ONAT: First a Dream, Now an Airlines

Newspaper headlines in 1946 were packed with tension: "U. S. Joins in Pacification of Manchuria," "Russ Seek World Domination," "Iranian Crisis Near Breaking Point."


That same year, Deanna Durbin and Dorothy Lamour were the reigning queens on movie screens, and at the grocery store housewives paid twenty-four cents a pound for steaks and pot roast, bread was eight cents a loaf, and coffee sold for thirty-one cents a pound. But vacationers who could afford to fly to Hawaii paid a hefty $648 for a round-trip ticket from San
Francisco aboard a Pan American Clipper.


By early March, Nelson was back flying United's Denver-to-San Francisco route when he received a call from Jack Herlihy, vice-president in charge of operations for UAL. Herlihy asked Nelson how soon he could organize a flying operation in the Pacific for the ATC under a subcontract from United to provide twice-daily transport service between Hamilton Field near San Francisco, and Hickam Field, Hawaii. Nelson jumped at the opportunity without concern for "how soon." He knew he could do it.


Herlihy offered to lend key personnel to begin the organization and told Nelson that negotiations were already under way for the lease of twelve surplus U.S. Air Force C-54s. Then he issued a nearly impossible demand: position the first airplane in Honolulu in time for a return flight to the West Coast on March 18. This meant that Nelson, a pilot without an airplane or a hangar to put it in, had just ten days to construct an airline.


Nelson began moving at top speed within seconds after his conversation with Herlihy. He first called his wartime radio operator, Sherwood Nichols, who was then working as a station attendant for United at Boise, Idaho. Nichols immediately agreed to join Nelson as chief of communications.


The next items on Nelson's agenda were to locate the rest of the Okinawa group, borrow the United men Herlihy had promised, place classified ads for flight crews in the San Francisco and Los Angeles newspapers, and then telephone Hamilton Field to inform them he was in business. To his surprise, this news had already reached the installation earlier in the day. Base personnel told Nelson that some fifty demobilized pilots were already on their way to apply for jobs.


Several thousand telephone calls for Nelson were received at his San Lorenzo, California, home during the first twenty-four hours of his search for flight crews, setting a record at the local telephone company for the most calls ever routed to a residence. On March 11, 1946, Nelson terminated his employment with United Air Lines and then attended a conference sponsored by the ATC staff for United Air Lines and the other subcontractors on the transpacific project. General Bob Nowland presided over the discussion. Nowland, who was then the commanding general of the Pacific Wing of the ATC, had been a first lieutenant in Nelson's Army Air Corps outfit in the Philippines in 1928 and 1929. Colonel Ray T. Elsmore, another prominent officer at the conference, had once been employed by Western Air Lines, had practiced law, and had been a pilot for the U.S. Postal Service.


Elsmore had served as Director of Air Transport, Allied Air Forces in the Southwest Pacific, under General George C. Kenney during World War 11. On active duty since 1940, Elsmore had been in the Philippines when the Japanese invaded the islands but had managed to escape to Australia on the last airplane out. He subsequently directed troop-carrier ATC operations in the Pacific.


When General Douglas MacArthur began his military campaign up the New Guinea Coast, the only air route for flying supplies to him was over the Owen Stanley Range in the southeastern end of the island. When a shorter route became imperative to keep Air Transport abreast of MacArthur's advances, Elsmore flew a tour of inspection to chart an alternate route. One of these flights took him over the Grand Valley, known also as Hidden Valley or Shangri-la. In May of 1945, a military transport airplane crashed on the high palisades over the Hidden Valley. The airplane had been carrying twenty-four military personnel, three of whom were members of the Women's Army Corps (WAC). Five of the passengers survived the crash, including the three WACs. Within twenty-four hours, two of the WACs died of injuries sustained in the accident, but the other WAC and two servicemen miraculously lived. Elsmore directed a daring rescue using gliders to fly out the survivors from that isolated valley. A transport airplane dropped medical corpsmen and engineers by parachute to the valley floor to bring relief to the injured and to construct a landing strip on which a glider could be safely landed and be picked up again by a low-flying transport plane. Other airplanes dropped food, medical supplies, and other necessities by parachute. Nearly seven weeks passed from the time of the crash until operations had progressed enough to permit a glider pickup of the trio and their rescuers.


Nelson was impressed with Elsmore's demeanor and military and commercial flying record and hired him on the spot as his chief assistant. Elsmore soon would carry the title of executive vice president of ONAT.


