Photo of Marian (Tagawa) Murakami opening the airplane door upon arrival at their destination.
Marian (Tagawa) Murakami opening the airplane door upon arrival at their destination.

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.

Photo of May (Hayashi) Tsukiyama at her graduation. (Photos courtesy Betty Santoki)
May (Hayashi) Tsukiyama at her graduation. (Photos courtesy Betty Santoki)

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.

Photo of Joan Covington and Marilyn Takeuchi with the Taj Mahal in the background.
Joan Covington and Marilyn Takeuchi with the Taj Mahal in the background.

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.

Photo of Akiko Ogura preparing a first-class meal in the galley of a Boeing 707
Akiko Ogura prepares a first-class meal in the galley of a Boeing 707. The economy class galley was the same size as the first-class galley.

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. […]

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.

Photo of Lillian Seki and Sheila Matsuda enjoy a camel ride in New Delhi, India.
Lillian Seki and Sheila Matsuda enjoying a camel ride in New Delhi, India.

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.

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Photo of Yoko Yamamoto and Betty Shimogawa (today Santoki) in London with Big Ben, the House of Parliament and the Thames River in the background.
Yoko Yamamoto and Betty Shimogawa (today Santoki) in London with Big Ben, the House of Parliament and the Thames River in the background.


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