Former Flight Attendant Remembers Pan Am’s First AJA “Stewardesses”
Betty S. Santoki
Special to The Hawai‘i Herald
It was a party Juan Trippe’s employees at Pan American World Airways would never forget. “We are going around the world,” proclaimed Trippe, Pan Am’s founder, at the company’s Christmas party in December 1928. Trippe’s employees knew him to be an ambitious and visionary businessman, but fly around the world?! It was a big dream — and a dream they would help him realize with the help of a team of women of Japanese ancestry — Japanese Americans and Japan nationals.
In 1935, Pan Am’s “China Clipper” crossed the Pacific Ocean for the first time. Four years later, she sailed the skies across the Atlantic. And then in 1947, just two years after the end of World War II, Juan Trippe’s dream came true. Pan Am’s first around-the-world trip saw the China Clipper touch down in 17 cities in 11 countries over a 13-day period. It was quite an adventure!
In the latter part of 1954, Pan Am began interviewing hundreds of young Nisei and Sansei women in California and Hawai‘i for stewardess positions — these were the pre- politically correct days — to staff its trans-Pacific flights to and from Japan. Japanese businessmen had begun traveling abroad — only 10 years since Japan had been defeated in World War II.
The first seven women — May Hayashi, Ruby Mizuno, Louise Otani, Katherine Shiroma, Marian Tagawa, Jane Toda and Cynthia Tsujiuchi — graduated from a training class in San Francisco in March 1955. The women, who were referred to as the Nisei, hailed from the island of O‘ahu and the farmlands of California. During the war, Ruby Mizuno from Sacramento had been incarcerated in camps in Gila, Ariz., and Tule Lake, Calif. She and her fellow stewardesses had graduated from college and entered the working world. Now they had the rare opportunity to travel to such exotic and faraway cities as Tökyö and Hong Kong — and eventually around the world — as stewardesses for Pan Am.
Territorial governor Samuel King pinned the wings on the new stewardesses from Hawai‘i. Hawai‘i’s two Japanese-language newspapers, The Hawaii Hochi and Hawaii Times, covered the event. This was big news: These women were the first Nisei to have been hired as stewardesses for a major American airline that was now flying to international destinations. The women were interviewed, photographed and asked to share their backgrounds with reporters in lunch and dinner interviews.
The first Nisei stewardesses flew the “China Clipper,” a Stratocruiser B-377 propeller plane that flew from Honolulu to Tökyö with a refueling stop at Wake Island. During the 24-hour layover on Wake, the crew had lodging in an old army barracks that had been used by soldiers during the war. With not much to do on an atoll surrounded by water, they had cocktails at 5 in the afternoon, followed by dinner in the mess hall. They ended the day watching a Hollywood movie outdoors.
The flight then continued on to Tökyö, where the crew’s accommodations at the luxurious Imperial Hotel were a major step up. The president of the hotel greeted them in the lobby. The fact that the women were the first Nisei stewardesses flying for a major American airline generated a deal of media interest in Japan. Dressed in their uniforms, they were followed by reporters and photographed as they shopped around Ginza, had their hair done and even while eating meals.
In the early going, the Nisei stewardesses were not welcomed with open arms by everyone. Non-Japanese stews complained that the Nisei stewardesses were being given preferential flight assignments. They also questioned why the Nisei stewardesses could be based in Honolulu and they could not. Those early squabbles were somehow ironed out to the satisfaction of both sides.
The Pan Am China Clipper was a spacious and beautiful airplane. There was a cocktail lounge downstairs and sleeping berths upstairs. Unlike today’s jetliners, first class seating back then was in the tail section of the plane and economy seats were in the front. There were separate (non-flushing) bathrooms for men and women.
The four Nisei stewardesses I interviewed recently said their passengers were dignified, refined, courteous, intelligent and patient. They traveled in suits and furs.
Ruby Mizuno recalled a Coty cosmetic executive, who remained calm when some peas fell on her suit during some turbulence. She told Mizu
no that she needn’t apologize, as the turbulence was beyond her control. She was so nice and declined our offer to dry-clean her suit at the next port. I wonder whether this would happen today.