When Nelson returned to his San Lorenzo home that night, he was greeted by a large group of pilots, copilots, radio operators, navigators, flight engineers, and operations men filling his front porch and milling around in front of his house. Most were hired that night, including William Word, who would become a flight captain for GNAT, and Harvey Rogers, later to be chief pilot of the airline.


United loaned Navigator Roland Halper, Navigator Al Mays, Mechanic Al Carvel, and Flight Engineer Jim McCoy. Ted Vinson, former Consairways pilot, became the airline's first chief pilot. The hiring of Sam Wilson, Wally Simpton, and Art Bisset was typical of the flamboyant way Nelson gathered his personnel. Wilson was still in the Air Corps but had decided to make the switch to civilian life when he heard of Nelson's "start-up" airline in March, 1946. He called the local United Air Lines office for information and waited while someone there telephoned Nelson's home. When Nelson answered, Wilson got on the line:
        "I hear you're looking for pilots," said Wilson. "Yes," replied Nelson. "You looking for a job?"         
        "Maybe," said Wilson cautiously.
        "O. K. - you're hired."
        This seemed a little abrupt to Wilson. "Don't you even want to see my logbook?" he asked.
        "Hell, no - I've heard all about you."
        "Well ... say, Nelson, there's another fellow here who's looking for a pilot's job-name of Wally Simpton."
        "Is he O.K.?" asked Nelson. "Yes. . .
        "O. K.-he's hired."


Bisset had just been discharged from the military when he spotted the "Flight Engineers Wanted" advertisement in a local newspaper and went to Oakland Municipal Airport (now Oakland International Airport) to check it out. When Nelson asked what kinds of airplanes he'd flown, Bisset started to reply with B-17s and B-24s when Nelson interrupted to tell him he was hired.


The frenetic pace picked up. On Wednesday, March 13, Nelson and Captain W. W. "Pop" Warner headed for the San Francisco International Airport to receive the first of the twelve Armyowned C-54s to be leased to GNAT and ferry it across San Francisco Bay to Oakland. No sooner had they taxied the aircraft to a stop when Nelson hurried off to find office space for the operation. He discovered that the old two-story stucco hotel at Oakland Municipal Airport (said to be the first airport hotel in the nation) was vacant and signed a lease with the Port of Oakland.


Oakland Municipal Airport had been the departure point for many of the early air races such as the Dole Pineapple Race on August 16, 1927. That year eight fliers competed for $35,000 in prize money offered by Jim Dole, so-called "Pineapple King" of Hawaii.


The Oakland Airport was also aviatrix Amelia Earhart's departure point on May 20, 1937 when she and her navigator, Paul Noonan, began their second attempt to circle the globe. The Lockheed lifted off from Runway 27 heading east. They hopscotched across the country, landing at Tucson, New Orleans, and Miami. On June I they left Miami, stopping en route at such places as Caripito, Venezuela; Natal, Brazil; Fort Lamy, Chad, French Equatorial Africa; Calcutta, India; and Singapore. They were more than half way around the world when they landed at Lae, New Guinea, on June 30. On July second, after departing Lae, Amelia Earhart's plane vanished over the Pacific without even an oil slick.


A new era at the historic Oakland Airport was about to begin as Orvis Nelson Air Transport went into business. Soon veterans from all branches of' the armed forces were queued in a long line stretching from the entrance, down the steps and to the tiny airport restaurant up the street. They looked as though they had just been discharged. Most were still dressed in their military uniforms and carrying duffel bags.


Nelson's "executive office" was bare except for a single telephone positioned in the middle of the floor. Between phone calls Nelson asked few questions of the men who came through his door to be interviewed and hired nearly every one of them. Within several days Nelson had established the dispatch office, the chief pilot's office, and a room for communications and navigation personnel on the first floor. On the second floor he installed the payroll and accounting departments, a pilot's lounge for the standby crew, plus offices for the secretaries, Elsmore, and himself. The place hummed with activity and excitement.


Even Nelson's former bosses at United were caught up in the enthusiasm generated by the exuberant GNAT group. Jack Herlihy not only kept his word to Nelson for the loan of certain personnel but also persuaded UAL management to supply some of the needed office equipment and furniture, applications and other business forms. But most important, he provided two office managers to assist in creating office procedures and company policies. On the eleventh day, after the ten days of "creation," Nelson rested. In that time, Nelson had managed to create the foundation for an airline that would eventually become the world's largest supplemental air carrier.


