Last Flight From Saigon

by Val Lester

Reprinted from

Fasten Your Seat Belts!

History and Heroism in the Pan Am Cabin (1995)

And there to my astonishment I found

New refugees in a great crowd: men and women

Gathered for exile, young—pitiful people

Coming from every quarter, minds made up.

Virgil, Aeneid, II. 796-799

The Vietnam War officially ended for the United States on 3 February 1973, and the last U.S. troops left in June of that year. However, the war was not over for the Vietnamese people, nor did business with the U.S. come to a grinding halt; Pan Am, I.B.M., and many other corporations remained in Saigon.

The situation for the South Vietnamese people started seriously unraveling in February 1975, when the U.S. Government cut back on aid. The Army cried out desperately that it could not contain the advancing North Vietnamese forces without U.S. help, but Congress refused to budge. Immediately, the South Vietnamese troops, demoralized and unpaid, started giving up territory that had already been secured, insisting they could not hold it. As they pulled back, the North Vietnamese poured into the South like water through a hole in a dyke. But they, too, had been caught off guard. They were in disarray because they were rapidly achieving goals that they had not imagined they could achieve for another five years. Saigon was the plum that was just within their grasp.

This is the point at which Pan Am’s station manager in Saigon, Al Topping, recognized that the end was near. His problem was to figure out when exactly it was going to happen. “You don’t want to be the last one out,” he says, “but you don’t want to leave too early. Flying Tigers shut down its operation a month earlier than we did. Citibank left six weeks earlier, I.B.M. and Esso left about two months earlier. And New York kept asking me ‘When do you plan to leave?’ And I said ‘I don’t know yet.’ And they said ‘We think you ought to leave now.’”

Al felt he had a little time left and wanted to hang on because so many people were still desperate to get out. He argued: “We’re operating a 747 with a lot of seats on it and people are still buying tickets, so let’s keep flying.” “Until when?” asked New York. “I don’t know. Just trust me,” he replied.

One night early in March, Al found himself pacing the floor, still trying to figure out when Saigon would collapse. He glanced at the calendar hanging on the wall, and the date of 1 May leaped out at him. “It suddenly dawned on me that I May would be the day, May Day, the communist equivalent of the Fourth of July. Then I looked at our schedule and saw that Thursday, 24 April, was just seven days before that, which would give us a cushion of one week.”

Al continues: “I sent coded telex messages about the date back to New York. What was really hard for me was keeping it a secret from our employees, who would all be leaving on the last flight, except for those we had already managed to sneak out. The most dramatic unauthorized departure was that of my secretary’s three-month-old baby. My secretary wanted to leave with him, but I decided that would not be good for morale. We gave the baby to a volunteer who went out on a scheduled flight, then my secretary called her husband in Boston and told him to fly to L. A. right away so that he would be there when the baby arrived. It worked out, and she herself did leave on the last flight.”

But Al’s biggest worry was whether the company would be able to find a crew that was willing to come into Saigon’s Tan Son Nhut Airport. “I was putting myself in the shoes of a flight attendant or a pilot back in the States, reading about what was happening in Saigon, and asking myself ‘Would I want to fly there?’ No way! When that airplane came in on 24 April, it was like AHHH! That was the most beautiful sight that I have ever seen—that blue ball descending from the sky. That’s the proudest looking bird you ever want to see.”

Pamela Borgfeldt (Taylor) was born in Hollywood, California. She passed her first screen test at the age of five and was selected for Shirley Temple’s part in a remake of Little Miss Marker. However, this was not to be the beginning of a film career; her childhood was spent moving from place to place with her military family. She grew to love travelling and determined that when she grew up, her career would involve travel. Cornered by a Pan Am recruiter at the Miss Universe pageant in Miami in 1964, where she was representing the state of Alabama, she jumped at the opportunity to become a flight attendant.

