Jr., maintenance officer.

Alternate crew members were there as well: pilots Lt. Leslie P. Arnold, and Lt. LeClair Schulze, a Pulitzer racer in 1922.

As the pilots assembled for the flight, they were supposed to bunk at the posh hotels in Santa Monica, but none would give the DWC crews special rates. I suppose pilots were cheap even back then… fortunately, the Christie Hotel in Hollywood stepped up to the plate.

From “Sky Master”: “Although an excellent hotel, the Christie wasn’t among the blue-blood establishments. The offer was accepted. When the flyers returned as heroes to Santa Monica after encircling the world, the managers of the luxury hotels begged the men to be their guests without any charge. The flyers thanked them, smiled, and returned to the Christie.”

Dateline: Santa Monica, 1924

If you pick your way along the paths that front the ocean between Malibu and the Santa Monica Pier, you’d best stay heads up from your phone, lest you get creamed by slender blondes and bronzed others ricocheting past on a run.

That’s not the Santa Monica that Donald Douglas knew—nearly a century has passed since he first walked down to the shoreline from his new house on San Vicente Boulevard in the early Thirties.

What would you have seen, though? I follow a couple of historical accounts on X/Twitter, including Pamela Grayson’s Lost Los Angeles, and the Santa Monica History Museum. Recently they’ve published a few photos from late 1923 into 1924… take a look at the pier that was—and the fire that nearly wiped out the Ocean Park Pier.

This is the scene within which the Douglas Aircraft Company finished assembly and test flying of its Douglas World Cruisers ahead of their planned launch from Clover Field (now KSMO) on March 16.

You might also enjoy this piece from Los Angeles Magazine, “When Santa Monica Airport Was Clover Field,” published in 2014.

Delivery Day at Clover Field

While testing on the aircraft took place throughout the spring of 1924, the U.S. Army Air Corps took official delivery of the last of the five units of the Douglas World Cruiser on March 11.

Testing on the prototype took place at McCook Field, in Dayton, Ohio, with trials on the floats in Hampton, Virginia, and again in San Diego, California. The DWC featured the 400-horsepower Liberty V-12 engine—a proven mount that the Air Corps already knew well from its use in a variety of airplane during the Great War—and it could cruise at 100 mph. According to the Smithsonian National Air & Space Museum, 20,748 of the Liberty engines were built by auto manufacturers, including Ford, Packard, Buick, Lincoln, and Marmon for aviation use.

The Liberty A model V-12 engine, in the collection of the National Air & Space Museum. [Credit: Smithsonian National Air & Space Museum]

One of my most cherished books is an original edition of “Sky Master: The Story of Donald Douglas,” signed by Douglas himself. From those pages, I quote the specifications of the DWCs, from a DAC report.

“The fuselage is made in three detachable sections and is constructed of steel tubing. Wings are of the standard wood box beam and built-in rib construction. The wings may be folded back for convenience in storage. The water-type landing gear consists of twin pontoons of built-up wood construction, the top covering being of three-ply veneer, and the bottom planking being two plies of mahogany.

“The specifications of the World Cruiser are as follows: Weight, empty, as a seaplane, 5,500 pounds; disposable load, 2,615 pounds; gross weight, 8,000 pounds; as a landplane, weight, empty, 4,300 pounds; disposable load, 2,615 pounds; gross weight, 6,915. Gasoline capacity, 450 gallons [up from 155 gallons in the DT-2], or enough for eighteen hours of non-stop flight. Wing span, both upper and lower, 50 feet; height 13 feet seven inches; length, 35 feet six inches…”