Had he chosen a career in athletics, Bert Voortmeyer could probably have represented the United States in the Olympic Games. But instead he sought a life of travel and adventure, sailing the seas to China and attending the School of Hard Knocks. In 1936 he signed up as a member of Pan American Airway’s second expedition to Wake Island, where the airline had already established a re-fuelling stop in its sheltered lagoon for its trans-Pacific air mail service. Pan American aimed to start a passenger service and had to build a hotel for the privileged clientele of the famous China Clipper flying boats to stay overnight and rest.
Bert was not in a senior position in the construction team. Far from it. He was just one of the young muscular laborers who had to man-handle every item of supplies from the North Haven freighter on to the island. This was no easy task, for the ship had to anchor off-shore, and every plank, very sack of cement, every item of food and furniture, and every 400-lb. barrel of oil, even a small diesel locomotive, had to be transferred on to barges (lighters) to deliver tem to the site. This operation was complicated by having to “ride” the reef that surrounded the island, and this needed a combination of seamanship and courage, both of which Bert Voortmeyer emphatically had.
Uniquely, he kept a diary, took excellent photographs, and anaged to keep up a steady correspondence with Eleanor, his fiancée, in Oakland. These invaluable records, at first though to have been lost or destroyed, were discovered by his daughter, Carol Nickisher. She has assembled them into a fascinating chronicle of how, almost by the Churchillian “blood, tears and sweat,” Pan American Airways brought the comfort of a hotel to a hitherto remote and uninhabited island in the middle of the Pacific Ocean. And there is even room for a little old-fashioned romance as well.
ABOUT THE AUTHORS
Bert Voortmeyer died on February 8, 2005. Carol Nickisher is his daughter.