Clipper Crew Remembers the Last Days of Saigon

Wings of FreedomTen years ago the Pan Am Historical Foundation teamed together with World Wings International to present a wonderful three-day event called Wings of Freedom, hosted in Virginia and marking the 30th anniversary of The Last Flight Out when Clipper Unity left Saigon with 463 passengers.  One of the stated goals of the forum was “to  provide a forum for the Vietnamese and American community alike to tell their unique stories of struggle, challenge and.success, as they became part of the American mosaic. The Vietnamese story is a heroic and stoic one.”

In honor of the 40th anniversary of The Last Flight Out, Clipper Crew is adding The Last Days of Saigon as a permanent part of its website and historical archive.   Our goal is to preserve the unique “view from the jumpseat”.

The Last Days of Saigon has three major components Operation Babylift, The Last Flight Out and R & R Flights.

Forty years ago April 3rd commemorates the day President Gerald Ford authorized Operation Babylift, which began operating April 4th 1975.   The Agency for International Development  wrote “Operation Babylift was initiated on April 2nd in response to the emergency situation resulting from the Communist military offensive in South Vietnam.  Prospective, adopting U.S. parents were concerned that Vietnamese orphans already selected for adoption, who might be endangered by active hostilities, would not be able to leave Vietnam expeditiously if normal, lengthy, Vietnamese exit procedures and U.S. immigration procedures were followed.  The voluntary agencies were having difficulty in arranging private flights.  Adopting parents and a number of private agencies asked the U.S. Government to assist in expediting the movement to the United States of orphans already approved for adoption to the United States. “

Tragedy however, marred the beginning of Operation Babylift when the first U.S. C-5A Galaxy flight crashed in a rice paddy after an explosion tore off the rear door.   Sabotage was suspected, but the accident was later found to be caused by faulty bolts.  Of 288 orphans on board 78 were killed.  As a result of the crash, a Pan Am flight was chartered.  This flight, which arrived in San Franciso with 324 children on-board, was met by President and Mrs. Gerald Ford.

Pres Ford Operation Baby Lift (Enlarged)
White House photograph A3860-26A President Gerald Ford greeting the first Operation Babylift Flight. Photograph courtesy of the Ford Museum Digital Library. Photograph by David Hume Kennerly.

On the same day, Holt International Children’s Services also chartered a Pan Am flight which arrived in Seattle with 376 children.  In honor of Operation Babylift and Pan Am’s participation, Clipper Crew has devoted five pages to commemorate the event.  We wish to thank Rebecca Sprecher for allowing us to reprint and share “Remembering April” originally presented at the 30th Anniversary celebration.   Joyce Wertz Harrington, a nurse assigned to the first flight after the C5-A crash, has graciously allowed us to reprint her story and given us permission to use the personal photos she took on these flights.  She has also added her personal postscript.  Ann Votruba mailed her remembrances at great personal effort.  Knowing this, and how precious time was to her, made this one of the saddest tasks we’ve done to date.  We salute her memory with love.   Teresa Webber’s story will melt your heart and Jill Savino Nieglos adds a personal memory from Vietnam.  B.A. Walters even added a personal memory from an even earlier babylift!  And Clipper Crew has just received Karen Ryan’s story A Planeload of Babies!

Telegram from President Gerald Ford
Telegram from President Gerald Ford. Photograph courtesy of Pamela Taylor.

In the ensuing weeks after the crash of the C-5A, the  Federal Aviation Administration  barred all commercial U.S. flights from flying in and out of Saigon as the North Vietnamese continued their advance on Saigon.    Yet, Pan Am received permission for one final flight.   And thus a Pan American Boeing 747 Clipper Unity, piloted by Captain Bob Berg, lifted off the tarmac on April 24th 1975 as part of a heroic rescue mission, crammed with approximately 463 passengers.  Al Topping, Director Vietnam for Pan Am, had organized a daring rescue mission.  The heroism of Al, his staff, and the all volunteer crew was documented in a movie  “The Last Flight Out” .  We extend our thanks to Al Topping for his 40th Anniversary Remembrance, to Val Lester for her permission to reprint The Last Flight out chapter from her book “Fasten Your Seat Belts – History and Heroism in the Pan Am Cabin” and to Jill Savino Nieglos for sharing an excerpt from her story “Saigon is Falling” and putting us in touch with Robert Ruseckas.   Robert was married then to former Pan American stewardess Dang Than Tu and went to Saigon to rescue his wife’s family members. Unfortunately  nothing went as planned – he was unable to board the last flight out.  It truly is an incredible story. We thank Robert for sharing such a personal story.