On the morning of March 16, 1946, the first flight departed for Honolulu in one of the leased C- 54s. The ATC wanted the airplane to be in position in Honolulu to ferry to the U.S. mainland a load of military personnel returning from the South Pacific theaters of war on March 18, which was Nelson's thirty-ninth birthday. This was the inaugural flight of the ATC contract calling for two round trips daily between Hamilton Field, California, and Hickam Field, Hawaii. At the controls was Captain Jerry Byrd, a former Navy pilot. In the right seat was Jack Brissey, who had been one of the Air Corps' famous "Wilmington Warriors," the ferrying group for domestic and transatlantic flights during the war. Art Bisset, former Air Corps flight engineer, who had trained pilots in B-17s 'and B-24s during World War II, was the flight engineer. Bisset's meticulous attention to detail would later earn him the position of chief inspector for the airline. Ralph Lewis, violinist in the Lawrence Welk Orchestra before the war and a former radio broadcaster, was the radio operator. Al Mays, ONAT's first chief navigator, a soft-spoken southerner with a penchant for being precise in his calculations, was tabbed for that first flight. Ten days after the historic first flight of ONAT, Nelson flew to New Jersey to marry Edith Frohboese, a petite blonde United Air Lines stewardess. Less than two hours after the wedding ceremony, the newlyweds were headed for California on a cross-country honeymoon by train.


Esther Lavagnim, an attractive, dark haired, twenty-two year old girl, was the first secretary of the airline. Esther came for her job interview dressed in an eye-catching black and white checked suit, high heels, and a wide brimmed black hat. She was greeted by a chorus of whistles and appreciative comments by the young aviators waiting outside the door.
Before many days had passed, Patricia Olesten and Vivian Sims were hired. Patricia's job was to type statistical reports; Vivian was to be Nelson's private secretary for many years. Others of the original GNAT office personnel and ground crew were William R. Rivers, Douglass F. Johnson, John Markusen, Jack Ullner, Louis Lombard, Don Sheets, Andrew McKelvie, and James Clarksen. This small band of employees, along with the flight crew members hired during that first month, forged the family-like bond that became the hallmark of the company through the years. Orvis Nelson had always admired the older pilots and held a certain fondness and admiration for them. Later, he would add such men as E.L. Sloniger, Colonel Benton "Lucky" Baldwin, and Chuck Sisto to the airline's roster.

Transocean is born…
ONAT was profitable from the start. In Just two months the company netted nearly $70,000. But because income tax rates for individuals were high and as Nelson had no extraordinary expenses to write off, he decided to incorporate. A contest was held to name the new corporation. Ray Foster, a dispatcher at the headquarters, submitted the winning name. ONAT
became Transocean Air Lines on June 1, 1946.


Nelson immediately sold $200,000 worth of stock and gave one percent to each department head and to the loyal members of the Okinawa group. His only personal outlay of cash was $1,000 down payment for a $25,000 insurance policy for his employees.


During the first months of operation, maintenance work was subcontracted to the Air Transport Division of the Matson Navigation Company at Oakland Airport. But with the quick growth of Transocean, the corporation was able to secure quarters in a large hangar vacated by MATS and took over its own maintenance by the end of July.


Nelson had a clear concept of what was required of an airline to succeed in the post-war years: a carrier capable of supplementing and assisting the scheduled airlines; one with a high load factor, maximum utility and no frills; plus a system to secure return loads when needed in order to keep rates generally lower than other carriers. With this vision, Nelson and his team decided to enter the commercial contract field with company owned aircraft.


At the end of World War II, military surplus airplanes were available for purchase by veterans from the War Assets Administration of the U.S. government at a fraction of their real worth. Veterans Ray T. Elsmore and William L. Word, representing Transocean Air Lines, were among the first to receive their C-54s. Ownership of the four-engined transports would later be registered with the CAA in Transocean's, name.


Ted Vinson, Bill Word, and Jim McCoy flew aircraft N66635 and N66644 from Walnut Ridge, Arkansas and Albuquerque, New 'Mexico, to a modification center in Southern California for CAA conversion from military to commercial configuration and for certification. By the time these two airplanes were purchased, Transocean was flying twelve government-leased planes on the San Francisco-Honolulu run.


With the arrival of the first two C-54s at Transocean's headquarters in Oakland, California, TAL began its rapid ascent into sunny skies. Several years would pass before Nelson would reflect on the irony that Transocean, conceived during a raging storm, would pass through innumerable squalls in its corporate life and end by being engulfed in a predatory tidal wave.