Pamela’s beauty was matched by her courage, and she never refused assignments into dangerous places at dangerous times, places such as Beirut, Tehran and, during the Biafran War, Lagos. In addition, much of her career was spent flying troops into and out of Vietnam on Rest and Rehabilitation (R & R) missions. (Flight attendants who worked on R & R flights were given 2nd Lieutenant status, which meant that under Geneva Convention rules they should be treated as officers in the event of capture. During the Vietnam War, Pacific-based cabin crew flew thousands of R & R flights, and many of the flight attendants made a point of visiting the injured during their stays in South Vietnam. A hospital visit from a Pan Am stewardess could do wonders for an injured soldier’s morale.)

Pamela’s greatest challenge came when she volunteered to be one of two pursers on the crew of Pan Am’s last scheduled flight out of Vietnam on 24 April 1975. She was at her home in Berkeley when the call came. She felt a chill of excitement run up her spine but no hesitation at all about flying to Saigon to evacuate the Pan Am employees. Her scheduling supervisor was unable to give her any idea how long she would be away or what demands would be made of her, but experience warned her that there would be long periods of waiting. An enthusiastic tennis player, she packed her racquet before she flew off.

Pamela was the first of the volunteers to arrive in Guam, which was the staging point for the evacuation and also one of the stops on Pan Am’s regular Pacific schedule. She occupied her time during the ten days of waiting for the other crewmembers by playing tennis, working off the frustration of having to sit around in a state of anxious anticipation.

One by one, the other cabin crew members showed up. They comprised Pan Am’s usual individualistic assortment, some U.S.-born, some foreign, various ages: Laura Lee Gillespie as senior purser; Tra Duong, Gudrun Meisner, Susan Matson, Valerie Chaulk, Sissel Donnelly, Jean Stewart Kelly, and Sally Pearl as flight attendants; and Pamela herself as junior purser. The one thing they had in common was that they had volunteered to evacuate their fellow employees when Pan Am ceased operations in Saigon. They had no idea who their cockpit crew would be, and Pamela says that they just hoped for an easy-going captain, one who did not think he was God Almighty. They agreed that flexibility in their cockpit crew would be a paramount requirement, in the form of willingness to bend rules for humanitarian reasons.

Throughout the Vietnam War, in addition to military charters, Pan Am had maintained regularly scheduled flights in and out of Saigon’s Tan Son Nhut Airport on Tuesdays and Thursdays, except for times such as the 1968 Tet Offensive when the airport was closed because of nearby combat. The newly assembled cabin crew finally learned that they would be going into Saigon on Tuesday, 22 April, but it was unclear to them at that time as to whether or not that would be the evacuation flight itself. On 21 April, they discovered that Captain Chuck Kimes would be in charge of the aircraft—and decided that he was just the kind of captain they had hoped for.

Boeing 747 Flight 841 to Saigon via Manila left Guam early in the morning of 22 April, but it was not destined to be the last flight. As soon as this was made clear to them, the cabin crew decided to use it as a reconnaissance mission to learn everything they could about evacuating as many people as possible on the last flight.

Going into Saigon that day, there was a mere 19 passengers on board the Boeing 747, whose full load was usually 350. Even so, Pamela was at a loss to understand why anyone at all would want to go to Saigon when everyone there wanted to leave. She questioned the passengers about their motives and listened to their desperate stories. Several of them were American servicemen going to try to find their Vietnamese sweethearts. A colonel in the Army of the Republic of Viet Nam (ARVN) was returning to Vietnam to try and evacuate his young son. He had a wife and four daughters as well, but was resigned to the fact that they would all die; the son was the designated survivor. This was Pamela’s first chance to contribute actively to an escape, and she and the colonel started making plans.

Tra Duong, the Vietnamese-American flight attendant, had volunteered to be on the last flight for urgent reasons of her own. When Pamela told her about her plan to help the colonel, Tra immediately grasped the opportunity. She approached the colonel and offered to help him with his son if he would assist her in getting her five sisters to the airport. A deal was struck. The next time they flew in, Tra would escort his son past the emigration desk; in return, the colonel would spirit her sisters through the heavily guarded airport entry and into the cargo hangar, where she could pick them up.

