The mystery of Flight 448, from San Diego to Los Angeles
“448, you have bandits at your 6 o’clock. Not friendly.”
by Don Ruane
Midnight, February 1942. The Catalina Channel was unusually calm and the sky extraordinarily bright due to the super moon directly over the Santa Monica Bay. Since the U.S. entered the war a few months earlier, there’d been a mandatory blackout over the Southern California coast.
Intelligence reports indicated that enemy submarines had been detected just a couple of miles off the coast. Unidentified boats, real or imagined, had been reported to the police and Coast Guard by frightened residents .TWA Flight 448, christened the “Star of the Sea,” was one of only a handful of commercial flights allowed to fly after dark. It flew military and civilian passengers from the Naval base in San Diego to the defense and intelligence bases in Los Angeles. It was also one of the few DC-3’s that hadn’t been commandeered by the military for use in the Pacific Theater.
The flight was late departing San Diego because the actress Veronica Turner, who’d been at the Coronado military base filming propaganda shorts to assist in the war effort. Turner has decided to stop in at the airport gift shop for some gifts and to chat with the other shoppers, and sign autographs for everyone, whether they asked for them or not. This, of course, irked all the other passengers, but not the airline’s owner, Howard Hughes, who berated his flight crews if they didn’t hold a flight for a high profile passenger. He insisted his station agents notify the press if someone famous was booked on one of his flights.
The image of an A-lister flying on one of his planes, after doing their part for the war effort was a story that every news wire service in the country would pick up.
As Miss Turner boarded the plane, her fellow passengers’ mood moved the needle from frustration to awestruck as she smiled and made eye contact with as many passengers as she could before taking her seat.
Flight 448 was cleared to depart to San Diego, with instructions not to use navigation lights, to hug the coastline all the way north, stay at 3,000 feet, and communicate only on the scrambled channel the military air traffic controllers had in place. The only other plane in the sky that evening would be a United DC-4, inbound to San Diego from Santa Barbara. It would pass 20 miles due west of the Palos Verdes waypoint.
The 25 minute flight to LA was uneventful, but having to fly in a shroud of secrecy did not sit well with some of the passengers. Since entering World War II, there’d been a mandatory blackout over the Southern California coast, which gave those sitting on the right hand side of the plane an unsettling feeling. Points of reference were not visible.
As the Douglas twin engine was crossing mid channel, the crew discussed the landmarks that were to be used to confirm their landing approach. They’d begin descending to 2,000 feet, once Lunada Bay was sighted, and continue down to 1,000 feet once the Manhattan Beach Pier was at their 3 o’clock position.
It was time to check in with the military controller.
The controller responded, “Must be 100 birds, flying inland, over the channel. They’re up way past their bedtime, something musta spooked ’em. Goodnight, I’m handing you off to Hollywood.” The TWA first officer acknowledged the transmission and contacted LAX on their frequency
“Good Evening, Los Angeles this is 448, passing the PV waypoint and… wait, stand by. LA, is there anyone else up here with us?” The controller said negative, and confirmed what the crew had been told earlier. “There’s a United about 20 miles west of you.”
Now the TWA captain got on the line. “LA, the moon is bright as hell up here, and I’m positive I saw a shadow over the ocean at my 7 o’clock position, moving north to south. I’m going to make a slight left and see if we can get a visual.
LA responded, “You’re good to turn. I’ve got you on radar, let me know ……”
This was interrupted by a frantic message from the First Officer. “LA, whoever this is, he’s following us.”
Nervous silence followed as the local tower phoned the military controller to see if they had any planes up that night. He responded, no, but said he’d just received an encrypted signal that he was transcribing.
Seconds later, the TWA crew broke through. “LA, this 448, I think this guy is firing at us! We heard a thud off the port fuselage. Our gauges show we’re losing fuel. Someone let him know we’re friendly.”
“Roger 448, we’re doing everything we can.”
Two seconds passed, then the military tower and TWA flight crew initiated simultaneous messages.
“448, you have bandits at 6 o’clock. Not friendly. We are scrambling fighters now to assist you.”
“LA, this is 448. We’ve been hit. Bad. Casualties. Having flight control problems. Mayday, Mayday, Mayday. We’re going out to sea. Need to ditch…”
Two fishermen anchored south of the Hermosa Pier looked up to see the outline of a passenger plane with its starboard wing on fire, falling out of the sky. They headed over to the area but found nothing. The fisherman marked the location, and headed to the dock to report what they saw. But before they had gone 50 yards, the first item was spotted, followed by another: a seat cushion that could’ve been from a plane or a boat and a gift bag from a San Diego Airport store.
The airline released a statement that Flight 448 was overdue and presumed lost.
Wires services speculated that the enemy was targeting civilian planes to generate mass panic. Less responsible journalists, using unnamed sources, reported that some of the passengers had been carrying military intelligence, and this was the reason for the attack. This coincided with a rumor that one of the passengers had been found floating in the ocean with a briefcase handcuffed to his wrist.
The Secretary of War issued a statement that a Congressional hearing would be convened to look into the possibility of a mistaken identity attack. There was zero evidence for this, but it served the purpose of easing public minds until a more newsworthy story would occupy their minds. ER
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