Pan Am Series – Part XXXV: Saigon and R&R-2

Pan American in Vietnam – A Pilot’s Perspective

In the previous posts Pan American’s Vietnam involvement was presented from the perspective of a station manager, Al Topping and flight attendants, Anne Sweeney and Helen Davey. In this posting, the pilot’s perspective is chronicled through the words of former Pan American Captain John Marshall, who flew the DC-6B’s in the Rest and Recuperation airlift and also flew scheduled flights in and out of Tan Son Nhut Airport in Saigon. His story was first published in Airways Magazine and is set forth below in its entirety:

The year was 1966.  The war in Southeast Asia had been simmering, percolating just below the boil for more years than we cared to count.  By 1966 enough troops and materiel had been amassed in that poor and backward corner of the Third World that it was time for the commanders to seriously look at relief for some of the longer serving units.  It only made good sense that instead of rotating entire units back stateside they would be given a hiatus from the awful conditions under which they lived and fought, and the war-weary GIs would be afforded the opportunity to sample the cultural diversities of the cities of East Asia.  The operation was to be called ‘R & R’, standing for Rest and Recuperation.  It would require the use of enough commercial airliners to carry  GIs out of Vietnam to the bright lights and flesh-pots of Asia, set them down for a week, and re turn them to the war zone to fight again.  It was one of the only sensible decisions made by American commanders in that most unfortunate of wars.

“Pan American Airways at the time was in a transition of equipment from the venerable propeller-driven transports of the fifties and early sixties to the jets which would eventually take over the skies.  The last hurrah for the DC-6 at Pan Am was the Internal German Service, based in Berlin, and even now that venerable airliner  was rapidly being replaced in Germany by the sparkling new Boeing 727s.  As the 6’s were replaced they would be headed for the backwaters of aviation; to South America and Africa, there to spend their dying years carrying livestock, heavy equipment for distant oil fields, or worse; ending up forgotten and decaying in the corner of some airplane boneyard.  But wait!  There was indeed one more mission, one more humanitarian task they could perform.  Pan Am’s DC-6s were offered to the government under contract to carry GIs to R & R for cost plus a dollar.  How could any sane government functionary refuse?

“And so it came to pass that the old Douglas’s made a slight detour on their way to pasture.  They would rumble out to Hong Kong where they would form the backbone of Pan Am’s contribution to the war effort.  Since the only DC-6-qualified airmen in Pan Am’s system were those in Berlin, flying out the days of the last pistons, it fell to us to man the new operation while newly-hired crews were trained and sent to Asia.  We jumped at the chance to escape the dreary northern European weather and sample the exotica of Asia and the Pacific rim.

This DC-6B pictured here in Berlin was probably used initially in the Rest and Recuperation Airlift. These aircraft were brought over from the Internal German Service in Berlin. (Ralf Manteufel photo)

This DC-6B pictured here in Berlin was probably used initially in the Rest and Recuperation Airlift. These aircraft were brought over from the Internal German Service in Berlin. (Ralf Manteufel photo)

“After a flurry of government-mandated paperwork, mostly involving visas, inoculations and other tiresome functions , we departed in twos and threes, embarking for the long tortuous flight aboard Pan Am’s famous Flight Two, boarding at Frankfurt and finally coming to ground many sleepless hours later on another planet.  We were in Hong Kong!

 “After a suitable period of decompression and recovery from a first degree case of jet lag, we were ready and raring to go.  The mission was deceptively simple.   Battle-hardened and frazzled GIs were pulled from the war zones and sent to one of several embarkation points.  Da Nang, Cam Ranh Bay, Nha Trang, and Tan Son Nhut Airport in Saigon were the most prominent.  The men were loaded aboard and flown to any one of a number of Asian cities for a week’s R and R.  Hong Kong, Tokyo, Taipei, and Singapore were the initial destinations; other cities were added as the program grew.  Through a complex set of negotiations with the governments involved, immigration and customs formalities were kept to a minimum.  Once the operation was up and running it was simply a matter of taking a load out of Vietnam, and bringing a load back.  Needless to say the mood in the cabin peaked at wide extremes depending on whether the trip was headed out or back.  The airline pulled out all the stops in the catering department.  Kobe beef steaks, French fries, lots of cold milk and all the ice cream one could possibly eat made up the meal of choice.  The flight crews dined on the same fare, but even for us such extravagant cuisine paled after a while.  On about the third day of a six day trip we began to wish for chicken, or even fish — anything to break the monotony of such sumptuous gluttony.