On 22 April, the North Vietnamese army was only nine miles from the airport. To avoid anti-aircraft fire along the flight path down to Tan Son Nhut, the 747 flew high until it approached the airport and then descended in a tight spiral. As they landed, Pamela watched South Vietnamese fighter planes taking off, heavily loaded with bombs and rockets, and she could hear crumps and booms as the bombs exploded close by. The 747 made its way to its regular place in front of the terminal, and the flight attendants disembarked.

Pamela was horrified by the utter chaos. Hundreds of South Vietnamese soldiers were everywhere, toting machine guns, and far more than the usual number of laborers were at work on Tan Son Nhut’s interminable construction projects. Pamela recalls: “There was always construction of some sort at the airport in Saigon. But how incongruous: at a time when everyone was clamoring to get out, here were the laborers picking up stones and digging ditches. I wondered if they were North Vietnamese, watching our movements. There was always that fear in Vietnam. Who was who?”

But worst of all were the huge crowds that had gathered behind the chain link fence surrounding the terminal, women weeping and screaming, reaching their arms out, begging the flight attendants to take their children. Pamela was overwhelmed by the sheer numbers of frantic people, by the massive military presence, and by a feeling of despair. But Tra was filled with purpose. She went straight to Pan Am Operations to make contact with a friend who could take a message on foot to her sisters, alerting them that the colonel would collect and deliver them to the airport in time for Thursday’s flight.

Suddenly Pamela was shaken out of her despair by the sight of Valerie Chaulk, waving at her from deep in a crowd in a corner of the terminal. A Vietnamese woman was clinging to her, weeping, pleading with her to take her little girl. “Take her, take her,” she begged Valerie, shoving the child at her again and again. Pamela and Gudrun converged on the scene and, with Valerie, gathered around the woman as she bade her grief-stricken farewell; then they parted to allow her to vanish into the crowd. They formed a block around the four-year-old, concealing her with their skirts, their legs, their handbags, and marched past the single emigration desk for the flight to Manila. The desk was taller than the child and the official behind it did not see her as they swept quickly by. As soon as they were safely on board, Valerie folded the little girl in her arms and hid with her in one of the restrooms.

When Pamela returned to the terminal, she was approached by a Vietnamese woman who, with her American husband and their children had witnessed the little girl’s escape. They were all about to depart, except for the 14-year-old son, who did not have an exit visa. (These exit “visas” could cost as much as $20,000 per person.) They had brought him to the airport on the off chance that somebody could help. He was an unattractive child, and Pamela felt as though she were being offered some kind of mongrel that no one wanted, the family reject. Tears well up in her eyes and her gentle voice breaks as she recounts: “The boy was in shock from the time I met him. He was numb and expressionless because his family was abandoning him at the airport. As an Amerasian—a very tall, heavy, and ugly one—he had little hope, and it showed. He was a boy without a country, an outcast. It was clear that his parents really didn’t care what happened to him, and they didn’t even try to hide their feelings. I took the boy.”

Pamela’s bluff with a boarding pass at the emigration desk failed. The official refused to listen as she insisted that his family was already on board. Undaunted, she turned back into the terminal, walked with the boy out of the building, and circumnavigated several large hangars. They were approaching the 747 when suddenly, “A lone guard appeared as the boy and I rounded a corner. He pushed us back with his gun and grunted in Vietnamese, motioning to us to get back—in other words to return to the area we had just left, the entry where one would file into line for emigration.” That, of course, was the same route that Pamela had already tried.

Inside the building, she spoke firmly to the stricken boy, hoping he would understand. “English? You speak English?” she asked. He nodded. “Thursday,” she insisted, “You be at the airport on Thursday. I will come for you. We will get you on the plane then. Do you understand?” He nodded again, his face blank with sorrow, and she turned away. She felt his stare following her as she made her way past the emigration desk without him.