Airfare from the West Coast to Honolulu back then was approximately $350, which was a lot of money, so traveling was indeed only for the rich and famous.
Most of the first Nisei stewardesses flew an average of two years, after which they resigned, usually at the strong urging of their parents who wanted them to settle down and get married. Cynthia Tsujiuchi was an exception — she made flying her career, working on a variety of aircraft: the Stratocruiser, the DC-6, Boeing 707 and Boeing 747.
These women and the ones that followed them hailed from small island towns like Kohala on Hawai‘i island; Kahului, Maui; the pineapple plantation community of Wahiawä on O‘ahu, and, of course, Honolulu. They were all working aboard the world’s most experienced airline. Dressed smartly in their Pan Am blue designer uniforms, these Island women turned heads as they walked through airport terminals.
Additional flights and routes were added to the Honolulu base with the coming of the jet age in the 1960s. This is when the Honolulu-based stewardesses began flying around the world on Flights 1 and 2.
These flights were known as RTW, or Round the World west-bound, and RTE, Round the World east-bound. The 11- to 13- day trips included stops in Tökyö; Hong Kong; Bangkok, Thailand; Calcutta and New Delhi, India; Karachi, Pakistan; Beirut, Lebanon; Istanbul, Turkey; Frankfurt, Germany; London, and, via the polar route, to San Francisco or Los Angeles. The RTE trip traveled in the opposite direct going east.
At each stop, the Honolulu-based stew would try to contact the stew flying in the opposite direction through the hotel’s front desk. Making contact depended on the time the flight arrived or departed. If the stars aligned, the two women would go shopping or enjoy a meal together. They would talk about their families or their boyfriend back home and commiserate how these long flights were affecting their social life.
I recall “celebrating” one New Year’s Eve in Bangkok with another Honolulu-based stew. It was noon in Thailand and midnight in Honolulu. As we sat drinking iced tea in a hot and humid outdoor coffee shop, we toasted the arrival of the new year back home, where we visualized fireworks going off and people toasting each other with champagne.
Initially, our layover hotel in Bangkok was the Princess Hotel, which was later switched to the Siam Intercontinental. In New Delhi, we stayed at the Oberoi Intercontinental, and in Beirut, we stayed at the beautiful Phoenicia Intercontinental, overlooking the Mediterranean Sea. The hotel was destroyed in the Lebanese Civil War of 1975-76, but, fortunately, was rebuilt. In London, we spent our layovers at the Kensington Palace and later the Athenium Court. When we were stateside in San Francisco and Los Angeles, we usually stayed at a Holiday Inn, Ramada Inn or a Best Western. In Anchorage, Alaska, we stayed at the Captain Cook Hotel.
But our favorite city was Tökyö. Everyone loved Tökyö! We initially stayed at the New Japan Hotel in Akasaka, where we were befriended by a Mrs. Hanabusa, a pleasingly plump bilingual concierge who all the Nisei stews loved because she was always smiling and always so helpful in answering our questions. On other occasions until the early 1970s, we stayed at the Palace Hotel, Imperial Hotel and the Prince Hotel near Shiba Park. All of these hotels were relatively close to Haneda Airport, which, at the time, was the only airport in the Tökyö area. Narita International Airport did not open until 1978.
Another route, albeit not a very popular one for the stews, was to Rio de Janeiro in Brazil. The 12-day flight went from Honolulu to Los Angeles International, then to Guatemala, and then to Panama, where we stayed at the La Siesta Hotel. Several crews usually met there and enjoyed dinner together. Of course, taking a tour to the Locks, which the Polynesian voyaging canoe Höküle‘a, traversed just a few weeks ago, was a must.
The Honolulu stew then separated from the L.A. crew and met up with the Miami crew going to Rio. It was a long flight over the long Amazon River. Rio was nice, if you didn’t mind being alone. The Miami crewmembers usually went their own way, which left the Honolulu stew to go sightseeing on her own, usually to the iconic Sugarloaf Mountain; or the Corcovado, a mountain in central Rio; or for a walk along Copacabana Beach, which was within walking distance of the layover hotel.
But the jet-set life to these exotic foreign destinations wasn’t all excitement for the young stews from Honolulu.