“After a quick course in long-range operation of the airplane, we were thrown into the fray, and embarked on our first trips.  None of us flight engineers had flown the airplane on a leg longer than two hours; in Europe the fuel requirements and the short flights in the ‘6 were simplicity itself.  Some gas in the mains, off you go, and Bob’s your uncle.  But hidden perils lurked behind the innocent conduct of a flight from Hong Kong to anywhere.  Any reader who has ever had a passing acquaintance with Mr. Douglas’ piston airplanes knows what a labyrinthian maze their fuel systems could be.  I learned the hard way early on.

“On a flight from Saigon to Taipei we carried fuel not only in the mains, but in the auxiliaries and reserves as well.  (Ancient piston drivers, bear with me.   Memory may not serve with total accuracy the nomenclature of the tanks, but you get the idea.)  After top of climb we settled into the cruise routine for the long flight across the South China Sea and the Western Pacific.  Mixtures were carefully leaned and spark advance set.  After a bit it was time to reset the fuel panel.  This was located in front of the center pedestal, behind the throttles and propeller controls.  There were long levers which controlled the shutoff valves in each tank, and depending on the fuel load, there were a stupefying number of combinations with which to set the tank feed.  The flight engineer (me) had to lean way over the pedestal in order to reach the controls.  The captain on this trip was a laid-back old-timer who smoked a pipe (still acceptable in those days) and he leaned back in his seat and watched my efforts carefully.  Tendrils of blue smoke curled gently from the smoldering briar and wafted over my shoulder.  Finally satisfied, I sat back smugly.

dc-6_cockpit

Cockpit of DC-6B

“It wasn’t long before the skipper disengaged himself from his seat and disappeared aft.  I clamored up onto his throne and settled in to enjoy the view from the best seat in the house.  The sea below was a shimmering slate, and the sky ahead was dotted with puffy cumulus.  How could life get any better than this?  I was soon to find out. 

“Half an hour passed, and the flight deck settled comfortably into the ennui of a lengthy overwater trip.  The first officer was absorbed in a manual of some sort, and I gazed out the window at my side.  The captain was a garrulous sort, and had not returned from the passenger cabin.  Suddenly our reverie was rudely shattered by the barking cough of the number 1 engine, followed by a series of backfires in quick succession.  We shot bolt upright in our seats as the number 4 quickly followed suit.  I reached down and slammed the mixtures to full rich, while staring at the panel of engine instruments.  The fuel pressure gauges caught my eye, primarily because the needles on the outboard engines were wildly careening around the dials.  The first officer grabbed the wheel and disconnected the autopilot, at the same time exclaiming, ‘Fuel panel!  Check the fuel panel!’  Startled, I reached over and slammed all the fuel valve levers to the forward position, opening all of them.  After an eternity, while we gently massaged the throttles and mixtures, the outboards finally caught and resumed their healthy roar.  My heart settled down to a trip-hammer rate, and I wiped beads of sweat from my brow.  In a moment I was composed enough to get out the book and carefully reset the fuel feed.

“Suddenly I realized that the captain had not reappeared.  I looked aft through the open cockpit door and saw him slowly sauntering forward.  He stopped in the entrance and shifted the pipe from one side of his mouth to the other.  He gazed at me without saying anything.  ‘Little screw-up in the fuel sequencing,’ I stammered, shame-faced.  I unfolded myself from his seat to let him back in.

“‘Well,’ he drawled, after he had settled himself.  ‘I didn’t think it looked exactly right, but I figured you probably knew what you were doing, so I didn’t say anything.’   It was an abrupt and exciting initiation into the oceanic operation.

“I took a healthy ribbing from the flight attendant crew on our way to the hotel in Taipei.  They were a venerable, uninhibited bunch, not above exploiting the chinks in the veneer of cockpit crew perfection with mirth and enjoyment.  The following night the wet-behind-the-ears flight engineer was to have another adventure, although nowhere near as heart-stopping as starving two of the airplane’s four engines of fuel. 