“After all the passengers had boarded,” Pamela continues, “emigration officials with machine guns came on board the aircraft and checked each passport, visa, and ticket. They banged on all the restroom doors, and Valerie opened hers a crack, so that they could see her Western face, then she slammed it shut again. After the emigration officials departed, the ground agent came up the ramp, carrying two children. It was her job to make a short announcement, leave the aircraft, and close the door from the outside. She got it half-way shut, but then suddenly thrust one of the children into Pamela’s arms, swiftly slipped on board with the other child, and drew the door shut behind her.” She was utterly distraught. The children she had brought on board were her own, but she had not been able to inform her husband and the rest of her family about her precipitous departure.

As soon as the door was secure, Captain Kimes started the engines and made for the runway. Just 91 passengers were aboard Pan Am’s next-to-last flight out of Saigon, a number that Pamela found obscenely small in light of how many people the 747 could carry and all the panic-stricken people who had been left behind.

The flight attendants were required to remain in Manila that night. Valerie, however, flew on to Honolulu, going AWOL because she refused to be separated from the little girl she had rescued. Captain Kimes and the cockpit crew flew to Guam, along with most of the passengers.

Once again, the flight attendants raised the question: who would be flying the aircraft to Saigon on Thursday, the 24th? With the North Vietnamese army so close to the airport, Pan Am’s departure was dramatically critical. As soon as the cabin crew disembarked in Manila, Pamela hurried to check the cockpit crew list for Thursday. She discovered that Captain Bob Berg, who had just come in on a regularly scheduled flight, would be in charge. One of the other flight attendants knew him and gave the seal of approval. “Yes, he’s flexible too,” she said. Pamela said later: “ We trusted him immediately. He was just as nice as he was good-looking—warm, friendly, and cooperative. “ There were still no names for the co-pilot and engineer.

What remained a vivid memory to the cabin crew after their reconnaissance mission was the desperation of the women they saw at the airport and their willingness to hand over their children to total strangers in the hope that they might survive. Also evident was that a person wearing a Pan Am uniform could pass the emigration desk without being stopped. The flight attendants made their plans accordingly. As soon as they reached the hotel, they set about collecting as many uniforms as they could from other flight attendants who were in Manila on layovers, acquiring a skirt here, a jacket there, some slacks, a scarf or two, some shoes, adding them to their own extra outfits. They also collected wigs and dark glasses.

Still in Manila on Wednesday, 23 April, they all tried to relax in individual ways. Pamela, of course, reached for her tennis racquet, and when she found Bob Berg on the courts in the late afternoon, she joined him in a game. As they played, they discussed the probability that the next day’s flight might be the last. Suddenly, they were interrupted by a breathless Pan Am employee, who rushed up to warn them that Saigon was falling. Pamela’s stomach gave a sickening lurch of disappointment when she realized that Thursday’s flight might not be able to get into Tan Son Nhut.

Undaunted, Captain Berg and the cabin crew rose before dawn on Thursday, 24 April, and when they arrived at Manila airport, a co-pilot and engineer appeared for the flight, as if by magic. The flight attendants were whisked into the small, windowless back room belonging to Pan Am Operations. Very solemnly, the operations manager informed them that Tan Son Nhut was closed. “We all looked at Tra,” Pamela says, “and there was a chill because it sounded as though we would be unable to go in. We waited anxiously while Ops negotiated with U.S. officials on the telephone, and finally the approval came—from President Ford himself. We were to go in as a military charter, and the operations head stressed again and again ‘On a voluntary basis only.’” He explained that the Clipper would fly to Saigon according to its regular schedule so as to evacuate the Pan Am employees, even though the F.A.A. had announced that Tan Son Nhut was too dangerous for commercial aircraft. As a result of negotiations with the Air Force and the State Department, PAA Flight 841 became an Air Force mercy flight, to be known as Special Air Mission 1965/31 Evacuation Charter MNL/SGN/MNL.

