How Pan Am Helped the Allies Win WWII in Africa
WHY YOU SHOULD CARE
Because with airlines grounded, it’s worth remembering the ways they have changed the world for the better.
Back in January 1943, it cost just $6 for Franklin D. Roosevelt to fly from Washington, D.C., to Casablanca, Morocco, where he and Winston Churchill decided to impose unconditional surrender conditions on their Axis enemies. On the return trip, the flight crew served caviar and cake to the newly 61-year-old American president while singing “Happy Birthday.”
It was the culmination of a heady time for Pan Am, the airline that helped the Allies win the war. In a little more than a dozen years, founder Juan Trippe and his business partners had transformed the Caribbean floatplane mail-delivery service into a globe-trotting consumer airliner — and a proxy for the Allied distribution of troops and supplies to the front lines of the conflict, particularly in Africa. The “importance of this direct line of communication and strategic outposts in Africa cannot be overemphasized,” Roosevelt said in an announcement at the time.
Just two years earlier, Churchill had secretly convened with Trippe for dinner in London as German bombers flew over the blacked-out city, to ask a crucial question: Could Pan Am build a supply route to North Africa to help the British and Allied forces in their fight against German Gen. Erwin Rommel, the Desert Fox? Months before, Pan Am had touched down in Africa with its famed Dixie Clipper, a long-range seaplane. The feat made Pan Am the first commercial carrier to connect North and South America with Europe and Africa. After conferring with FDR, Trippe agreed to Churchill’s challenge — and by the end of 1943, Pan Am had shipped 15,521 tons of material to its 18 African bases.
That was no small feat, especially considering that the mere act of flying passenger planes across the ocean was a new phenomenon. Pan Am’s sudden ability to do so was a moment of extreme fortune. “Historian [G.W.F.] Hegel talks about great historical moments … where these highly complex, technological advancements sprout forward, seemingly from the head of Zeus, at the exact moment of need,” says John Hill, recently retired from a three-decade career as curator of the SFO Museum. “It was a miraculous success story to be able to fly across the ocean, and there was only one entity capable in the world of flying transcontinentally and, suddenly, here it is!”
The success story of Pan Am, and its ability to help turn the tide of the war, wasn’t an overnight event, of course. Its origins could be traced as far back as Trippe’s childhood. While Trippe was in elementary school, he and his father watched from Battery Park in New York City as Wilbur Wright circled the Statue of Liberty in 1909. “Fortune magazine said his eyes were always turned skyward. [Trippe] was just one of those guys who was born to the air,” says Mark Cotta Vaz, who co-authored Pan Am at War with Hill.
After attending Princeton and working on Wall Street for a few years, Trippe invested in a couple of ventures before settling on the Aviation Corporation of the Americas, the predecessor to Pan American Airways, in 1927. Capitalizing on its exclusive U.S. mailing contract with Havana, the airline quickly established a virtual monopoly on all international routes — in part due to Trippe’s hiring of legendary aviator Charles Lindbergh as his ambassador as they toured Latin America and gobbled up landing rights in each country.
It wasn’t until 1937 that Pan Am began offering the first regular trans-Atlantic flights — but once it did, the airline became a juggernaut. From its takeover of South American airspace, the company had learned how to quickly build infrastructure wherever it chose to go, a critical wartime skill. “During World War II, Pan Am led in the construction of these runways literally all around the world,” says Bob van der Linden, the commercial aviation curator at the Smithsonian National Air and Space Museum in Washington, D.C.
Having those routes available allowed the United States to wage a real world war, even as allies and enemies alike were forced to focus more regionally (it also didn’t hurt that Pan Am pilots were often former military pilots who had the mechanical skills to repair their own planes). And having those routes were what ultimately made Pan Am successful in establishing its Africa supply and travel route.
But the war that Pan Am helped the Allies win also triggered the airline’s eventual decline. After World War II ended, Pan Am’s monopoly on overseas air travel waned, as American Overseas Airlines and others emerged with transcontinental flights. And although Trippe had wanted domestic routes for Pan Am since the 1930s, the prestigious carrier was slow to react. Plus, domestic airlines successfully lobbied Congress, warning lawmakers that Pan Am would monopolize U.S. routes if given a foothold. That led to the Civil Aeronautics Board repeatedly denying its attempts to merge with local outfits.
The writing was on the wall once deregulation policies in 1978 brought even more airlines into the international game. Pan Am ceased operations in 1991. “Pan Am built this foundation, the blueprint, for modern international travel,” Hill says. “Most of them realized at the time that they were doing something of great historical significance.”
And, in a strange way, the globalization Pan Am helped usher in is part of the reason why the coronavirus pandemic has shut down much of the world today. “Part of the consequences of global travel is that it brings us together,” says Vaz, “but it also causes bad things to spread too.”