Many were shy and sorely missed for their family or boyfriends — for some, so much so that they resigned after a year or two of flying. The more adventuresome, outgoing women enjoyed everything about the exciting life of a stewardess — the profession, the
salary, the benefits and the travel perks. Many of these women continued flying for three, even four, decades.
Most of the stews preferred the shorter trips to places like San Francisco, Anchorage and Tökyö, especially when they had a two- or three-day layover in Tökyö. The even more adventurous stews requested a base transfer to San Francisco, or New York, or even Paris or London. Being based in those cities gave them opportunities to travel to Africa, many countries in Europe, the Caribbean Islands, Beijing, Australia and many more international destinations.
The airplanes improved with time. The first Nisei stews flew on propeller-powered DC-6s. By the early
1960s, Pan Am had entered the jet age, flying B-707s, followed in the early 1970s by the Boeing 747, which was nicknamed the “Jumbo Jet.” As the planes changed, so did the flight training. We had to familiarize ourselves with the various emergency equipment locations, escape procedures, announcements and more. There were many class lectures and refresher classes every year.
Probably the most important aspect of our basic training was in the preparation of first-class meals. First-class
passengers were paying a lot of money to fly with Pan Am, so not only were they expecting a safe and smooth flight, but first-class-quality meal service. Pan Am had selected Maxim’s of Paris to design the meals for all of its flights
Each of the courses was served on Noritake china, including hors d’oeuvres, entrées, fruit, cheese and desserts. Even the bowls and cups and saucers were Noritake fine china. Entrées included roast beef or rack of lamb carved at the passenger’s seat, veal, sole, Cornish hen, filet steak and much more. This was followed by fruit and cheese, dessert, coffee and tea service, and after-dinner drinks such as cognac, sherry, Benedictine and more. Whenever I was assigned to the first-class galley, I taped a large index card on the galley wall, detailing the step-by-step procedures so that my preparation would be flawless.
Before takeoff, we had to confirm all of the items in the galley with the caterer and then signed the sheet after checking that everything was stored for the meal service. Preparation after takeoff included taking out the frozen vegetables and starch; inserting the meat thermometer and placing the roast beef into the small oven and making sure to check the thermometer. The dry ice then had to be removed from the ice cream. We had to make sure that there were enough entrées for the number of passengers on board; prepare the coffee and tea for serving; fold the starched white cloth napkins properly to insert the silverware on the carts; and, finally, cover the two carts, which were to be used alternately.
The purser usually arranged the first cart with napkins; wine and cocktail glasses; a tureen of ice and the bottles of whiskeys, juice, lemon, cherries and olives on toothpicks.
We readied the second cart with individual tablecloths and napkins folded just so to hold an entire set of silverware. The purser then wheeled out the cart and set each table.
Next was the hors d’oeuvres cart which contained appetizers such as shrimp, caviar displayed on a tureen of crushed ice and various pâtés with crackers. The plates, forks and knives were always available to hand out when needed.
The cabin attendant then distributed the Pan Am menu to the passengers. The cover featured a picture of one of Pan Am’s fleet of planes. There was a golden tassel in the middle to holding the cover and the thinner menu page in place. The cabin attendant took the dinner orders and handed them to the galley stewardess.
In the galley, the stewardess sorted out the entrée orders — for example, six roast beef orders, three chicken and two sole.
The roast beef cart contained a large cutting board at one end with the freshly cooked roast beef on top of it. The tong and knife were placed next to the cutting board with the au jus and fresh horseradish just beyond the cutting board. The 10-inch wide China dinner plates were stacked on the cart for exactly the number of passengers who had ordered the beef. The purser asked the passenger how he or she wanted their roast beef. Many people requested it medium rare. As the purser cut into the large chunk of beef, she was relieved to find that the beef was perfectly medium rare and not overdone.
The dessert cart was rolled out next. It contained bowls and silverware, a tureen with vanilla ice cream and another tureen with hot cherries jubilee. Luckily, the ice cream was frozen at the right consistency and not rock-hard. The purser scooped the ice cream into the bowls and poured the hot cherries jubilee over the ice cream. A delicate wafer was then placed on the liner plate next to the bowl.
