Figure 1. This 18 November 1942 registered air mail cover from Monrovia, Liberia, to New York City is franked with a set of three Flying Boat and Map of Trans-Atlantic Mail Route stamps that had been issued two months previously. It was probably the Liberian post office's way of filling a collector's order for neatly canceled examples of the stamps. (As a letter it was shortpaid. Effective 23 June 1942, Liberian air mail postage to the United States was 90C per half ounce and the registry fee was 10C, but this cover was probably sent as a courtesy with only philatelic contents.) The 20 November Miami transit and 23 November New York arrival backstamps reflect a five-day trip that included a connection at Miami to a domestic flight to New York. The delay between Miami and New York dates probably reflects examination by the Office of Censorship philatelic unit.
The 20 November 1942 Miami registry backstamp recorded a swift trans-Atlantic passage that would have been impossible for flying boats to match, or for the first group of modified Consolidated B-24 Liberator landplanes that had been converted from bombers into transport aircrat, but became feasible and eventually routine with the introduction of Douglas C-54 Skymaster landplanes on that route.
Why did it take three days between the Miami transit and the 23 November 1942 New York Station W delivery postmark? This cover was obviously philatelic, franked with a set of recently issued air mail stamps and addressed to a stamp dealer. A Report on the Office of Censorship explained:
To block dealings in postage stamps in which the Axis or its nationals had an interest, Postal Censorship established a philatelic control unit. Since complete suppression of the international stamp traffic would have brought financial ruin to a large number of innocent, loyal American dealers, a plan was worked out with the Treasury and other Government departments for the control of stamp shipments into and out of the country.
The "committee of prominent philatelists" that assisted the Office of Censorship probably advised that a cover like this would be less attractive to a collector if defaced by examiner's tapes and markings. It's likely that the envelope contained no contents other than perhaps mint stamps and an acknowledgment slip but still it would have taken time to ascertain that the addressee was qualified to send and receive international philatelic mail. (In January 1943 an Office of Censorship regulation made explicit that enclosing stamps in international mail required a license or permit.)
The franking is ironic, because the three stamps depict a Boeing B-314 Clipper flying boat superimposed on a map of the South Atlantic Ocean with a dashed line that traces the course of U.S. Foreign Air Mail route No. 22 (FAM 22) from Fisherman's Lake, Liberia, to Miami, Florida. The stamps had been issued as a set on 14 September 1942. (Other stamps in the same set were not issued until 1 June 1944.) But Cannonball was operated by land-based aircraft; here is a summary of its parentage, and its larval and pupal stages of development:
From PAA-Africa in 1941 to Africa-Orient in 1942
Before the United States became a belligerent in the war, the Army Air Forces Ferrying Command, the original name of ATC, had contracted with Pan Am to inaugurate passenger, cargo, and mail service between points in Africa and between the United States and Africa over two routes, both of which were issued certificates of convenience and necessity by the Civil Aeronautics Board.
First was Pan American Airways-Africa (PAA-Africa), certified 28 August 1941 by the CAB, headquartered at Accra, Gold Coast, which operated landplanes between various points in West Africa (in addition to Accra: Bathurst, Gambia; Freetown, Sierra Leone; Harbel [Roberts Field], Liberia; Lagos, Nigeria; Pointe Noire, French Congo; Leopoldville, Belgian Congo) via fueling and transit fields en route (Kano and Maiduguri, Nigeria; Fort Lamy, Chad; El Geneina, El Fasher, and El Obeid, Anglo-Egyptian Sudan, and Elizabethville, Belgian Congo) to terminal points in East Africa (Khartoum, Anglo-Egyptian Sudan; Cairo, Egypt; and Nairobi, Kenya).
Linking North America to PAA-Africa, on 9 September 1941 the CAB certified Pan Am's South Atlantic Division flying boat route from Miami, Florida, via fueling and transit calls in the Caribbean and South America (San Juan, Puerto Rico; Port of Spain, Trinidad; Belem and Natal, Brazil) to West Africa (Bathurst, Gambia; Fisherman's Lake, Liberia; Lagos, Nigeria; and Leopoldville, Belgian Congo). The Post Office Department designated that second route FAM 22, which connected to PAA-Africa at Bathurst and Lagos.
The inaugural flight of FAM 22 departed Miami 6 December 1941, and was docked at Trinidad when Japanese forces bombed Pearl Harbor, ending American neutrality in the war. In a secret agreement the War Department extended Pan Am's route from Miami all the way east to Singapore and other unspecified destinations in the Far East, and the CAB amended the FAM 22 certificate to authorize the extension. Meanwhile, publicity about the latter service was intentionally deceptive as a wartime security measure.
