40 Years Later
By Al Topping
Many of the memories are still clearly branded in my mind of what took place during the final weeks, days and hours before Clipper Unity N653PA lifted off the runway at Tan Son Nhut airport in Saigon. With captain Bob Berg in command and an all volunteer crew, we headed for Clark AFB in the Philippines with 463 souls on board.
The days leading up to our final departure contained many situations of uncertainty and drama. As I watched the gradual collapse of South Vietnam, I knew what was going to happen and I knew what we had to do. I just wasn’t sure how we would accomplish that mission. The mission being to get all of our staff out before it was too late. It was at this point that Pan Am made a commitment – we would evacuate our employees and their immediate families to safety in the United States.
Under normal circumstances it could take as much as two to three months to process the documents to permit a Vietnamese citizen to leave the country. There was no time for that.
In early April, when we participated in Operation Baby-Lift, Pan Am operated two 747’s loaded with over 600 children headed for the US for adoption. This was the result of a very special individual, Robert Macauley, the founder and CEO of AmeriCares. When Macauley saw what was taking place in South Vietnam, he mortgaged his house and chartered the 747’s.
After several sleepless nights wracking my brain trying to develop a plan to get our people out, I came up with an option that might work. If we can carry hundreds of babies to the US for adoption, why couldn’t I ask the South Vietnamese government to permit me (on behalf of Pan Am), to give approval to adopt our employees and some family members? Why not? Time was running out and chaos was building. Panic was in the air. I prayed that we could pull it off. If this plan were to fail, our only option would be the American Embassy plan. That would mean having our people assemble on designated roof tops in the city to be airlifted to U.S. Navy ships off-shore. I was not in favor of this option. Too many things could go wrong.
I had already decided that April 24th would be our final departure. Why? May 1st was May Day, a holiday celebrated in some communist countries such as Cuba and the Soviet Union. So what better time than May 1st to celebrate the take-over of South Vietnam.
During this critical period I could sense that some of our employees were getting concerned about my plan or lack of a plan. They were beginning to worry about being left behind and falling into the custody of the advancing communist troops. In looking at the map one could see that Saigon was going to be the end of a funnel. I tried to assure them to have faith and trust me.
I was stunned when our HR supervisor returned from the Ministry of The Interior with a stack of immigration documents for my signature. It worked. So I signed them all and paid the fees. So now I had officially adopted our 61 employees and family members, which brought the total number to over 300.
So on Wednesday April 23rd I advised our employees that tomorrow would be our last flight out of Vietnam. They would have to be ready in the morning to board special buses at the downtown sales office that would take them to the airport and I would meet them at the entry check-point. That night many of them slept in the back offices downtown on the floor.
This was a moment filled with trauma. All of these employees and their family were leaving their country for the first time with whatever belongings could fit in a carry-on bag. They were headed to a country where they knew no one and had no idea where they would live. As we lifted off the runway that day my heart was pounding. At this point Saigon was surrounded by communist troops, and what a target we were – a huge 747 in broad daylight in full view of troops with weapons that could take us out with just a single rocket. As we continued our climb out and turned to the east, I could see the coastline falling away as we were now over the South China Sea; I began to breath again. Thank God we made it.
On May 1, 1975 the North Vietnamese tanks rolled into downtown Saigon and it was over.
I will be eternally grateful to the Pan Am pilots and flight attendants who at great personal risk, volunteered to operate those flights under very hostile conditions.
For more stories of the last flight from Saigon