Richard Halliburton and the Voyage of the Sea Dragon

  • Author(s): Max, Gerry
  • Series:
  • Imprint: University of Tennessee Press
  • Publication Date: 2020-10-06
  • Status: Active
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Richard Halliburton (1900–1939), considered the world’s first celebrity travel writer, swam the length of the Panama Canal, recreated Ulysses’ voyages in the Mediterranean, crossed the Alps on an elephant, flew around the world in a biplane, and descended into the Mayan Well of Death, all the while chronicling his own adventures. Several books treat his life and travels, yet no book has addressed in detail Halliburton’s most ambitious expedition: an attempt to sail across the Pacific Ocean in a Chinese junk.

Set against the backdrop of a China devastated by invading Japanese armies and the storm clouds of world war gathering in Europe, Halliburton and a crew of fourteen set out to build and sail the Sea Dragon—a junk or ancient sailing ship—from Hong Kong to San Francisco for the Golden Gate International Exposition. After battling through crew conflicts and frequent delays, the Sea Dragon set sail on March 4, 1939. Three weeks after embarking, the ship encountered a typhoon and disappeared without a trace.

Richly enhanced with historic photographs, Richard Halliburton and the Voyage of the Sea Dragon follows the dramatic arc of this ill-fated expedition in fine detail. Gerry Max artfully unpacks the tensions between Halliburton and his captain, John Wenlock Welch (owing much to Welch’s homophobia and Halliburton’s unconcealed homosexuality). And while Max naturally explores the trials and tribulations of preparing, constructing, and finally launching the Sea Dragon, he also punctuates the story with the invasion of China by the Japanese, as Halliburton and his letters home reveal an excellent wartime reporter. Max mines these documents, many of which have only recently come to light, as well as additional letters from Halliburton and his crew to family and friends, photographs, films, and tape recordings, to paint an intricate portrait of Halliburton’s final expedition from inception to tragic end.


GERRY MAX has taught a number of humanities-related courses at both Lakeland College and the University of Wisconsin. He is the author of Horizon Chasers: The Lives and Adventures of Richard Halliburton and Paul Mooney.