A Most Excellent Adventure

Exploring the Pan Am Archives in Miami
By Rebecca Snider Sprecher with Dian Groh

Becky and Dianjpg
Dian Groh and Becky Sprecher start their research.

After writing a novel about Pan Am flight crews and giving a number of history presentations on our airline for various community organizations, I was anxious to visit the Pan Am archives at the University of Miami’s Richter Library. I’d read many books on the history of Pan Am, but I wanted to actually lay my hands on the source documents and touch them. In addition, former flight attendant Terry Haeger Webber and author Jamie Dodson are currently putting together a book on the flying boats and wondered if I would help gather some information. Terry connected me with Dian Groh and Tori Werner, two other flight attendants who had expressed an interest in coming along. The three of us met early in the morning after the World Wings convention last October in Savannah, all slightly bleary-eyed from four days of revelry.  We loaded up on coffee, piled into my car and cruised off together down I-95, telling stories the whole way.

ATL CLipper crew
Bill Winston Crew List

But I had more than just perusing the archives and researching the flying boats in mind. I grew up with some wildly entertaining cousins who have often spoken of a distant relative named Bill Winston who was a pilot for Pan Am during World War II. They knew little about him, and I had not seen his name mentioned in any of the books I’d read. Maybe I could find some material on him in the archives, gain a sense of his personality, and report back to the family. Most likely he was a calm, cerebral type like my uncle, a lawyer and Civil War scholar. These boys on the other hand, were cut from a different cloth. We spent our summer vacations together in Wilmington, North Carolina in a boisterous delirium, learning how to swear and play cards and dance, and they grew up to be expert seamen and rapscallions, tooting off on Bourbon-soaked fishing trips and coming home in gale force winds.

Two months prior to our arrival, Dian had requested that forty boxes be made available for our review. They were trucked in from a climate-controlled warehouse to Special Collections on the eighth floor of the Richter Library. Jay Sylvestre, Special Collections Librarian, instructed us on how to inspect the contents of the boxes, and to wear cotton gloves if we handled photographs. Then Dian and I sat down and got to work. The excitement we felt was palpable. Finally, we were going to see our history, up close and personal!

ATL Clipper departure
The Atlantic Clipper being prepared for the first transatlantic crossing using the Southern Route

I got lucky with Winston early.  One of the first files I picked up contained an article from the Long Beach Sun dated Dec. 15, 1942. It was about an experience a Flight Engineer named Sylvester Tunis had on board the Pacific Clipper, the same Boeing 314 that Capt. Bob Ford had taken around the world in reverse after the bombing of Pearl Harbor. According to the article, as the Clipper was taxiing toward her mooring (presumably at Fisherman’s Lake, Liberia) “a sudden gust of wind drove the ship against an uncharted reef, where she grounded hard.” Sounded interesting, I thought, preparing to slip the article back into the folder.

Then a name jumped out at me in the next paragraph.  “Captain William A. Winston finally wormed the 84,000-pound plane off the reef and taxied her to the shelter of shore.” The hull was ripped and two compartments flooded. To make a long story short, they improvised diving equipment with a five-gallon can of flour, cut a round hole in it for viewing, then fastened a pane of glass over the hole. Air was supplied through a hose borrowed from the station’s welding equipment, and pumped in with two hand-operated air pumps taken from station trucks. The divers worked in mud seven feet below the surface, slipping a tarpaulin under the keel and pumping the compartments dry. Using a light from one of the trucks to illuminate their work area, mechanics drilled 1000 screw holes by hand from the inside so they could attach plates to the hull. Next they poured 1500 pounds of concrete into the damaged compartments, bracing them with two-by-fours made of African timber. About a week later, the concrete-bellied Clipper made the 6,000-mile journey to New York safely.

What an excellent adventure! Once I had Winston’s complete name and the equipment he was on, the Special Collections staff was able to do a computer search and find another box containing files with more information. It turns out that Winston was a superb card player and knew many tricks (including how to deal himself four aces), which he often performed to entertain the passengers. Horace Brock wrote in his book, Flying the Oceans, that he didn’t much like him until Winston began to regale him with stories and play the piano on a layover at the Estoril Palace Hotel near Lisbon, Portugal. Another file revealed that Winston was in command of the Atlantic Clipper on July 5, 1939 for Pan Am’s second Atlantic crossing using the Southern Route through the Azores and Lisbon. Also in the file was a copy of the piece Vogue Magazine’s Betsy Schaefer wrote about the experience, as well as the menu for breakfast, the crew list, and a newspaper photograph of the departure.

Becky Sprecher, Jay Sylvestre, and Dian Groh with a small sampling of the Pan Americans World Airways Inc. records.

Over the course of the next two days, we opened boxes and files containing other treasures: the Navigator’s Log of the China Clipper; Ed Musick’s personal scrapbook; compilations of all the Allied commanders, dignitaries and press people who flew on the flying boats during World War II; the text from a speech on the design of the 314 by Boeing engineer Wellwood Beall; the program for the launch of the Yankee Clipper; original letters written by Charles Lindbergh to Juan Trippe, and on and on. At dinner the last night with Dian and Tori, I expressed my profound gratitude that these materials had been preserved, both for historical research and the enjoyment of future generations.

For I can now tell my cousins—all of whom are card sharks, accomplished raconteurs and capable of keeping a boat afloat on any ocean—that they did not come by these talents at random. Their relative, Bill Winston, was not only a colorful individual who had some excellent adventures during his career, but he also made a vital contribution to the war effort during a crucially important time in the history of the world. Thanks to the documents contained in the Pan Am archives, they will know more about him, thereby gaining a greater understanding of themselves.  Pan Am is now part of their family history from this generation going forward. You can’t put a price on that, both for the families and for those of us who were employees; it is how Pan Am will stay alive.

Sprecher is the co-author with Paula Helfrich of Flying: A Novel.  She flew for six years out of JFK and HNL. Groh flew for 17 years our of MIA, JFK, HNL and LAX.  She served as a purser, recruiter, training instructor and grooming supervisor.

The records of Pan American World Airways Inc. are open and available to the public. Please contact Special Collections at least a week in advance about viewing Pan Am records to ensure retrieval from offsite storage.