“We were the same crew, departing Taipei just at dusk for the five-hour flight to Yokota Air Base outside Tokyo.  By the time we levelled off in cruise full darkness had fallen.  We flew in an ocean of black, the sky above dimpled with stars that shed just enough light to outline the occasional cloud formation.  After dinner the skipper again went back into the cabin to socialize, and once again I occupied the left seat.  This time I had made double sure of the fuel feed sequence, and the four big Pratts rumbled along contentedly.  I gazed below into the blackness, and then sat abruptly upright in the seat, heart pounding.  Now I am pretty good at world geography, and I knew without really thinking that if one flew straight from Taipei to Tokyo the trip was all over water.  But here we were over land, and there was a major city below us, or at least a good-sized town.  Good God, we had strayed over mainland China!  A curious tingling sensation began between my shoulder blades, in immediate anticipation of a barrage of .50-caliber bullets that I was sure any second would slam into the defenseless Douglas.  We would fall victim to the Red Guards and the Cultural Revolution!

“I  looked over at the first officer.  His eyes were closed and his head nodded on his chest.  “‘Clyde!’  I fairly shouted.  ‘Get your charts out!  Where in the hell are we?’

“Eyes opened wide in startled surprise, Clyde looked around hurriedly, straining to get his bearings.  I pointed frantically downward at the thousands of lights that stretched to the horizon.  Before I could say anything more, he looked over the side for a long moment, then settled wearily back in his seat.  A long sigh escaped his lips.  ‘Fishing fleet, John.  Just fishing boats.  They’re all over the ocean around here.’  In a moment his head nodded chest-ward and silence once again engulfed the cockpit.

tan-son-nhat

Tan Son Nhut Airport

“Operating in and out of Saigon’s Tan Son Nhut Airport was an experience unto itself.  It was like no other airport in the world.  While the other strips that we flew out of were primarily military bases, the airport at Saigon wore many faces.  It bravely attempted to be a commercial airport like any other, with everyday airline operations trying valiantly to pretend that things were normal, coexisting with the maelstrom of military hardware fighting a war swirling around them.  Even Pan American sent its 707 round-the-world flights One and Two into Tan Son Nhut on a weekly basis.  Most of the time the airport made O’Hare look like a sleepy country strip.  The ramp was an overwhelming place.   707s and DC-8s under military charter carried troops and materiel in and out; military C-130s from countless different squadrons and with just as many esoteric missions kept up a steady stream as they taxied to and fro, their unique rumble trembling the gut as they passed.  Helicopters of every description, led by the workhorse Hueys, buzzed like malevolent insects.  There were Vietnamese Air Force fighter units based there as well, flying ancient hardware that has a habit of trickling down to the Third World.  Venerable C-47s and C-46s completed the mix, along with the occasional B-26.

tsn-map-o51-bunker    tsnab_2   71S1hxbr

“The airport had intersecting runways, which proved to be a mere annoyance, as operations were conducted simultaneously on both.  Controllers took great pride in threading the needle at the intersection, seeing just how close they could cut it.  Occasionally a flight of fighters would return with one or more of their number shot up, requiring the controllers to break out all the existing traffic until the wounded had safely landed.  This resulted in a fur-ball of major proportions orbiting near the field, each pilot jockeying for position when the field re-opened.  The controllers were native Vietnamese, some with limited language and/or controller skills.  The sheer volume of traffic would have been daunting to an experienced journeyman, and at times the local controllers were simply overwhelmed.  It was then that the down-home drawl of a GI controller would come on the mike, and laconically unravel the havoc.  When things had returned to some semblance of normal (a relative term), back came the Asian controller to begin the process all over again.

Phelan_1968-70vietnam_0418-1   typical-day-at-Tan-Son-Nhut-Airport-Saigon-1968   C-130

“The normal entry into Tan Son Nhut used by the big transports was called a ‘Canyon Approach’.  It called for the initial approach to be made at 5,000 feet above the field, an altitude safely out of range of snipers perched off the end of the runway.  Once the runway had nearly disappeared under the nose, gear and full flaps went down, and the props into fine pitch.  Over went the nose, pointing straight at the touchdown zone.  It was a maneuver that demanded great skill and the courage to wait until the very last minute to complete.  It was exciting to sit through, particularly the last few feet before the flare.

“Once safely on the ground and disembarked, Tan Son Nhut assaulted all the senses.  The heat and humidity were unlike any other in Southeast Asia, and the noise and clamor and hubbub were nearly disorienting in their sheer intensity.  Quickly in and quickly out was the name of the game; not only was ramp space at a precious premium, but the longer on the ground the greater exposure to dangers unknown.

“The operation lasted the better part of three years with the venerable DC-6.  Eventually the new Boeing 727s and 707s took over the job, and the old Douglas finally flew into the sunset as part of Pan American’s fleet.  Many ended up in Latin America and Africa, and not a few simply expired in the boneyards of the world.  Their last hurrah was a stirring and exciting one, a fitting climax to the old girls’ career.”

