The following is an excerpt from Jill Savino’s Nieglos story “Saigon is Falling” and what happened to Pan American stewardess Tu’s family, and how her husband Bob saved them. Following the excerpt is a link to Robert Ruseckas’ gripping account of his time in Saigon, updated by all his family members in 2007. Though Pan Am was a large company the Pan Am family was close-knit. Tra, another Pan Am stewardess, is featured in this story as well! It is an incredible story of courage and ingenuity when Robert realized he could not in good conscience board the last flight out. Through his actions thirty three lives were saved. Our sincere thanks to Jill Savino Nieglos for putting us in touch with Robert and especially to him for sharing such a personal story and to DANG Thong “Nhat”for sharing personal photos.
“Saigon is falling. Pan Am is involved.”
“It was April 1975 and I was working out of Honolulu. On the 22nd I flew to Tokyo with Tu, a Vietnamese friend of mine. She was one of only two Vietnamese stewardesses Pan Am had hired. We arrived at our hotel in Tokyo about 4 p.m, the afternoon of the 23rd of April. While checking in, Tu was given a telex from her husband, Bob, which read, “Saigon is falling. Come back to Honolulu immediately. Must leave for Vietnam right away to try to save your family.” I knew Bob well; he and I were the only non-Asian students in our Japanese class at the University of Hawaii. Tu immediately called PanOps (Pan American Operations) and they secured a seat for her on the next flight back to Honolulu. Waiting for the crew bus to take her to the airport, we discussed her options. When the crew bus arrived we said our good-byes and I watched her board, with no idea when I would see her again. When Tu landed in Honolulu, it was the 23rd again because of the date line. Tu and Bob decided together that Bob would go to Vietnam alone to rescue her family as it would be safer for Tu to remain in Honolulu to coordinate everything by phone as necessary. They had precious little time to gather money to buy tickets for her family and get ready to leave for Vietnam that night, for who knew how long. Not knowing how much money they needed for tickets, they withdrew their life savings from the Pan Am credit union . They hoped it would be enough to cover the cost of the tickets to get her family out of Vietnam on Pan Am, the only commercial airline still flying there.
On evening of the 23rd, after a hectic day of preparation, Bob boarded Flight 841 to Saigon by way of Guam, carrying all the money they had in the world. That flight turned out to be the last commercial flight leaving for Vietnam.
While Tu was in Tokyo, Bob had negotiated a deal with Al Topping, Pan Am’s Director, Vietnam to reserve six seats on a return flight – five for Tu’s family and one for himself. He had to get the whole family out, as they all had ties with America. Her sister Khanh worked for USAid, and her sister Trinh worked at the US Base Exchange at Tan Son Nhut. There also was a brother, Nhat, sister Ngoc Tu and her mom. The father, who had been the Postmaster General of south Vietnam, had died not long before.
Bob planned to get into Saigon, get the family, and leave on the turnaround of the current flight. This would give him a few hours to get the five family members through immigration and onto the Pan Am plane. Nothing, however, went as planned.”
To read Robert Ruseckas gripping account click After The Last Flight Out.