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Trans-Pacific Mail to New Zealand and Australia Early 1940s

Updated: May 8

One of the major milestones in postal history was the establishment of transpacific airmail routes. The first route to be established was in November 1935 to the Far East. Flying boats, like the Boeing 314 Clipper that entered service in 1939 (Figure 1), operated by Pan American Airways (Pan Am) would take off from San Francisco and arrive about six days later in Manila after stops in Honolulu, Midway Island, Wake Island, and Guam. This route was designated Foreign Air Mail (FAM) route 14 by the U.S. Post Office Department (POD).

Figure 1 - Pan American's Boeing 314 Clipper at her base at Pearl Harbor after arriving from Alameda, California in 1940. This 9-1/2 minute video on the Boeing 314 is well worth the time:

The second route, which was successfully surveyed in August 1939 and over which the first mail was carried in July 1940, was to the South Pacific, specifically from San Francisco to Auckland, New Zealand. This route was designated FAM 19 by the USPOD. This article presents a series of covers from that transpacific route.

Like the journey to the Far East, the 8,000-mile flight from San Francisco to Auckland was a slough. Departing every other Saturday, it was a four-day excursion to Auckland with stops in Honolulu, Canton Island, and New Caledonia. On the other hand, the same trip by steamer could take 17 days or more, so four days doesn’t sound so bad. In addition, the passenger accommodations on the Boeing 314 were quite luxurious – gourmet meals, elegant sleeping berths, and comfortable lounges (Figure 2). But it came with a steep fare. A one-way San Francisco-to-Auckland ticket would set you back $650 in 1941, equivalent to about $13,700 today.

Figure 2 - Dining Room on Board a Boeing 314

The Boeing 314 had a short career. It was produced by Boeing from 1938 to 1941 and only 12 were built. Nine were operated by Pan Am and three by British Overseas Airways Corporation. Pan Am’s planes were pressed into U.S. military service during World War II, and although several were returned to Pan Am after the war, they were obsolete. The  advantage of the Boeing 314 was that as a flying boat, it didn’t require long concrete airways, but many of those were built during the war to accommodate heavy bombers. In addition, new long-range airlines like the Lockheed Constellation and the DC-4 were introduced after the war and those were far easier to fly than the Boeing 314. The last Pan Am Boeing 314 flew in 1946 and all the planes were eventually scrapped.   

The cover in Figure 3 was sent on the inaugural FAM 19 flight that departed San Francisco on July 12, 1940. It was one of 125,000 letters carried on that flight. The Boeing 314 was flown by a crew of 10. Also on board were several non-paying customers representing the airline and the U.S. government. From the cachet, this is obviously a philatelic item. Per The Postal Bulletin of July 2, 1940, the cover is franked with 50-cents of postage (three from the 1938 Prexie series: two Scott 825 and one Scott 815), which satisfied the half-ounce rate to New Zealand. The backstamp (Figure 4) shows the cover arrived in Auckland on July 18. The slogan "TERRITORIALS GIVE SERVICE HELP THEM" refers to a portion of the New Zealand military that during World War II focused on home-defense measures such as manning coastal and anti-aircraft batteries, garrisoning ports, coast watching and maintaining a mobile strike force in each military district in the country.

Figure 3 - Cover Carried on First FAM 19 flight.

Figure 4 - Backstamp from cover depicted in Figure 4.

I have a few more covers that flew on FAM 19, all of which are non-philatelic in nature. The two I like in particular are shown in Figures 5 and 6. The final destination for these two covers was Australia. Postage rates to Australia were set at 70-cents per half ounce.

Figure 5 - Trans-Pacific FAM 19 Cover from September 1940.

The cover in Figure 5 was initially postmarked with a duplex handstamp dated September 9, 1940, and was returned for 90-cents extra postage since it weighed 1-1/2 ounces requiring $2.10 in postage. In the end, this cover was franked with three Prexies (two Scott 825 and one Scott 831) and four of the 30-cent Winged Globe airmail stamp issued in May 1939 (Scott C24). It was then postmarked again on September 10, 1940. The cover also was stamped “Trans-Atlantic Air Mail” in error.

From Chicago, this cover would have traveled to San Francisco where it was placed on the September 14, 1940, Pan Am Clipper. It would have arrived in Auckland, New Zealand four days later. Since Pan Am flew to New Zealand but not to Australia because the British refused to grant it landing rights in the latter, this cover’s final leg was a 1,400-mile flight from Auckland to Sydney on an airline operated by Tasman Empire Airways Limited (TEAL).

Note that on the left-hand side, this cover was opened by a censor in Australia. Australia entered World War II on September 3, 1939, following the government’s acceptance of the United Kingdom’s declaration of war on Germany. As a belligerent, all mail entering the country was subject to inspection. The U.S., of course, would enter the war about 14 months after this letter arrived.


The sender of this letter was Lamkin Leather Company, which was founded in 1925 in Chicago. It remains in business as a producer of golf grips. David Blacklock (1903-1965), the recipient, was chairman of Slazenger Ltd. (Australia), a sporting goods firm.

Figure 6 - Trans-Pacific FAM 19 Cover from May 1941

The second cover shown in Figure 6 was postmarked in New Orleans at 6:30 p.m. Central Time on May 30, 1941. After making its way to the West Coast, it traveled to New Zealand on the Pan Am flight that departed San Francisco on either May 31 or June 14.  Unfortunately, there is no receiving date stamp to confirm which flight it was. To have been carried on the May 31 flight, it would have had to arrive by 8:30 a.m. Pacific Time on May 31, which was the cutoff time for accepting mail for the Trans-Pacific journey.

I’m sure the sender, International Lubricant Corporation of New Orleans, was hoping it made the May 31 flight given what it paid to send this letter. This cover has $3.50 of postage – equal to about $74 in today’s money – all in the form of airmail stamps. There are four copies of the 50-cent "China Clipper" over the Pacific Ocean stamp issued in 1937 (Scott C22), six copies of the 20-cent 1927 airmail stamp (Scott C9), and one 10-cent from that same series (Scott C7). Since the postage rate to Australia was 70-cents per half ounce, this was a hefty letter weighing in at 2-1/2 ounces.

International Lubricant Company was chartered in the late 1920s. It produced a variety of oils and greases and was widely respected by the Armed Forces during World War II for the special greases it produced to keep equipment running in extremely cold, hot or wet conditions. It was acquired by Shell Oil Company in 1946 and was operated as a separate subsidiary for many years.

This was probably a business-to-business communication since the recipient – William Stevenson – was an oil merchant associated with Evans Deakin & Company of Brisbane, Australia, an engineering company and shipbuilder that operated between 1910 and 2001.

Like the cover in Figure 6, this cover was opened by a censor and was transported to Australia by TEAL, but unlike the cover in Figure 6, it had another 570-mile journey to Brisbane after it arrived in Sydney.

Airmail service to the South Pacific (FAM 19), as well as to the Far East (FAM 14), was interrupted when Japan attacked Pearl Habor on December 7, 1941. In fact, a Boeing 314 had taken off from San Franciso on December 2, 1941, and was en route to Auckland when it learned of the attack. Rather than flying back to Honolulu and risk being shot down by Japanese fighters, the flight was rerouted west to New York. After several stops in southwest Asia, Africa, and South America, the Boeing 314 landed in New York on January 6, 1942, almost five weeks after it left San Francisco.

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