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Plane crash kills 44

November 13, 2007 |  6:39 am

Deke Houlgate writes about covering the loss of the Pan Am Stratocruiser "Romance of the Skies" (the lost plane in a publicity shot, below right):

Romance_of_the_skies_2 That story was a real panic operation. I came to work for my 3 to midnight shift, and all day long other, more experienced reporters were lobbying for that assignment. Fortunately, I don't remember any names, because I learned later that my selection wasn't popular among the staff. I didn't even know about it till Bill Bastedo called me up to the city desk and told me to get ready to go. Larry Sharkey took me home to my Silver Lake apartment, where Olga had just returned after watching an SC football game with my parents. Larry told Olga to pack me enough clothes to be gone 10 days. I didn't even own that much underwear, but luckily I had a wad of cash from George Rice, the auditor (I got back at him  that time), and I bought clothes at the commissary on board the aircraft carrier.

This was a big deal at the time. Life send a photog, a cocky redhead named Bill. In those days they were all cocky, red headed and didn't lack for confidence. AP Photo sent Hal Filan, an old friend from my childhood. No other L.A. newspapers accepted the Navy's invitation to make the trip. I had one competitor, as the San Diego Union-Tribune sent a young copy editor named Gerald Warren. (Gerry became a lot more famous than I did, serving as Nixon's press aide in the final days of Watergate.) I was used to working around the clock in my old job at the Las Vegas Sun. So instead of hitting the officers club I went right to work in the radio room in the fantail of the ship. The enlisted men back there and I got along famously. I was told we would be out of radio range at about 300 miles, but I was still sending copy three days later 1,000 miles out. I don't know what they did to accomplish that, but I found something to write about almost every hour of the day. It must have driven the city desk bonkers. Marvin Miles was doing the rewrite and staying in touch with Pan-Am. He was the real backbone of our team.

Stratocruiser02 Each day I filed stories AP picked them up under my byline, and news agencies all over the world were getting pissed off. The Navy, through my high-ranking friend, the captain of the ship, had clamped a news blackout on the story and was letting only my copy and Gerry's go out. That gave me an idea. We would probably find something in the water, and I needed to control the story. So I made a deal with Gerry to work as a team. I had seen plenty of corpses and debris in my young, misspent life. So I gave that chore to Gerry and I manned the rewrite desk for both our papers. When we found corpses, I relied on Gerry for the words and wrote take after take of copy, 18 hours in all. Around the country news agencies were doing a slow burn. I don't know what was going on in San Diego, but my AP buddies in L. A. were bylining me on every new development. I believe we filed 30 takes or so. Every one a new development.

Stratocruiser01 After 24 hours of exclusive eyeball coverage the captain or his fleet admiral ended our adventure. But we were still 1,200 miles out to sea, and there was no way any news agency could reach the ship till we got back to Long Beach. Heaven! The wire services and networks could communicate with the ship, but we were days ahead of all of them. A lot of stories in Las Vegas were panic button pieces, and organizing the enlisted men on this huge WW II aircraft carrier was a piece of cake. They didn't like the redhead from Life. So as he swamped them with negatives, they put slow fix to work on them. He was the last newsman to leave the ship in Long Beach. Filan, a wily old veteran, had his negs quick-fixed, said nothing to anybody about it and loved his experience.

When I came ashore, I learned how Marvin tickled my copy and made me a hero. The head of the USC journalism department nominated me for an SDX prize, but I didn't win that either. Didn't deserve it. Marvin Miles made me look good. I still have no idea how much of my copy ran, before or after the body count, but I couldn't go anywhere for the rest of the year but somebody would tell me they read my stories.

My heroes were those incredible radio guys in the fantail who kept me in touch with the city desk for almost 900 miles farther than they were supposed to. This is my first chance finally to thank them, 50 years later.

[Note: Deke doesn't like to brag, but The Times nominated him for a Pulitzer for his coverage of the crash--lrh]