Pamela describes her feelings at that moment: “1 felt a wave of fear and a quickened awareness of responsibility. We all knew what we wanted to accomplish, and at the same time we knew it could be dangerous, involving hazards that we tried not to imagine. As a U.S. passport holder and with Pan Am behind us, however, I felt safe. Pan Am had always taken care of its employees, and the flight attendants knew that this was a mission to save their own people.” Pamela recalls that none of the women expressed any fear or ambivalence. She herself had awakened that morning with a strong intuition that all would be well, and she was confident of the absolute rightness of their mission. It was one of those rare moments in life when a path appears straight and clear.

The operations head explained what a mercy flight involved and showed the crew the astonishing wire he had received from the F.A.A., lifting seat restrictions and certain emergency procedures. It was astonishing because it displayed such a lack of bureaucratic rigidity and broke rules in the greater interest of humanity.

REFERENCE MT 231330 HEREWITH APPROVED PROCEDURES FOR PASSENGER CARRIAGE ON EVACUATION MISSIONS NOTE ALL NORMAL FAA/FAR PASSENGER CARRIAGE REQUIREMENTS ARE WAIVED

ONE/FICL SEATS 2 PASSENGERS PER DOUBLE SEAT 1 PASSENGER ON FLOOR BETWEEN EACH ROW /BACK TO WALL FEET TO AISLE/REMAINING PASSENGERS ON FLOOR WHERE SPACE AVAILABLE STOP

TWO/ECONOMY AREA 10 ABREAST CONFIGURATION INCREASE EY PAX BY 10 PER CENT 3 PAX PER TRIPLE SEAT 3 PAX PER DOUBLE SEAT/RETRACT ARM RESTS 5 PAX ABREAST IN CENTER SECTION OF SEATS/RETRACT ARM RESTS

THREE/LOAD 28 PAX IN UPPER LOUNGE CMA AFTER ALL SEATS OCCUPIED REMAINDER OF PAX ON FLOOR

FOUR/MAXIMUM NUMBER OF PASSENGERS BASED ON ABOVE PROCEDURES AND USING CONFIG 30/370 IS TOTAL 495 PASSENGERS STOP

FIVE/BASIC LIMITATIONS OBSERVE NORMAL WEIGHT AND BALANCE LIMITS SEAT BELT REQUIREMENTS ARE WAIVED EMERGENCY REQUIREMENTS ARE WAIVED EMERGENCY EQUIP­MENT REQUIREMENTS ARE WAIVED DO NOT ADD LIFE VESTS/LIFT RAFTS/OXYGEN FOR ADDITIONAL PAX NO LIMITATIONS FOR INFANTS IN ARMS OR SMALL CHILDREN IN LAPS

SIX/ALL ABOVE WITH CONCURRENCE OF CREW AND EVACUEES STOP

Meanwhile, in Saigon, eleventh-hour preparations were under way because even Pan Am’s Vietnamese employees were not allowed to depart without exit visas which, even with costly payoffs, could take as long as two or three years to acquire. Al Topping explains: “The U.S. government put a lot of pressure on the South Vietnamese government to come up with some alternative options on how to get people out, rapid fire. One of the ways was for Americans to sponsor the Vietnamese. The way I got all of our people out was by officially and legally adopting them all. My staff worked on a huge pile of forms and papers and finally got it all together just in time. I signed all these papers—I had no idea what I was signing; it was all in Vietnamese.” But those papers made it official: Al had just become father to an enormous Vietnamese family that had the right to emigrate.

Most of the Pan Am employees and their relatives spent their last night in Vietnam in the back rooms of the downtown Saigon ticket office. Al continues: “Two or three hundred people slept in the back rooms. This was necessary because we had arranged for the buses to pick them up at the ticket office early the next morning. The last two weeks or so, I actually slept at the airport. I didn’t go downtown any more because I wanted to be able to help people at the airport at any time. Saigon itself was boiling and you could very easily get trapped there if panic broke out. It was a scary time, but I didn’t seem to have any real concern about myself because I knew I would get out on something or other, but I was very concerned about our employees; there was no back-up plan for them.”