Next came the fruit and cheese cart, which was an entire basket of in-season fruits and at least six different types of cheese with crackers. All of this was placed on the cart with more plates, forks and knives.
The fruit and cheese service was followed by freshly brewed coffee and hot water for tea, along with a silver sugar bowl and a silver creamer on a silver tray.
Those who enjoyed an after-dinner drink could choose from cognac or sherry and other drinks served in tiny glasses on the cart.
After flying for a while, all of the procedures came naturally to me and I no longer needed to check my index card checklist at every step. However, I still kept it in my announcement book on each trip and put it up on the galley wall just to be sure while working in the first-class galley.
The first “Nisei stewardesses” of the 1950s are now in their 80s; the second wave who followed them are in their 50s, 60s and 70s. Sadly, a few have already passed on. Many of these stewardesses had fascinating stories to tell.
For example, Jacqueline Higa, who already passed away, was one of the students who hid in the caves of Okinawa when American soldiers came ashore on her home island in the spring of 1945. Many young women committed suicide by jumping into the ocean off the cliff, fearing they would be raped or abused by the Americans. Jackie was one of the fortunate ones. She survived the caves and eventually came to Hawai‘i as a young girl. She began flying for Pan Am and lived a comfortable and exciting life that so different from the war days in Okinawa.
Several other Honolulu-based stewardesses were on a layover in Anchorage when a huge earthquake hit the city. They saw the streets open up before their eyes and clung to telephone poles to steady themselves. Other remembered well the Operation Babylift flights out of Vietnam, the Vietnam-era American soldiers who flew Pan Am on R & R (rest and relaxation/recuperation) flights from Saigon, Cam Ranh Bay and other stations to Tökyö, Hong Kong and Bangkok.
History remembers Juan Trippe as an aviation pioneer. For those who worked for him and the Pan Am World Airways he created, Trippe will live long in our hearts. He left us too early at the age of 41.
So what have Pan Am’s Nisei stewardesses and subsequent flight attendants of the jet age been doing since the airline’s ceased operations in December of 1991? Several have passed on and others have retired. Many of the younger flight attendants transferred to United Airlines and flew for over 20 years.
Still others came together and in 1969 formed the Hawaii Chapter of World Wings International, a philanthropic organization of former Pan Am flight attendants. There are now over 30 chapters worldwide, with the headquarters in New York.
May (Hayashi) Tsukiyama, one of the stews from Pan Am’s first Nisei class in 1955 was among the founders of the Hawaii Chapter of World Wings International. Now in her 80s, Tsukiyama still walks daily and golfs regularly. She comes to all of our Hawaii Chapter meetings and functions and helps out at our annual fundraiser, “Not Your Ordinary Garage Sale.” May chairs the children’s section on set-up day and serves as a cashier assistant on sale day. She is still an integral part of our organization of 80-plus members.
The “Not Your Ordinary Garage Sale” is held annually on the last Sunday in February at the McKinley High School cafeteria. Funds raised from the sale benefit St. Francis Hospice and CARE International, which supports women and children around the world. Our Hawaii chapter also funds a scholarship for a graduating senior from McKinley High School every year. We raised over $15,000 at last year’s garage sale — 90 percent of which went to St. Francis Hospice, 10 percent to CARE International and $1,500 to McKinley’s graduating senior.
Pan Am gave Nisei and Sansei flight attendants once-in-a-lifetime experiences and opportunities that they will carry with them all the days of their lives. The Pan Am alumni who now make up Hawaii Chapter of World Wings International still get together and reminisce about visiting the Taj Mahal, today a UNESCO World Heritage Site, on a New Delhi layover; about visiting Windsor Castle, the Houses of Parliament and Big Ben on a layover in London; and the most frequent discussions, the trips to Tökyö and lunch at Torigin in Ginza. Pan Am really did give the world to these women!
Betty (Shimogawa) Santoki was a Pan Am flight attendant from October 1964 until early 1969. When she began working for Pan Am, the airline was flying Boeing 707 jetliners. She “retired” to return to the University of Hawai‘i at Mänoa just before Pan Am began flying the 747 “Jumbo Jets.” Santoki is the current president of the Hawaii Chapter of World Wings International.