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 looking for the cause of the Pan Am 944 crash

Twenty-five victims were never found, including Bill Fortenberry. For years, his son Ken believed the navigator was awaiting rescue on a desert island. (NASM)
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Stewardess Marie McGrath, 26, was an energetic brunette whom friends would remember as “pretty” and “pert.” Even while she was attending Keuka College in upstate New York, Marie had dreams of someday flying for Pan Am. Under her graduation picture in the college yearbook is the inscription “Wanderlust...air-minded...California.”

During her three-week layovers between round-the-world flights, Marie worked as a substitute teacher at my elementary school in San Mateo, California. When our regular teacher went on maternity leave, our class came to know and love Miss McGrath, who one day held a “luau” for us kids. We were all secretly sad when our regular teacher returned to work and Marie went back to flying.

At 4:04 p.m. local time, from an altitude of 10,000 feet, Captain Brown radioed a routine position report to the Pontchartrain, a Coast Guard weather ship stationed in the Pacific to assist over-flying aircraft. Romance of the Skies had just passed the point of no return and was on course and schedule, 1,160 miles from Honolulu and about 10 miles east of the Pontchartrain. The skies were clear and the seas calm, with the sun low in the western sky. Onboard the Clipper, Yvonne Alexander and Marie McGrath had just started serving hors d’oeuvres when something terrible happened. Twenty-two minutes later—wristwatches found on three recovered bodies had stopped at 4:26 p.m.—944 hit the water.

Debris from 944 was eventually found 90 miles to the north of the flight’s intended track, suggesting that the airplane continued to fly for some time after the mysterious incident occurred. Fourteen of the 19 bodies recovered were wearing life vests but no shoes, indicating that some preparations had been made for ditching. (Yvonne Alexander’s body was found still strapped to its seat, a life vest carefully fitted over her serving apron.) Floating fragments of the fuselage and cabin indicated that the airplane hit the ocean with the nose slightly down and the right wing lowered. Although several of the recovered bodies exhibited “impact trauma,” according to the CAB report, the fact that most died from drowning suggests that 944’s final plunge into the sea was not completely uncontrolled. The wreckage had burn marks; these were above the waterline, indicating a post-crash fire, but there was no evidence of an inflight conflagration.

Pan Am and the FBI suspected foul play. Suspicions grew when autopsies uncovered high levels of carbon monoxide in four bodies. The gas was found in the bloodstreams of Captain Brown and passengers who had been seated in the front as well as the rear of the airplane, suggesting that the carbon monoxide had been widely distributed.

For years afterward, whenever an airplane went down under “mysterious circumstances,” I would think of Romance of the Skies and Marie McGrath. On my first day at work at the National Air and Space Museum, in 1988, I asked my new colleagues in the aeronautics department about the B-377 and its reputation. But my job as chairman of the department of space history left me little time for research. In 2002, shortly before I left NASM, I finally began to seriously investigate the incident.

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.


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