Thus, for example, the 10 December 1941 Milwaukee Journal published a report from its New York bureau titled "Pan American Turns to War:" which stated:
Despite the loss of its regular Pacific bases at Midway, Wake and Guam islands as a result of the lightning Japanese offensive, Pan American Airways appeared Wednesday to be maintaining a valuable 20,000 mile line of air communications between the United States and Singapore.
It is known that for several months the international airline had been working to establish and man new bases along a route that probably swings far to the south of the "steppingstones" of Midway, Wake and Guam.
That report seemed to suggest that the route to Singapore crossed the Pacific, but in fact Pan Am's new 13 December 1941 contract with the War Department [DAW 535 ac-914] specified that Pan American will promptly apply to the Civil Aeronautics Board for an amendment to the Certificate of Convenience and Necessity applied for as contemplated by the South Atlantic Contract so that such Certificate when amended shall authorize Pan American to engage in air transportation of persons, property and mail for the same period as such original Certificate over a route extending between a point in the United States, selected by Pan American with the approval of the Contracting Officer, and Singapore (The Straits Settlements), via points in the Caribbean, South America, Africa, the Near East, and India.
The reason for amending the FAM 22 certificate rather than simply extending the PAA-Africa certificate beyond Khartoum and Cairo was because the trans-Africa contract incorporated by reference Pan Am's agreement with Great Britain. British negotiators had resisted granting commercial rights for Pan Am in August 1941 but eventually relented in order to expedite ferry deliveries of tactical military aircraft. Neither the Army nor Pan Am wanted to reopen that discussion, so they applied for authorization to extend the FAM 22 route instead.
Anticipating CAB approval, the Second Assistant Postmaster General issued this 17 December 1941 order, published in the following day's Postal Bulletin:
FOREIGN AIR MAIL SERVICE
Air mails for Netherlands Indies, North Borneo, Sarawak, Straits Settlements, Malaya, Burma, unoccupied China, and countries west thereof (including Turkey), which have heretofore been sent by the trans-Pacific route, shall be routed promptly via Miami, Fla. The total postage on articles for all these countries is 70 cents per half ounce.
Air mails for the countries listed in the POSTAL BULLETIN of December 2, 1941, under the heading "Foreign Air Mail Service to Africa:' will of course also be sent via Miami, except any that are prepared to be carried by steamship to Africa thence by air.
Meanwhile at a secret hearing Pan Am and War Department attorneys requested that the FAM 22 certificate be extended to Singapore. CAB issued the confidential amended certificate 24 December 1941.
The Ferrying Command became ATC in July 1942. That same month, the War Department ordered the militarization of PAA-Africa, but ATC lacked enough qualified personnel to take over those operations until October to December 1942. At the same time, Pan Am replaced PAA-Africa with its new Africa-Orient Division, under an arrangement where the military operated the ground facilities while Pan Am crews operated the aircraft.
With that metamorphosis the Cannonball Express emerged from its cocoon.
The Cannonball Express
Douglas Aircraft Company delivered the first C-54 (Air Corps designation for the land-based four-engine DC-4 Skymaster long-range transport airplane) in July 1942. An Air Force historian called this plane "the workhorse where long range and a heavy load were important considerations."
In August 1942 ATC assigned two C-54s to Pan Am for South Atlantic service. As the transition to militarization of PAA-Africa was nearly complete, ATC contracted with Pan Am to operate a fleet of older B-24 transports and new C-54s on a shuttle service from Miami to Karachi under the carrier's newly created Africa-Orient Division.
The first group of Africa-Orient aircraft departed Miami on 10, 13, 14, and 15 November 1942 for a rendezvous at Natal, Brazil. On 16 November they took off from Natal at IS-minute intervals, fully loaded with passengers, cargo, and mail, for Ascension Island en route to Accra, their first fueling stop on the African continent.
By the time those four-engine transports took to the air over the Atlantic, Pan Am's contract route to India had been dubbed the Cannonball Express run. The existence of Cannonball was a military secret until mid-March of 1944, when the veil of censorship was lifted so the press could publish the story. The 13 March New York Daily News reported:
Seven days round trip from the U.S. to Northern India.... That's the new Cannonball Express record rung up by Pan American Airways operating under contract for the Air Transport Command. The Cannonball has crossed the Atlantic 2,200 times and has logged more than 14,500,000 miles of flying for the Army since November 1942.
Pan Am's own magazine New Horizons called it the "fastest express service in aviation history."