Movie Debut
Pamela Borgfeldt Taylor, Tra Duong Iwafuchi and Captain Bob Berg point to pictures of actors portraying them in the movie “The Last Flight Out”. Photograph courtesy of Pamela Borgfeldt Taylor.

Clipper Crew extends a special debt of gratitude to Pamela Borgfeldt Taylor.

She writes:  “In late March I was contacted by Molly McCrea of KPIF/CBS.  Molly asked if she could interview me.  That is when I suggested we gather the other three crew members:  Purser Laura Lee Gillespie, Flight Attendants Tra Duong Iwafuchi, and Susan Matson-Kings. Gudrun Meisner regretfully was unable to attend.   It  fortunate that we could all get together.   This month is the 40th Anniversary of that flight.  We were interviewed for over four hours and over lunch.  At one point Molly, the interviewer/camera woman, started to cry the stories were so sad.  The longer version of our interview will air on April 30th at 7 p.m.  Unfortunately, Captain Berg died last year at age 94.  Captain Berg was an exceptional man, and we the crew admired him.  As often as possible we would get together for lunch at the Cliff House.”

The crew rememinsces
The crew rememinsces

___, Pam Taylor, ____ and

Laura Lee Gillespie, Pam Taylor, Susan Matson-Kings and Tra Duon Iwafuchi

Filming Pamela Taylor's interview
Filming Pamela Taylor’s interview

The Rest & Recreation (R & R) flights meant so much to the military serving in Vietnam.  These flights, chartered by the Military Air Command (MAC) gave soldiers an all too brief respite from the horrors of war.  Pan Am R & R flights brought troops to Vietnam but also transported them to Sydney, Australia; Honolulu, Hawaii  and Bangkok, Thailand.  It was always a pleasure to take troops out, but the returns were all too often heart wrenching.   Clipper Crew’s Dr. Helen Davey graciously gave us permission to reprint “Welcome to Vietnam”Jill Savino Nieglos sent us emotional vignettes from her many R & R flights, along with her personal photos and Betty Borders McAndrews has quite the story of an unexpected war zone layover and a “meeting” with General Westmoreland.

To access our articles click below or use our handy drop down menu on the upper left side of our page.

Operation Babylift

Remembering April

A Nurse’s Perspective on Operation Babylift

A Pan Am Stewardess Volunteers to be an Operation Babylift Escort

Operation Babylift – A Personal Remembrance

A Memory From Vietnam

A Planeload of Babies

The Last Flight Out

The Last Flight Out

My Story of the Last Flight Out of Saigon

Saigon is Falling

After the Last Flight Out

 R & R Flights

Welcome to Vietnam

Vignettes from R & R Flights

An Unexpected Layover

Do have a story to tell?   It’s not too late! 

You can send it to clippercrew@outlook.com or add a comment to any one of the pages.

If you have stories, photographs or information you would like added to our archive, or corrections, please contact us at clippercrew@outlook.com.

2 thoughts on “

Clipper Crew Remembers the Last Days of Saigon

  1. I just spent about 2 hours reading all the stories on this awesome website. I’ve always been proud of Pan Am’s influence in the world, but these stories reinforced that feeling ten times over. The stories made me laugh one minute and cry the next. What an honor to have been part of such an amazing company of people. Thanks to all of you at Clipper Crew for taking the time to put all this together for us and maintain the website. You are much appreciated.

  2. It was great to read about this part of the ‘leaving’ of Vietnam! My parents had been missionaries in VietNam for 20 years when the country fell to communism in April of 1975!! My dad was one of the last of the C&MA missionaries to leave Saigon, as he and another man wanted to minister to the Christians they were leaving behind!! In some of my younger years I would go over to the orphanage and hold and plan with the Amerasian orphans… some who were in the process of being adopted. What hard days at the end!!

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