DC-6B and Boeing 707 at Hong Kong (Jon Proctor)

DC-6B and Boeing 707 at Hong Kong (Jon Proctor)

66-Marshall    66-Marshall-3

Pan Am Captain John Marshall attended Deerfield Academy, Stanford University and served in the US Air Force in preparation for his distinguished career with Pan Am. He was based in Hong Kong, Sydney, Berlin, San Francisco and served as Chief Pilot of the Honolulu base a.k.a. “the Royal Hawaiian Flying Club”. He received the civilian Desert Shield and Desert Storm medal for flying military troops and materiel in support of Operation Desert Storm, and finished his Pan Am career commanding the last 747 revenue flight from South America-Sao Paolo to JFK. John retired as a 747 Captain with Korean Airlines. He was recently presented with the prestigious Wright Brothers “Master Pilot” Award, and is enjoying his membership with fellow Quiet Birdmen. John’s writings and columns have been published and featured for a number of years in Smithsonian Magazine and Airways Magazine, and he keeps in shape flying a WWII B-25 Bomber, “Show Me”John presently works for the FAA as an Aviation Safety Inspector in St. Louis, MO, where he resides with his wife, Carla.

For additional information about Pan American World Airways:

The Book Pan American World Airways – Aviation history Through the Words of its People contains 71 stories written by the people of Pan Am who played important roles in many of the important events in Pan Am’s history. The book is published by BlueWaterPress.

Preview Pan American World Airways – Aviation History Through the Words of its People

For purchasing information, visit the publisher, BlueWaterPress or Amazon

Also available in a Kindle Edition

For a companion book with a timeline of Pan Am history and images of aircraft, timetables and other memorabilia, see a preview of  Pan American World Airways – Images of a Great Airline

The book is also available directly from the publisher, BlueWaterPress or Amazon.

For further information about the history of Pan American World Airways, visit: Pan Am Historical Foundation

 

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Pan Am Series – Part XXXIV: R&R in Vietnam War

Pan American’s Rest and Recuperation Airlift – Vietnam War

The DC-6B was used initially in the Rest and Recuperation Airlift. These aircraft were brought over from the Internal German Service in Berlin. (Ralf Manteufel photo)

The DC-6B was used initially in the Rest and Recuperation Airlift. These aircraft were brought over from the Internal German Service in Berlin. (Ralf Manteufel photo)

It is well known that over the years Pan American World Airways’ Chief Executive Juan T. Trippe might have held differing views with respect to United States government policy toward his airline. However, notwithstanding his personal feelings, he always made his airline available for service to the country. This went back to the earliest days of the airline and carried on throughout its existence.

One of the biggest operations in support of the country was during the Vietnam War, when Pan American Clippers carried troops and cargo between home and the war. As noted in the 1965 Annual Report, Pan American was providing approximately “40 flights every week between California and Saigon for the support of the military”. In March 1966 Pan American helped boost morale when it began a massive airlift of troops between Vietnam and rest and recuperation areas initially in Southeast Asia and Japan, and later the addition of Australia and Hawaii. Pan American was, according to the 1967 Annual Report, “the only airline providing this service. . . .[and in] two years more than 500,000 round-trip passengers used the Rest and Recuperation Airlift. Each has enjoyed full First Class amenities on these flights”.

As government needs for airlift increased as the war progressed, the 1968 Annual Report highlighted the fact that operations in support of the military increased dramatically:

“Pan Am provided a larger portion than any other airline of civil airlift of medical supplies, matériel and personnel across the Pacific in support of the armed forces in Southeast Asia. As of March 1, 1969, approximately 12 percent of Pan Am’s long range jet fleet was assigned to military support services. [The airline’s] transpacific airlift provides up to six flights a day to Vietnam.

“Pan Am conducts the airlift of troops between Vietnam and rest-and-recuperation sites. Since the start of this program in March, 1966, Pan Am has carried more than 800,000 round-trip passengers on the Rest and Recuperation Airlift.

During the Tet offensive beginning February, 1968, Pan Am responded to the urgent request of the Department of Defense and assigned a total of 18 Boeing 707-321’s to the emergency airlift. Additional cargo and passenger expansion capability was also provided on regularly scheduled services.

“On July 1, in response to a Government request, Pan Am opened seven Sales/Service offices in Vietnam.”

