by Jill Savino Nieglos
San Francisco from 1969-71… “It has been painful writing this and I have spent a lot of time crying actually – I had no idea I would become so teary about those years and those flights. I was young, but they were younger, and going to die perhaps. The fun times were taking them to Sydney via Darwin about a million times. I had one trip, if you can even believe it, which was 17 days long!!!!! Holy catfish!”
“Night fog swirled, as I stood at the top of the ramp in my Pan Am uniform, sporting my jaunty blue hat and ready to greet our passengers. I watched as a familiar scene unfolded below me. I looked down as a four-year-old girl reached for her father, shrieking, “Daddy, Daddy, Daddy, don’t go, please Daddy, don’t go!” I saw raw emotion on the young father’s face and tears in his eyes as he reluctantly pulled away from her. His wife was holding their daughter’s hand, while bravely wiping away her own tears. She waved slowly as her soldier husband walked away through the cold fog. This was at least my twentieth replay of this scene. No matter how many times I watched it, it still seemed surreal and each time I saw it I was deeply touched.
The young soldier walked towards the ghostly white plane with the sky-blue stripe running down its length, the Pan Am logo emblazoned on its tail. The logo represented the lines of latitude of the world, Pan Am’s world. To most people it represented excitement and the adventure of carefree travel; however, I am sure this was not on this soldier’s mind that night. Just glancing at the large blue logo surely would have caused fear and sadness to stir in his gut.
This plane was taking him to a war zone: Vietnam, a world away from Travis Air Force Base in California, America, and his family. The year: 1969. Drafted. Shafted.
As I watched other soldiers hugged their crying mothers, telling them “don’t worry, Mama, I’ll be ok.” In fact, there was much to worry about. Fathers were clapping their sons on the back reassuringly, desperately trying to hold back their own their tears. The saddest scene in my mind was a group of several GIs standing in a group apart from the others. There were no loved ones to send them off. They were nervously shooting the bull and smoking cigarettes while watching the smoke disappear into the fog. They were joking with one another, trying to be brave and not show their fear.
Introduction to R&R Flights
As a 23-year-old working for Pan American, I had been looking forward to a life of fun and luxury, seeing the capitals of the world. For these flights, however, it was necessary that I carry papers identifying me as a 2nd Lt. should I become a prisoner of war. This scene was not even remotely in my mind when I had applied for the coveted job of “Pan Am Stewardess.”
I had been working as a Pan Am stewardess over a year now, alternating between the excitement of my New York base and the beautiful antiquity of Europe. Paris and Prague were far different than the California ranching community where I grew up. But being a California girl at heart, I jumped at a chance to transfer to San Francisco and fly the Pacific. There I experienced a new life, with new capitals to visit, new crews to enjoy, and entirely different cultures to explore. This was the part of the world that used chopsticks instead of knives and forks. Pan Am was doing a lot of business with the U.S. government then, shuttling troops between America and points east, and very soon I was assigned to an R & R flight. Before the flight, I was surprised to be given papers identifying me as second lieutenant in the army, in case I became a prisoner of war. Wow, what a shock!
The flight routing was San Francisco, Honolulu, Guam, Saigon, Darwin, Sydney, Darwin, Sydney, Saigon, Guam, Honolulu and back to San Francisco. I flew that route many times over the next two years.
The Pacific is huge, and the trips were long. Normally my crew had a day’s layover at each stop, but in Darwin we had a three-day layover before we did the two Sydney turns, then another 3 days in Darwin before heading back to Nam and then home.
I was used to staying in the elegant European accommodations with five stars, many of which Pan Am owned. So, you can imagine how surprised I was to see the one-star “Darwin Intercontinental” for the first time. I was in shock. Our Darwin hotel was a run-down structure of perhaps fifty rooms, in a town with fewer than 3,000 people and only two paved streets. The rooms didn’t have your usual walls – to our surprise, they were made of shingles. Shingles! Worse, they were only one shingle thick. OMG! Seeing this for the first time, I would never have believed that this faded structure would hold the most vivid memories of my Pan Am years.
After some period of time, all “in country” personnel were allowed one week of R & R. Single guys usually chose Thailand or Sydney. Hello! These places were full of girls, which is what they were looking for. The married fellas and those with sweeties went to Hawaii. Pan Am had special fares for wives of U.S. servicemen, making their reunions more affordable.
We flew into Tan Son Nhut, Cam Rahn Bay, or Da Nang, and from there we flew to Darwin and then Sydney. This meant we flew from Guam to Vietnam to Darwin in one day, changing crews in Darwin. Another crew did the Sydney turn while we enjoyed a three-day layover. Those three-day layovers became legend, because normally there were three or four crews in Darwin at the same time. Party time! Darwin was on Fannie Bay on the north shore of Australia, and in 1969 was a small and uninteresting place. Our crew consisted of the Captain, 1st Officer, 2nd Officer, and Navigator (3rd Officer), plus a relief pilot because the flights were long. And there were six of us stewardesses in the cabin. The odds were good all around.
One of my favorite memories is the night fifteen of us went to
dinner at a restaurant on a nearby island. While we were waiting for the ferry, our crew captain brought a bottle of Remy Martin to the dock and the party started. The other pilots had brought “God knows how much beer” for the 20- minute ferry ride – all the booze was gone by the time we reached the island. After our dinner and the consumption of yet more alcohol, we all adjourned for dancing on the cement patio behind the restaurant. When the Stones’ “Satisfaction” began playing, my friend Jim asked me to dance. All went well until he failed to catch me on one of the dance moves. While Jim was trying to help me out of the bushes, the rest of the drunken crew was doubled over with laughter. I don’t know who was more embarrassed. I know I will never forget that night! Maybe we partied so hard because working these R & R flights was always such an emotional experience for us and we needed this relief. But we could never escape a nagging question in the backs of our minds – “How many of these young men will make it home alive?”
For more vignettes click here for