by Robert Ruseckas
“At the end of March, 1975, as the north Vietnamese Army marched southwards and liberated territory away from the defending south Vietnamese Army, there were vivid images in news broadcasts of the south Vietnamese Army collapse and the tide of refugees fleeing combat. Unforgettable to viewers was World Airways President Ed Daly on a Boeing 727 jetliner rolling down the runway at DaNang trying to take off and being chased by South Vietnamese troops in military vehicles trying to board the still un-retracted boarding ladder at the rear of the 727. Daly, who was armed with a handgun, was fending off the chasing troops. By April the TV news in Hawaii showed such notable newscasters as Garrick Utley being interviewed, as he transited Honolulu on his own exodus from Vietnam, and saying that if any American intended to head back to Vietnam in light of the American pullout they’d better say they were British or face being shot.
I decided I should go back to Saigon and get out five unmarried core members of my wife’s family: her recently widowed mother, two older unmarried sisters, a younger unmarried sister and a younger unmarried brother. I made plans and coordinated them through Pan American’s Honolulu office and their Director Saigon, Al Topping. Pan Am agreed to reserve and sell five seats for the five single family members. In order to pay for these seats, I had to withdraw virtually all cash savings, some $3,500.00 at that time, to cover the quoted airline seats. The money I received was 35 numerically sequential $100 bills, apparently unused as the printer’s ink was fresh. Every time I put my hand in my pocket, it came out blackened by ink. By way of contrast, I was going to the University of Hawaii on the GI Bill which was $333.00 a school year month at that time.
My flight turned out to be the last Pan Am flight into Saigon. I was pleasantly surprised to find the only other Vietnamese stewardess flying for Pan Am, “Tra” was also on the flight. Tra was a senior class mate to Tu and based in San Francisco. She was expecting her mother and a sister to be awaiting the flight, board in Saigon and then she would escort them out of Vietnam to the U.S.
The flight itinerary was Honolulu to Guam, then on to Manila in the Philippines and finally to Saigon, Vietnam. On the flight were many other concerned people also hoping to get their families or loved ones out of Vietnam. Many were former U.S. forces combat veterans. Most were unshaven and showed the stress of the effort to get in on what was likely to be a last chance opportunity flight. “Desperate” would not be an incorrect term to describe the mood and determination of these passengers on a mission.
When the flight took off from Guam, with a landing scheduled at Manila in the Philippines just a short time later, the Captain made an announcement saying the flight was being taken over by the U.S. Government and was now to be considered a Defense Department flight from Manila to Saigon. Civilians were not going to be allowed on the flight into Vietnam. There was an immediate uproar throughout the crowded flight. Upset, unshaven, desperate former combat veterans left their seats and congregated in the aisles and galleys to discuss what to do. If there was ever a condition where it seemed an aircraft’s crew could be overpowered and the flight hijacked this looked like a likely scenario.
I immediately went to the first class galley and consulted with Tra. She and another stewardess understood the threat and were visibly trembling. In an out-of-body type of presence, I put a consoling arm around the two upset stewardesses and tried to think of what to do. I told them the cockpit crew should be advised that the following announcements and steps should be implemented: 1. Suspend all liquor sales; 2. Have the Captain announce that all passengers be seated and their seat belts securely fastened, and; 3. Draw the curtains between all cabin sections. This was intended to disrupt any attempted hijacking attempts and break up all groups of unhappy passengers. (Remember, this was in the age of hijackings and before “modern” anti-hijacking methods were in effect). The suggestions were immediately implemented.
The last suggestion I made was that the Captain should radio ahead so that officials taking over the Defense Department commandeered flight could meet with passengers upon landing in Manila to discuss options. When this was agreed to, the Captain announced it and passengers settled down a bit more.
At the airport in Manila, I was one of those concerned passengers meeting with military and U.S. Government officials. I reduced it to the simplest notion: Could the most concerned passengers continue on to Saigon on this flight if they signed some kind of waiver holding both Pan Am and the US Department of Defense harmless if something untoward should happen? Commanders and officials alike had a puzzled look on their faces, consulted briefly and said they’d get back to the group. In a while they came back with a hold harmless form and most of the original passengers were allowed on to Saigon after signing the papers.
The flight landed at Tan Son Nhut airport in Saigon as scheduled. The aircraft was parked some kilometers away from the passenger terminal due to recent heavy mortar and rocket fire directed at the terminal and aircraft parked there. Passengers were to be disembarked and embarked by shuttle bus.
I only had an overnight bag as luggage as I had simply expected to fly from Honolulu to Saigon, pay for the reserved seats, help board five family members and fly right back to Honolulu on the turnaround flight. Because I was active in settling down the unruly passengers, helping civilians to continue on to Saigon, had befriended Tra, and was also part of the “Pan Am family”, I was introduced to the Captain and cockpit crew. They allowed me to leave my overnight bag between and just behind their seats in the cockpit while I took the shuttle bus to the terminal to greet and escort my five family members back to the aircraft.