Pamela remembers little about the two-hour flight from Manila to Saigon on Thursday, 24 April, except that it was empty. The usual bustle of flight service was completely missing and they seemed to be floating through the quiet eye of a hurricane. The aircraft descended in the same tight spiral as it had on Tuesday’s flight, but after it touched down the tower refused permission for it to park in its usual place in front of the terminal. Instead, it was ordered to remain at the end of the runway, starkly visible, totally unprotected, and a long, perilous, and disconcerting hike from the airport terminal and cargo buildings.

The cabin crew and the captain discussed the F.A.A.’s revised passenger limit and agreed that they would simply stuff as many people into the 747 as they could. When Al Topping came on board, he told the captain that they would be carrying a large number of Pan Am employees and their families plus a few regular, ticket-holding passengers but admitted “I don’t know how many people are going on this thing today. What’s the maximum?”, and Bob Berg replied “As many as you want.” Concerning cargo, Al decided that the aircraft would carry the regular passengers’ baggage, but Pan Am employees would leave the country with just their carry-on flight bags, in order to convert cargo weight to passenger weight. (Later, when two C.I.A. agents came up the moveable stairs, carrying three enormous duffel bags, Pamela refused to let the bags into the cabin. “It’s four million, in green, from the Embassy,” the agents argued. “Not in here,” said Pamela, turning them away. They trailed down the stairs and managed to stash the bags in the belly themselves.)

Before the flight attendants set off for the terminal, Bob Berg gave Pamela his solemn word that he would not leave Tan Son Nhut until they were all back on board. The red anti-collision lights flashing on top and bottom of the 747 would be his signal to them to return immediately to the aircraft.

When Pamela opened the cabin door, a member of Pan Am’s ground personnel was right there to whisper in her ear that Tra Duong’s five sisters and her little nephew were hiding in the cargo area. Tra and Gudrun Meisner joined Pamela, and together they scurried to the hangar, carrying the bags filled with Pan Am clothes that they had collected in Manila. At first they could not find Tra’s sisters, and their hearts sank, but the colonel had kept his promise; they were in a small back room, sitting silently on top of a packing crate. The colonel had taken Tra’s sisters to his home on the base the previous night and had then delivered them to the cargo hangar. They had a message for Pamela from the colonel: his family, including his little boy, had already escaped on a Navy boat.

The flight attendants wasted no time. They yanked the clothes out of the bags and told the girls: “Put these on, and when you walk onto that aircraft, hold your heads up proudly. Act as though you know your way around, as if you are a part of Pan Am.” As soon as Tra’s sisters were dressed, they boarded a cargo van with the little boy tucked securely in their midst and rode across the tarmac to the aircraft. Once they were on board, they were handed other children to care for and did, in effect, function as the flight attendants they were dressed up to represent.

Again and again, the cabin crew ran the half-mile in and out of the terminal, bringing passengers out to the aircraft. In Pamela’s words: “People had begun to feel panicky. They couldn’t wait to get onto the aircraft. At that point, South Vietnamese cities were falling every hour, and the soldiers had thrown down their guns and started to flee. Heads were hanging from poles in the country and in the small cities, heads of those who worked for the Americans.” She continues: “We were working so hard getting the passengers on board, running back and forth, back and forth, or hitching rides on three-wheel scooters. We were exhausted, and it was an overwhelmingly sad situation.”

Suddenly a South Vietnamese soldier with a machine gun appeared at the foot of the stairs to the aircraft, and refused to allow anyone else to board. He gathered a crowd there, most of whom were immobilized by the machine gun, but a few people managed to flee up the ramp. Just as suddenly as he appeared, the cabin crew realized what it would take to get the crowd on board. Cash. They started to bribe the guard who immediately smiled, became amenable, and let the first person through. Then the next. Inside the cabin, two of the flight attendants passed pillowcases around the aircraft, collecting Vietnamese piasters (which no longer had any worth for the passengers). As the pillowcases stuffed with money were handed to the guard, his smile became broader, and a steady flow of passengers boarded the aircraft. As more and more people came on board, it became easier and easier to collect the money.

