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Fly girls

Pioneering Pan Am "stews" withstood strict grooming standards to proudly represent America in foreign lands

By Burl Burlingame

POSTED:
LAST UPDATED: 10:45 p.m. HST, Feb 22, 2011


CORRECTION

» A portion of proceeds from a garage sale Sunday at McKinley High School, organized by former Pan Am stewardesses, will be used for scholarships for McKinley students. An earlier version of this story said the scholarships were for St. Francis School.

 

Eva Kama recalls her parents' horror when she decided to become a stewardess. That's right, stewardess. "Flight attendants" were creatures of the future in the early 1960s.

The proper career for a young Japanese-American woman from Hawaii was teaching or government service, particularly if they had a few years of college. But, beginning in 1955, Pan Am, the undisputed empire of international air travel, began deliberately recruiting nisei women from Hawaii. They wanted to compete with Japan Air Lines on the Pacific legs of their routes.

That was the reasoning, but these nisei women, whose parents had immigrated from Japan, became pioneers, breaking racial and ethnic barriers in the all-white business of air travel. Pan Am's Japanese-American stewardesses took to the air years before black or Hispanic flight attendants were hired. This cultural revolution, born of rampant capitalism and Yankee ingenuity, is examined in detail in Christine R. Yano's delightful scholarly study "Airborne Dreams — 'Nisei' Stewardesses and Pan American World Airways." (See review on Page G5.)

NOT YOUR ORDINARY GARAGE SALE

A benefit for McKinley scholarships

Sponsor: World Wings International

When: 8 a.m. to 3 p.m. Feb. 27

Where: McKinley High School cafeteria, 1039 S. King St.

Note: Cash only

 

After more than a half-century of being America's flagship carrier, Pan Am collapsed in 1991 and merged with United Airlines. As Yano documents, the former employees of Pan Am remain fiercely loyal to their company. The airline's stewardesses formed World Wings International, a Pan Am veterans organization, as a way of keeping the spirit alive.

The group's Hawaii Chapter has an annual "garage sale" that benefits St. Francis Hospice and scholarships at St. Francis School, and Hawaii's Pan Am stewardesses have some interesting stuff in their garages. After all, flying around the world was what Pan Am did.

"I went around the world 55 times, (at a rate of) once a month," said Mae Takahashi, who worked for the airline from 1963 to 1969. "There's just so many porcelain elephants from Vietnam or camel-skin lamps from the Mideast you can collect."

"We flew in the Boeing 707, the most beautiful plane ever designed," said Kama, who flew for Pan Am and then United during the years 1964 to 1986. "We were hired partly on the basis of being able to also speak Japanese or Chinese, with a little Tagalog thrown in."

"It was right when Japanese businessmen began to travel," said Betty Santoki, a Pan Am stew from 1964 to 1969.

Unlike mainland-based stewardesses who generally flew a back-and-forth route, Pan Am wanted to show off its nisei hires and used them on a singular route around the world, eventually returning to Hawaii. They would fly a leg, rest up in a foreign city, then fly another leg in the same direction. That's why it took a month.

"An eye-opening experience! Hong Kong, Barcelona, Beirut, Karachi ...," spieled Kama, faster than a reporter could keep up.

"It was magical, seeing so much of the world," said Takahashi.

"We felt so fortunate," said Santoki. And yet it was often lonely as well. They weren't assigned to a particular crew, so their co-workers changed every flight, and they would see the other nisei stews only in passing at airport terminals and Pan Am's international hotels, one stewardess going west, the other going east.

The airline had strict uniform standards of behavior and dress, which the stewardesses remember fondly because they knew they were representing America, not just Pan Am, in foreign lands.

"You had to look glamorous," said Santoki.

"Red lipstick, red fingernail polish. Hair no longer than shoulder length," recalled Kama. "Gloves at all times. White gloves in summer, black gloves in winter."

"We served prime cut and rack of lamb on linen, with Noritake china and crystal," said Takahashi. "No dark glasses worn in the terminals."

"And there were spot checks by grooming supervisors," said Kama. One of the aircraft purser's duties was to discreetly flick stewardesses on the butt to make sure they were wearing girdles.

Girdles were part of the stewardess uniform?

All three women nodded their heads, laughing. "We were Americans overseas and had to uphold our image," said Kama. "Back then, people dressed up to fly, hats and gloves, men in suits. And when we were overseas, seeing how the rest of the world lived, it really made you appreciate being an American."

Pan Am's vision of America abroad was multiethnic and many-cultured. The three Pan Am veterans recalled how they would swell with pride when flights were boarded in foreign lands, and the purser would announce to the passengers how many ethnicities and languages were represented in the crew. "That was awesome," said Kama.

Despite seeing the rest of the world, many, if not most, of Pan Am's Hawaii nisei recruits returned to the islands to live. "There were absolutely beautiful places," said Kama. "Beirut. Can you believe Beirut used to be a gorgeous city? But really, there's no place like Hawaii."






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