When the company's publicity department later tried to reconstruct the origin of the name, staff members gave contradictory accounts (which might all be true). Here are two versions copied from the Africa-Orient Division file in the Pan Am archives at the University of Miami Richter Library:
In the first, Jim Howley, an operations division representative at Miami, upon learning that the first aircraft was soon to depart on a new schedule farther than previously flown, remarked, "Oh, this one's going through on the long-haul like a Cannonball!" In the second, a Mr. Simmons in the operations division at Natal, "needing some designation to distinguish the Karachi service and its crews from the regular shuttle operations;' dubbed the former "Cannonball Crews. Whichever actually occurred first, the name stuck.
An unpublished ATC history told a more nuanced version of the Cannonball inauguration than Pan Am's new releases:
While all correspondence during the fall of 1942 in connection with this route lists Cairo or Karachi as the terminal points, it was not until February of 1943 that the C-54's actually got beyond Accra on a regular schedule.
That might explain why our search for covers flown in late 1942 to or from Egypt or India that might document Cannonball efficiency have eluded our discovery, but also how the Figure 1 Liberia cover is congruent with the historical record of Cannonball's true origin.
Trans-Atlantic Airmail Service after Militarization
After militarization the Air Transport Command alone was responsible for all trans-Atlantic civilian, military, and official mail to and from Africa and Asia, most of it flown by contract carriers. In a 27 November 1942 memorandum, Maj. M. J. Deutsch, postal officer of the ATC's Africa-Middle East Wing (AMEW) wrote,
AMEW is carrying mail for all or nearly all allied Governments in the world either directly or through transfer to and from connecting carriers. Civil mails are given excellent service with little or no delay at any point in AMEW.
The 18 November 1942 cover from Liberia to New York underscores Deutsch's claim. No flying boat could have flown from Miami to West Africa and back in seven days, let alone to and from Calcutta, but that eventually became Cannonball's routine performance. Fast round trips to and from Africa in the fall of 1942 proved the potential of the service.
The War Department regarded flying boats as "obsolete;" and transferred them to the Navy as quickly as they could be replaced by faster and more reliable landplanes. ATC sent its last Clipper to the Navy in late May 1943, and then ceded ownership of the seaplane base at Fisherman's Lake, Liberia, to the Navy shortly afterward, which implicitly also transferred responsibility for Liberian air mail to the Navy and to Pan Am flights under Navy contracts.
With those changes, nearly all the rest of the air mail between the United States, Africa, and Asia, including intra-Africa/Asia letters, was transported by landplanes flown under ATC contracts. By February 1943 Cannonball had 60 crews flying 15 airplanes in round-the-clock relays, which from then on comprised a majority of Pan Am's South Atlantic shuttles. That increased capacity benefited ATC performance over the entire route.
An ATC document titled "Resume of Transportation Operations for the week ending February 6, 1943" showed a combined total of 22,316 pounds of mail carried over the South Atlantic route by a fleet of 41 aircraft, 37 of which were landplanes, and a backlog of 19,292 pounds awaiting transport. It showed 6,791 pounds carried over trans-Africa and Middle East routes, with a backlog of 5,227 pounds, carried by a fleet of 56 landplanes.
The Cannonball route eventually extended to Calcutta, making a direct connection to ATC flights over the Hump to China, many of which were operated by China National Airways Corp., a Pan Am subsidiary under contract to ATC. In September 1944, the African gateway for the trans-Atlantic leg of Cannonball relocated from Accra to Dakar, Senegal.
34 Days from Liberia to New York in 1944
Practically no mail had been collected from Africa by Clippers that served Pan Am's FAM 18 "O" route (operated under a Navy contract) between New York and Lisbon via the Caribbean, South America, and West Africa. The exception should have been mail between Liberia and the United States, which could have gone either way after Fisherman's Lake was added as a call after that base had passed to the Navy, depending on which flight departed first, a Clipper flight from Fisherman's Lake or a C-54 from Roberts Field. But surviving "O' route trip summaries, though incomplete, show practically no mail collected by those flights at Liberia, either.
In a 1 October 1943 letter to the CAB, Pan Am announced that it would reduce "O" route service to and from two ports in West Africa - Bolama, Portuguese Guinea, and Fisherman's Lake - after inaugurating direct trans-Atlantic service via Dakar (made possible after North Africa had been wrested from Vichy control and secured under Allied occupation). That was a boon for South American "LATI-substitute" air mail. In the meantime, Cannonball continued to serve other former PAA-Africa locations, but Liberia had lost its previously more frequent FAM 18 direct flight link to New York. (Mail from Guinea was insignificant.)