Inside the terminal, Gudrun Meisner took over the Pan Am ticket counter and dealt with passengers so that the ticket agents could hurry out and board the aircraft (she herself would be the last person up the stairs). Meanwhile. Pamela searched the terminal frantically for the boy to whom she had given her promise. She found herself in the same position as a Vietnamese mother, desperate to get her child out, begging strangers for help in finding him. “Everyone in the chaos of the airport was running in different directions. There was no one keeping order, no one to help, and no one who remembered a strange-looking boy from two days past, just another bit of flotsam in the flood. I tried not to feel frantic when I couldn’t find him. I told myself he could have escaped some other way. So many other tragedies were occurring right before my eyes that I didn’t have time to feel sad for him in particular. That came later when I realized that he represented for me, in one Vietnamese child, the sorrows of thousands of hopelessly abandoned family members. But at that moment, there were hundreds of others whom I could help.” Pamela felt the minutes ebbing away, and she glanced out of the terminal windows. The lights were flashing on the 747. It was time to flee.

Once Gudrun had hustled the last passenger on board and the 747’s doors were closed and the engines started, Al Topping bade farewell to the ramp operations manager, Nguyen Van Luc, Pan Am’s last employee in Saigon. He had decided to remain behind because of his nine children and sick mother. Then Al sprang up into the nose wheel well and climbed from up there into the cabin. Nguyen Van Luc, wearing noise suppressors to protect his ears from the piercing whine of the 747’s engines, waved the wands to direct the aircraft from its parking place towards the one runway that remained open; 463 people, of whom 315 were Pan Am employees and their families, were on board.

Captain Berg increased power and taxied to the takeoff area. As they taxied, both the crew and the passengers recognized the sound of artillery fire and were aware of just how vulnerable the 747 was. In fact, an ARVN fighter plane had just been hit by crossfire, and debris was all over the runway, blocking their escape. Al Topping describes the situation, “We were told by the tower to wait, and the wait dragged on for 50 minutes. It was really difficult. You’re on this plane with almost 500 people. You’re sitting there and you’re sweating. I was getting worried that they were going to call us back to the gate because we had people on there that weren’t supposed to be on there.”

Bob Berg was keenly aware how valuable a 747 would be to the North Vietnamese. He knew it was absolutely crucial to take off immediately. With his engines still running, he negotiated calmly and deliberately with the tower, insisting that the wreckage of the fighter plane be bulldozed from the runway. Finally, the tower acquiesced. As soon as the bulldozer had completed its dismal task, Clipper Unity started to roll. On and on it rolled, wallowing along the entire runway before it heaved up, free of the ground. “Vietnam’s terrain in the Saigon area is very flat and the North Vietnamese could have just blown that 747 out of the beautiful blue sky,” Al says. “I’ll tell you, when we took off, I was in the cockpit, and as we finally crossed the coastline of South Vietnam, and I looked down and saw all these American ships out there, that’s when I knew that we had made it out.”

At this point in the Hollywood version of these events, the movie Last Flight Out, the passengers begin to clap and cheer. This is a flagrant misrepresentation. Pamela says that the reality aboard the evacuation charter was utter silence. “It was absolutely quiet and there was an enormous amount of sadness, not joy. Again and again as I walked down the aisle during the journey, hands would stretch out and grab mine in a beautiful squeeze of thanks. My heart was breaking for our employees who were all leaving their homeland. Their country was being overrun, and they were desolated. Remember that for many years the people of South Vietnam had thought that the Americans would defeat the North. This sudden, ignoble fleeing was shocking. Nothing we said could help, but sometimes when something awfully sad happens a hug or a squeeze can do wonders. It was almost reverent on the flight; it was so quiet. We only set to work passing out the few trays we had because that was what always happened after takeoff. No one really cared, no one was hungry—we only did it to give the illusion of normality. There was nothing we could really do for them. It was a death—of a country and its people.”

