It was April 1975, and the North Vietnamese Army was marching towards Saigon. Scenes from the final battles and desperate escape efforts flashed on America’s TV screens. The end was near. Saigon would fall. Pan Am was already involved in the war through their charters to the military for R&R flights and their work with other airlines in ferrying out approximately 3,000 children as part of Operation Babylift. Pamela Borgfeldt Taylor was about to participate in the company’s final effort to safely evacuate their employees and families from Vietnam. This extremely difficult and dangerous mission was successful due to the courage, ingenuity and commitment of Pan Am’s people. Here is Pamela Borgfeldt Taylor’s story in her own words:
“In April 1975, I was a Purser flying for Pan Am based in San Francisco when my supervisor called me at home. Would I be willing to fly into Vietnam when the company determined the best time for the final flight – the evacuation of Pan Am’s Vietnamese ground staff and their families? Vietnam was already front and center in the news; Saigon was about to fall and it was just a matter of time. Pan Am did not want to fly in too soon. If they did, all scheduled flights would need to be cancelled since no one would be left on the ground to handle them. It was important to time it just right, but it was tricky. No one could predict what day would be the last.
I was sent to Guam the next day. I sat around Guam for ten days at the hotel before Pan Am called me to fly out the next day to Saigon. It was Tuesday, a regular scheduled flight. All went well and we flew in as usual but two things were very different.
First, we only had 14 passengers on a 747, a plane that could carry more than 350.
Secondly, people were clambering all over the airport in a state of panic and desperation. Fences divided the people who were to board the aircraft from those outside of the boarding area. The Vietnamese were screaming and begging us to take children and babies they were handing over the fence. One family going onto the airplane pushed off their son and said they could not get him a visa, could I get him on. The young boy was 14 or so. He was awkward and appeared to be Amer-Asian. Clearly his parents were not worried about leaving him behind. I took him aside and proceeded around the cargo area hoping we could get close enough to the aircraft to slip him on. As we came closer to the airplane a Vietnamese guard with a sub-machine gun jumped out in front of us and pointed the gun directly at us. He did not say a word but motioned us to move back with the butt of the gun. I was unable to go any further. Returning to the immigration area I briefed the boy and told him I would be back on Thursday and would make certain to take him out. I had already planned on how I would arrange that.
Before departing that day from Saigon, several of us were able to put a young girl, four or five years old, between us and sneak her out to the airplane. One of the stewardesses tried to adopt her afterward but the adoption did not work out. We were doing all we could do to help people make it on-board but the South Vietnamese guards where everywhere. When it was time to close the door to the 747, the ramp agent pulled a baby out of her jacket and slipped her onto the airplane. We had a light load, a sad story as so many were begging to go, and there we were with an empty airplane! We hid the children, one in the cockpit, and the other in a compartment in the lounge upstairs that few knew about. We also put children down low in the restrooms with a stewardess inside. When the guards went through the airplane to check exit visas, they beat on the restroom doors. A stewardess would open the door slightly, holding a lipstick, so the guards assumed they were getting ready for the flight!
Saigon was still an operating airport. We expected to return on Thursday for the next scheduled flight. But that Thursday morning the crew was gathered early, we were taken into Pan American Operations in Manila and told Saigon was now closed to all traffic. They then asked us if we would be willing to fly a “mercy” flight into Saigon to pick up the Pan Am people. Five of us agreed to go; we had a telegram from President Ford saying all FAA restrictions had been lifted. We were not to take luggage but to put as many people in the cabin as possible. There would be no life vests or rafts. Passengers could sit on the floor, in the aisles, seat belts did not matter. Nothing mattered as long as we could get the airplane airborne.
The cabin crew that fateful day consisted of pursers Laura Lee Gillespie and myself. The flight attendants were Tra Duong, Gudrun Meisner, and Susan Matson.
Tra was Vietnamese and had been contacting the Embassy all along, hoping there was some way to get her parents and sisters out. On our flight on Tuesday I spoke to all fourteen passengers to see why anyone would be flying into Vietnam when everyone else wanted to leave. One Vietnamese colonel in the South Vietnamese Army said he wanted to save his son, he said he knew he would be killed. He had several daughters too. I agreed to meet him on Thursday’s flight and take his son. When Tra learned of my plans she went to the colonel and said we would take his son if he would get her four sisters onto the airbase where the airport was located. Not knowing at that time that the airport would close before, we had only one flight and that was the “Mercy Flight.” It later became known as “The Last Flight Out” as it was the last commercial flight to leave Vietnam. Pan Am’s Director Vietnam, Al Topping, had, with the company’s full backing, promised to evacuate all of Pan Am’s Vietnamese staff and their families.
We flew into Saigon. As soon as we landed, Captain Bob Berg told us that when it was time to depart he would turn on the red flashing light atop the aircraft. He promised he would not leave anyone behind. I immediately ran to get the young boy I had met on the Tuesday before. He was nowhere to be found and this time the guards had cordoned off most of the airport. Tra’s sisters were in the cargo area as planned, hiding in a closet. We were frightened when we did not see them immediately. The colonel told them to tell me he had gotten out by boat with his family the day before.
In the days leading up to the Mercy Flight many of us had collected uniforms and wigs, hats and anything needed to pass off Tra’s sisters as stewardesses. We dressed them and told them to go to the airplane and pretend they knew what they were doing. Once they were on board we scurried around to find and help others. The guards were at the bottom of the stairs of the airplane viewing visas. We took off pillow cases and started to pass them around for a collection from all the Vietnamese who had boarded already. The pillow cases were filling up with Vietnamese Piasters for the guards. Things were beginning to roll and more and more people came on board. Word had gotten out and people had come out of the cracks. Everyone and their relatives and friends were trying to leave.
When we finally were able to close the door, the mechanic who flagged the airplane to the runway jumped into the wheel well and climbed aboard through the cockpit floor. As we prepared for take off, we were delayed because a Vietnamese fighter plane had crashed and was blocking the runway. Captain Berg later told us he was frightened and thought the North Vietnamese would try to capture our 747. He was able to get someone to bulldoze the fighter off the runway so we would be clear to fly.
After we lifted off, I walked down the aisle. Each person in each aisle grabbed my hand, squeezed it and I squeezed back. It was a tearful time. Many were leaving husbands, parents, and members of their family without even a good-bye. They were also saying good- bye to their country. It was hard to imagine what it would be like in their circumstances.
We flew to Manila, where the crew was to layover. First we went to Pan Am Operations where we were given gifts, puka shell necklaces for the gals and jewelry boxes for the guys. The Operations Manager cried when he thanked us. It was very moving and we felt proud.”