Those changes provide plausible explanations for the unusual route and slow ride of the Figure 2 cover, but they tell only part of the story. For a full understanding one must also be mindful of contemporaneous events in the war in Europe. The letter was posted on 9 May 1944, censored in Sierra Leone, arrived at Lisbon on 26 May 1944 and then arrived at New York on 12 June 1944. Under normal circumstances mail from Monrovia might have been carried by twin-engine land planes to Accra, transferred to a four-engine C-54 and carried on to Miami. It is possible that due to the run-up of D-Day which occurred on 6 June 1944 all aircraft were too busy to accomplish this normal route, and in any case, military authorities had ordered the cessation of nearly all trans-Atlantic mail during the period preceding the Normandy landings as a security measure.
Figure 2. This registered 9 May 1944 cover, also from Monrovia, Liberia, was mailed to the Montgomery Ward mail order location in Chicago. It was censored in Sierra Leone and arrived at Lisbon on 26 May 1944 17 days later and New York on 12 June 1944 another 17 days after that. The cover probably contained an order with some form of payment as requested by the small print notice on the rear.
For this or some other reason the mail from Monrovia was taken either by land, sea or air to Sierra Leone where it was censored. If readers have knowledge of mail movement through Sierra Leone at this time the authors would appreciate a contact. After censorship the mail could have been carried to Lisbon by several BOAC routes or by sea. It should be noted that the timing of these BOAC flights as listed by Proud do not exactly match up with the letter's arrival at Lisbon on 26 May 1944.
At that same time a B-314 Pan Am Clipper was operating in the area on trip 12004 as listed by Crotty's compendium of Pan Am trip summaries, when the "O" route was conducting multiple weeks-long shuttle missions between Lisbon and Natal, returning to Lisbon two or three times before returning to New York.
Again it should be noted that the trip summaries clearly show that only on very rare occasion did "O" route trips pick up mail along the African coast, including from Fisherman's Lake. In addition, the two-engine shuttle flights between Fisherman's Lake land Benson field and Accra had ended in the summer of 1943 after the B-314 Natal to Fisherman's Lake shuttle under ATC contract had ended due to the very successful Cannonball operations with C-54 aircraft that were much more efficient than the B-314 flying boats. Pan Am had a small Grumman flying boat that was so small it could not reliably carry cargo or passengers into Monrovia from Fisherman's Lake. In fact, as Pan Am tried to resurrect the route between Miami and Leopoldville later in 1944 one of its main reasons was there was no way for civilians to cross the Atlantic using the "O" route and to continue into Africa because there was no service out of Fisherman's Lake.
It is possible that trip 12004, on its last return to Lisbon could have picked up this letter as part of a one-kilogram (2.2 pounds) collection from Bolama listed in the trip summary. If that had happened the letter would have arrived at Lisbon 24 May 1944, two days before the Lisbon cancel states. The two-day discrepancy at Lisbon suggests this cover probably had arrived by sea, too late to connect when the 12004 trip passed though, and had to wait for the next Clipper. That trip was 12006 which also made several Lisbon to Natal shuttles before making its 11 June 1944 return to New York, arriving 12 June, exactly as stated on the cover.
Considering these various analytical points, the probable route for this cover is by land or sea to Sierra Leone, by sea to Lisbon, and by Pan Am Clipper trip 12006 from Lisbon to New York. It seems possible that this unusual routing, and the delay in transit, were consequences of transport requirements and security considerations in preparation for D-Day.
Eventually Pan Am restored frequent air mail service to and from Liberia when it revived the flying boat route from Miami to the Belgian Congo under its FAM 18 arrangement with the Navy. Starting on 21 September 1944, the aging Martin M-130 China Clipper flew that route. The CAB certificate authorized Pan Am to transport mail on that route only between the United States, Liberia, and the Belgian Congo. ATC retained all other South Atlantic, trans-Africa and -Asia mail services.
China Clipper flew only seven round trips between Miami and Leopoldville before her fatal crash on the eighth trip at Trinidad on 8 January 1945. Once again, the Liberian mail languished until postwar routes flown by Douglas DC-4 and Lockheed Constellation land aircraft revolutionized intercontinental air transport.
Editor's Note: The “From the Fast Lane to the Slow Lane: Two Interesting World War II Trans-Atlantic Air Mail Covers from Liberia” article was originally published in the March 2019 issue of The American Philatelist. We are bringing the archives of The American Philatelist to the Newsroom - to read back issues of The American Philatelist, click here and scroll down to the Back Issues section.