That’s when “the plan” started to unravel. When I exited the Customs and Immigration area I found only “Trinh” not the five core family members. “Trinh” explained she had gotten a call from sister “Khanh” saying I was on the Pan Am flight. Khanh worked for the US Agency for International Development (USAID) and had been contacted by her sister Tu in Honolulu. Trinh worked for the US Army and Air Force Exchange Service (AAFES) at the Tan Son Nhut airport BX (Base Exchange) and was physically closest to greet the incoming flight. Because Trinh had also traveled with me and my wife in Vietnam she was a familiar and dependable contact to me. I accompanied Trinh on her Honda 50 motorbike from the airport back to their family home in Saigon.
Sister Khanh believed her employer, USAID, would take care of her evacuation and did not show up for the Pan Am flight with her mother, sisters and brother.
In the meantime, mother and younger sister Ngoc Tu had gone to the Pan Am office in downtown Saigon and took the shuttle bus with Pan Am employees to the airport. This was the original plan – but I had wanted all five members together for the departing flight.
Trinh and I arrived at the family home to pick up her luggage and immediately return to the airport for the departing Pan Am flight. I was reminded some 33 years later that I had expressed a desire to get a “33 Beer” on the way to the airport but because Trinh was afraid of missing the flight she discouraged the beer stop.
Once at the Tan Son Nhut airport Trinh bumped into a customer and friend of hers from the BX and he asked what she was doing there. The friend was named Jim Eckes. Eckes was rather a legend in aviation in the Southeast Asia theatre. For many years, he was the Managing Director of Indoswiss Aviation based in Hong Kong and an authority on aviation matters frequently quoted, or interviewed, and seen on television and in print media. Eckes facilitated Trinh’s check in for the departing Pan Am flight.
About that time younger brother “Nhat” showed up. He’d bribed security forces to gain access to the airport (which is also a combined military complex). Eckes conferred with me and Trinh and helped Nhat proceed towards the flight. Unfortunately, Nhat was spotted by a couple of military security troops. Because they recognized him as being Army age he was not allowed to leave the country in a time of war. They pulled him aside and were discussing how much to ransom to demand. They didn’t realize I had a command of the Vietnamese language and, when they got to a sum of U.S. $2,000.00 I looked around the room. I saw a door and asked an airport employee to where it opened and was told it led back into the Immigration checkpoint area. As the military duo continued their animated discussion on how much to ask for in bribes, I led brother-in-law Nhat out of the departure area, through the secret door, back in to the Immigration checkpoint area. When officials yelled out “What are you doing?” I simply snapped back in good north Vietnamese “No worries, he’s with me!” and nobody challenged me after that. So though I had rescued my younger brother-in-law, I was now faced with the dilemma of what to do with him.
Tan Son Nhut airport in Saigon was both a civilian and military airport facility. I knew that once you were through the main checkpoints it was easy to get to the military side. There was a combined U.S. and south Vietnamese military base contingent there. The U.S. Military section might have been called the “DAO” (for Defense Attache Office). So I took my draft-aged brother in law to the U.S. military base/DAO, gained access and asked for him to be held there for evacuation and I would return later.
I returned to the terminal, talked my way past Immigration for the fourth time in a little more than an hour (off the Pan Am flight into Saigon, back on to board the flight, back through to take Nhat out, and back in to board). Remember, the original plan was to quickly turn around and board five family members and take them out of Saigon. Well, Nhat was arrested and held until secreted out by me and hidden on a U.S. military facility. What’s next? I soon found out that my sister-in-law Trinh for some inexplicable reason, (probably because she was not on the bus and processed with the rest of the “Pan Am family”) was not being allowed to board the Pan Am flight even thought she had a reservation and had passed through Immigration. The odds were going from five of five, to four of five, to three of five and now two of five. Not good.
I took stock of the situation and knew that reality is really what you make of it. As Pan Am flight crew members took groups of passengers to the aircraft shuttle buses, I boarded one. Back at the plane I spoke with Tra. What I needed was a Pan Am stewardess uniform for my sister in law Trinh who was being denied boarding. If we could just get her to change into the uniform and blend in with boarding passengers I felt certain she would get her on board. All agreed and this was done (later this was incorporated into the made for TV movie about this flight “Last Flight Out” starring James Earl Jones and Richard Crenna). Trinh recalls how the uniform was too large, ill fitting and that she wore big sunglasses as she sandwiched herself between the other escorting stewardesses ushering the passenger on to the shuttle bus to the aircraft. Happily she was reunited with her mother and sister Ngoc Tu on the aircraft.
I went into the cockpit, retrieved my overnight bag and explained to the Captain and crew that things had become complicated and I would not be able to leave on the last flight out. I simply had to go back and rescue my younger brother in law secreted on the US Military base. The cockpit crew saluted me, shook my hand and wished me good luck.
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