Richard Halliburton Lost at Sea
On October 5, 1939, the Chancery Court in Memphis, Tennessee declared Richard
Halliburton officially dead. “Lost at Sea,” newspaper headlines declared of him, his crew, and his Chinese junk, Sea Dragon. This was big news. Another famous adventurer had disappeared. The year before, Amelia Earhart, with her navigator Fred Noonan, had ditched a Lockheed Electra somewhere in the Pacific.
To find Halliburton and his crew the navy cruiser USS Astoria arrived on station in May 1939 to launch four Curtiss SOC-1 float planes for the search, covering every quadrant of a 152,000 square mile patch of the Pacific southwest of Japan as the pilot and radioman-gunner gazed down through flying goggles. At 130 miles per hour, from each biplane's open canopy they looked at endless waves. They did not find a trace.
In March of that year, the ocean liner S.S. President Coolidge lost contact with Richard Halliburton and his crew somewhere in that huge nowhere when lightning static from a storm garbled and broke radio transmission from his Chinese junk, Sea Dragon. Caught in the same storm herself, Coolidge reported that the junk and her crew of ten Caucasians and four Chinese had been lost to a typhoon on March 24th. Before that, across the continent, San Francisco to New York, families in living rooms, bent to their radio sets to hear of the junk's nine-thousand mile progress toward the San Francisco World's Fair, opening in spring of that year.
The junk was built in Hong Kong as Japanese tanks and troops marched through Manchuria, soon to defeat the under-manned British garrison protecting the city and Sea Dragon's Kowloon ship yard. After the Japanese invaded China, 500,000 people fled to Hong Kong and, starving, sick, brought typhoid, dysentery, and cholera with them. Halliburton saw streams of exhausted refugees from the provinces collapsing on sidewalks in Hong Kong, dying by thousands there and near the docks at Kowloon. His eyes couldn’t avoid them on his daily trips to coordinate the boat's construction. Their profound misery foretold things to come.
Despite disaster gathering over the world's continents, he had mustered a crew and boat builders for his next big challenge. British naval officers at the Hong Kong Hotel thought it folly. The Union Jack flew above the hotel’s top floor, declaring it invincible. A six-story Victorian building, its Roman arches announced its European presence. Each of its front-facing rooms had a veranda for guests to leisurely sit and peer down on the street below. Chinese passers-by could look up to the veranda balustrades and see potted flowers behind them. With its concert piano, marble-topped tables and oak furniture, it bespoke Anglo-Saxon privilege amidst all the Asian colonials. Halliburton frequented the hotel to dine and dance. Over dinner, one British navy lieutenant warned him that the ship was too frail for the fierce seas of the monsoons. Another officer said, "The Japs" would "blow that ruddy junk galley west” as soon as they spotted its mainsail in the Formosa Straits.
But Halliburton couldn’t quit. A poor businessman, he badly needed money. He was also an inveterate optimist, a view habituated by what he survived in his global travels. At Princeton he had charted his life’s course as a romantic, somebody who would follow his heart and escape a grey office life. By age 39 he was a household name, an adventurer and writer of seven popular best sellers, first hitting the best seller lists in 1925 with The Royal Road To Romance, an account of his world adventures after graduating Princeton.
Sea Dragon was intended as a vehicle for new publicity. He was deeply in debt and could not abandon his financial backers. He aimed to arouse public interest in the voyage as promotion for a book to follow. People would climb the hill to Coit Tower, turn out on the Embarcadero and at Pier 39, to watch the red junk round the bay past Alcatraz and make for Yerba Buena. San Francisco awaited him. Concessionaires reserved a berth in San Francisco Bay at Treasure Island for his junk where, sails billowing, it would take World’s Fair visitors, entire American families, out on the bay at a dollar a head. He simply had to pay back the share holders in the venture, formed as Richard Halliburton Enterprises.
(See "Richard Halliburton's Brief, Intense Life," top left, this page.)