The Mystery of the Lost Clipper
The Civil Aeronautics Board and the FBI abandoned the case 47 years ago, but two amateur detectives are still searching for the cause of the crash of Pan Am 944.
- By Gregg Herken with Ken Fortenberry
- Air & Space magazine, September 2004
NASM (SI Neg. #00129509)
(Page 3 of 7)
The revelation that I was not alone in my search came suddenly—like the discovery of footprints on a supposedly deserted beach—when I typed “Romance of the Skies” into an Internet search engine and came up with Ken’s Web site on the crash. After a short correspondence and several phone calls, Ken and I decided to join efforts.
Ken had begun his investigation almost 40 years earlier. As a child, he’d become convinced that his father was still alive on a desert island awaiting rescue, but on the tragedy’s seventh anniversary, he realized that his father wasn’t coming home. He wrote a letter to the CAB’s chairman saying he wanted some answers about his father’s death, and the CAB responded by sending him a copy of its report. Even as a 13-year-old, he thought the report was incomplete. Not a week goes by that he doesn’t file a Freedom of Information Act request or try to chase down another angle.
Independently, we had both researched 944 on the Web site of the CAB’s successor agency, the National Transportation Safety Board. The NTSB archives provided a passenger manifest and the basic facts of the investigation. Ken was able to get more details about the people who had been on Romance of the Skies by mining hometown newspaper “morgues,” and through the Freedom of Information Act, we obtained the FBI file on 944, which revealed a surprising—and disturbing—twist to the story.
On November 18, 1957, as the aircraft carrier Philippine Sea docked at Long Beach with recovered bodies and wreckage, a dockside dispute between CAB representatives and FBI agents concerning who had jurisdiction in the case blossomed into a full-fledged feud between the rival agencies. In retaliation, FBI director J. Edgar Hoover washed his hands of the investigation. Ignoring pleas from both the airline and the head of the CAB, Hoover left the question of determining whether a crime had been committed up to Pan Am and the board, whose investigatory capabilities were considerably less than the bureau’s.
We began our own inquiries by posting questions on a pair of Web sites maintained by former Pan Am employees, asking for information about 944’s crew members from those who might have known them. We were surprised to be deluged with responses from more than two dozen pilots, navigators, flight engineers, and flight attendants. And we learned from them that the airline, back in 1957, suspected one of its own.
Former colleagues revealed that 944’s 46-year-old purser, Eugene Crosthwaite, had previously been in trouble with Pan Am for erratic and sometimes bizarre behavior. Crosthwaite once bragged that he had deliberately dropped a meal on the galley floor before serving it to an unsuspecting captain, who he felt had insulted him. Furthermore, Crosthwaite blamed Pan Am for several misfortunes, including the tuberculosis he’d contracted in Shanghai before the war, while serving as a purser on the airline’s flying boats.
Though fully recovered from the disease, Crosthwaite had been despondent following his wife Julie’s death from cancer three months earlier. She was a raven-haired beauty some 13 years younger, whom he had met and married in China. Her death had left Gene the sole guardian of Tania, his wife’s 16-year-old daughter from a previous marriage.
Relations between Crosthwaite and Tania were stormy. On November 3, just days before the flight, Crosthwaite had called the county sheriff’s office to complain about the girl, whom he called “a demon” and blamed for his wife’s death. Crosthwaite even amended his will the morning of the flight—disinheriting Tania unless she “lived a moral and upright Catholic life”—and left a copy of the document in the glove compartment of his car, which he parked at the airport.