But almost imperceptibly the atmosphere shifted a fraction and despair began to give way to a glimmer of hope as the aircraft rose above the cloud cover, the sky became an open blue, and sunlight filled the cabin. “Then some of the passengers wanted to help, and started handing out trays too, acting like crew,” Pamela says. “It was so sweet the way they acted. We had helped them and now they wanted to help us. They were like members of our family—the entire family of Pan Am—and we felt close to them without ever having met them before. Such a feeling of kinship, born of a life-or-death situation, is unforgettable and irreplaceable.”

A reunion was held in Washington on 24 April 1990, to celebrate the 15th anniversary of Pan Am’s last mission into Saigon and the premiere of the movie Last Flight Out. Five of the eight flight attendants attended, as did Captain Berg and many, many Saigon ground personnel and their families. The first officer and engineer, who had so mysteriously appeared in time for the flight, and then disappeared again, did not attend, but “they were on hand when we needed them,” Pamela says.

Last Flight Out has been seen on television by millions and is the only way that most people know about these events. Although the film is moving and full of suspense, it is nonetheless a Hollywood production, and it is the nature of a dramatic production to exaggerate and to distort reality. Pamela likes the film, likes the fact that it was made, but is only too aware of the distortions. Instead of a Boeing 747, she points out that the makers of the film used a Lockheed L-1011, a significantly smaller aircraft with far less presence than the 747. “It was the sheer size of the plane and the number of people that we were carrying that made it so significant,” she says. There were other minor distortions, which were included to heighten the drama, but again and again, Pamela insists that the biggest distortion was the clapping and the cheering as the aircraft took off. For her the reality was far more poignant—the absolute silence on Pan Am’s last flight out of Saigon.

Excerpt from a speech given at the reunion by Pan Am employee Lang T. Nguyen:

“Fifteen years have gone. We left Vietnam on Pan Am’s ‘last flight out’ only few days before the country fell into the communists’ hands. The falling of my country is forever lasting in my memory. Sometimes I wish that I can become a bird flying back to my homeland to hug my parents’ graves, to touch the earth where I grew up and to weep openly so that all the pains I have kept deeply in my heart would be relieved.

Thanks to God, after the long years of suffering, we have been successfully settled in the United States. Fortunately, I have been continuing to work for Pan Am, my husband also has a good job, and all my three children have been graduated from universities and have gotten good positions. I am proud of them; at least they are useful to the country that has generously taken them in. Furthermore, most of my fellow employees from Vietnam have also well settled in the United States.”

Text of flight attendant Tra Duong’s speech, which she prepared for the reunion but was not given the opportunity to deliver:

“Tonight’s occasion brings back some vivid memories of my time with Pan Am, in particular, the last Pan Am flight out of Saigon. I remember well the courage and dedication that my friends, many of whom are here tonight, showed in the face of adversity. We were professionals then and still carry that trait with us today. I am glad to see all of my dear friends who volunteered to make that last flight out possible. Without your personal efforts and sacrifice, we could not have saved the lives of the Pan Am Saigon staff and my sisters.

Tonight, however, we are gathered here to see old friends and renew acquaintances from that bygone era. I want to express my deep appreciation and personal thanks to Captain Berg and my flying partners who volunteered to undertake that mission of mercy as we all watched the news reports of the communists marching down South Vietnam towards Saigon. Those were times of chaos, uncertainty, and especially grave personal danger for each of us. In Manila, when word went out for volunteers, there were very few, but we were able to gather enough to fly into that inferno.

I am sure that many of you have wondered what happened to some of the people we took out on that last flight. For myself, I want you to know that all of my sisters are doing well and are all married. I want to thank you again for the opportunity that you gave to each of them to pursue a life of freedom and liberty. Thanks from the bottom of my heart.”

 

One thought on “

Last Flight From Saigon

  1. Thank you for all that you have given to me and the families you have delivered from the depths of despair.
    My heart will always carry the memory of your bravery and devotion to the people of Vietnam
    Kevin Hood

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