An Unexpected Layover During the War
“Pan Am R&R flights were always exciting and interesting. I used to bid to work the R & R flights, which were MAC charters on Pan Am 707s. R&R flights had an all economy configuration. It was always heartwarming to pick up the soldiers and take them out of Vietnam. However, towards the end, it seemed like the soldiers returning to war were getting younger and younger and so many seemed to be affected by substance abuse problems. Sometimes the MPs had to remove a soldier from a flight, not because he was unruly, but because he was simply dysfunctional. There was one young man who was so stoned they had to carry him off after we landed; he couldn’t even walk. Apparently he had sneaked some drugs on board, which was unusual, because they were very thorough about checking for drugs. Alcohol was never served on any of the flights because it was not permitted. Even though we provided a moment of brightness in their lives, it became very depressing on the trips back to Vietnam.
A happier more colorful memory I have is of a soldier I nicknamed “Klinger”, who was returning from an R & R in Australia. I will never forget him. There he was, returning to a Marine base in DaNang wearing a pink suit, white ruffled blouse and earrings with little bells! We all just said “he must be trying for a Section 8 discharge”. He was the most colorful character I remember.
R & R flights were long flights, typically seven to 14 days. There were two seats in the passenger cabin we used for take off and landing, and only two jumpseats. We would trade-off sitting there just to get a little rest. If we were going to work a MAC charter we usually worked a commercial flight to Honolulu or Tokyo, and then our pattern would become military charter flights. You could fly from Honolulu to Guam, Saigon, DaNang, or Cameron Bay. It depended on several things, for example, if you were just taking an R& R flight to Sydney there would be crew change in Darwin, and you would go into Vietnam then back to Darwin and Sydney. The flight to Sydney would be a commercial flight.
There were no special briefings about flying into Vietnam. The company glossed over those facts, but we were intelligent enough to know they were fighting a war and we were in a war zone. Two or three flight attendants were conscientious objectors, but most of us bid the flights because we had no problem working them.
My most vivid memory is the flight we had going into Saigon from Japan with a plane fully loaded with returning soldiers. On approach into Saigon one of our engines was shot out by enemy fire. We landed safely, around 7 a.m., but we could not take off with three engines – it was not legal. We ended up staying in Saigon for almost two and a half days, because it took them that long to ferry in another engine from Hong Kong on a commercial flight. There were six of us working as cabin crew, one fellow and five women. The cockpit crew was composed of five, because you had extra crew then and of course a navigator.
Aside from the engine issue, there were two other unique things about that trip. After we landed the plane, it had to be moved so they could work on it, replace the engine and not have it be in the way. We spent the day in Saigon. As Pan Am flight attendants we were quite a hit because the local population was not used to seeing civilian girls walking in Saigon. People would literally stop and stare. Finally, they secured two rooms for us at the Caravelle Hotel – all the men in one room and the women in another. But by the time we got the rooms, all the restaurants were closed so they sent us up to the roof top bar, in the hopes we could get something to eat there. That was also closed for the night. Then the hotel was kind enough to bring out some sandwiches, but we saw bugs in them, so needless to say we went to bed hungry! The next morning when we went back to the airport, we were told the plane wasn’t ready yet. We decided to spend the day in downtown Saigon and our first stop was an infirmary field hospital so we could visit the injured soldiers and cheer them up. That evening the crew was picked up and taken back to the airport. That was most unusual, because Pan Am only went in and out of Saigon during daylight hours because we needed a visual. This turned out to be the one exception to operating only in daylight. The captain made it clear he didn’t care at what time the plane was ready; when it was ready, we were leaving. They had worked on putting the new engine on all day. It was very complicated. Finally, when we took off at midnight, our captain said “we are getting the heck out of here”. We took R & R passengers but the poor soldiers lost a day of R & R because the military wouldn’t roll the passenger list.
The second unique fact was the flight engineer had planned the trip so he would return to San Francisco just before he turned 60 years old. Well, because of our delay, he turned 60 before our return home so he had to be replaced en route!
A good number of soldiers who came to Honolulu were coming to meet their loved ones, families and/or wives. Typically the ones going to Australia had no ties at all, they were there to have a good time. They were usually so hung over when we took them back we had no problems. I remember one flight returning back to the states where this young man was so upset because he said he had no money. Well we were all broke, the crew was poorly paid, and we felt terrible for him until this other soldier came up and said to us “do not think about giving him any money, he lost his money by drinking and going to houses of ill repute. There are services at the base when we return that can help him. ”
One other experience on that same layover in Saigon still stands out in my mind. I “met” General Westmoreland only not in a way either of us intended. Saigon airport was primitive to say the least, the only restroom was a fly invested hole in the ground. I could not , I just could not make myself use it. Another flight came in and I was most anxious to use the bathroom on that airplane. I was so anxious that I stood at the bottom of the steps waiting. When almost everyone was off and the stream of passengers disembarking had thinned, without a thought I just bounded up the stairs. When I came back down a few moments later the crew said “Well Betty, do you know what you just did? You just almost knocked General Westmoreland on his butt when you ran past him. Real cool move Betty”. The General had come to meet another dignitary. My sole focus was to get to the bathroom, everyone has their priorities!
It was actually on that flight that I met Meme Magee who would turn out to be one of my best friends. We had left for this trip on Christmas Eve from San Francisco, it was my first year flying, around 1966. Meme and I met because someone was sick and so scheduling turned her back and she was out for 14 days. We became best friends. She only flew for two years but she is still one of my best friends 49 years later.
Pan Am filled my life with experience and unforgettable memories.”