Soldier and FA Saigon    Cargo

Two former Pan American Flight Attendants (then Stewardess) worked on the R&R flights during 1967 – 1968 and generously share their experiences in the following two stories. The first, by Anne Sweeney, originally appeared in the Pan American Historical Foundation’s newsletter, Clipper:

“The tropical sun shone through the window of the DC-6 and on to the baby face of the young blond soldier sleeping off five days of R&R in the bars and brothels of Bangkok. His stubble was sparse and soft in the morning light.

“I moved to the next row- two brothers with Darth Vader shades and a shy, slight Puerto Rican kid. Their meals were always the same on the R&R flights – steak, home fries, green beans, fresh milk, ice cream – and ketchup. On everything but the ice cream.


“They were typical R&R passengers – young kids, from the ghettos, barrios and backwaters of America – LeRoy, Manuel, Billy Bob.


“Our Pan Am crews were based in Hong Kong and we worked these R&R flights, exclusively, flying troops from Saigon, Cam Rahn Bay and Da Nang to for five days of “Rest & Recuperation” in places like Bangkok, Singapore, Taipei and Hong Kong. In support of the war effort and to gain government favor, Pan Am organized and operated these flights for $1 a year plus costs. The aircraft were old DC-6s; propeller planes phased out from the company’s Berlin operation by new 727s.


“We did our best to make them comfortable on the flights – to chat, smile and bring extra milk or ice cream. The soldiers were polite and deferential. ‘Where are you from in the world, ma’am?’ The world was anywhere outside Vietnam; a country few of them knew existed until their draft boards set them straight.


The plane started its approach into Cam Rahn Bay. Miles of blue and green water and beaches were covered from end to end with military equipment. Scrap metal, artillery, jeeps and tires rotted and rusted in the tropical heat. Cahn Rahn Bay was an Air Force Base. We unloaded one group of soldiers, the aircraft was cleaned and provisioned, another group quickly boarded and we were aloft, headed home to Hong Kong’s Kai Tak Airport. Landing at Kai Tak was actually more perilous than landing in Vietnam

“My Christmas was waiting to begin across the harbor in a modern flat overlooking the South China Sea. It would be like no other Christmas for this small town girl from Rhode Island.

“When I got there, a Japanese Spruce tree would be hung with handmade ornaments, and Ah Nee, my houseboy, would be busy with preparations for Christmas Dinner. Ten people were coming – friends from Pan Am, my next-door neighbor, an Englishman I’d been seeing, plus friends of his from the British Navy whose ship was in port. There was room for more. I invited two young GI’s, Mike and Ted, from the flight.

“As soon as we were off-duty I headed for the Star Ferry and home. I loved the ferry at sunset. Violet dusk settled over the harbor and the lights came up on both sides of the port. Behind me, in Kowloon, the white Colonial façade of the Peninsula Hotel glowed in the last light and the deck lamps of the luxury liner SS Rotterdam were lit. Junks, sampans, pleasure craft, tankers, and freighters, military ships from aircraft carriers to supply boats, plied the harbor or rested at its piers. Up ahead on the Hong Kong side, a portrait of Chairman Mao stared from the towers of the Bank of China..

“On the Peak, lights glimmered in the great houses of the Tai Pans and along the Tramway that slowly climbed the steep hills.

“The Hong Kong Hilton yacht, Wan Fu, in full sail, glided by. A cocktail party was in progress; the well-heeled passengers, flying their colors of bright silks and navy blazers, sipping Tanqueray martinis and Tattinger Champagne.

“We docked, and within minutes, a taxi was speeding me up and over the hills and home for Christmas.

“The next morning was overcast, its chill mitigated by some of Ah Nee’s homemade and hot rice wine. Guest arrived at 2 – pilots, stewardess, naval officers and the two young soldiers from the plane. The Brits brought some very fine Scotch and Roger’s mother has sent a plum pudding from Fortnum’s. The festivities were interrupted briefly at 3 when Roger insisted we listen to the Queen’s Speech, broadcast at 3 o’clock on Christmas Day throughout the Commonwealth. Her Majesty’s high, clipped voice wished us all a Happy Christmas just before Ah Nee, who could cook in several languages, presented a perfect turkey with all the trimmings.

“In the midst of the meal, the phone rang. It was my father, calling me from Rhode Island. How was I, he asked. Had it been a lonely day? No, no, I assured him. We had made our own Christmas.

“‘You know what I always told you,’ he said, his voice cracking over the time zones and tears. ‘That there would always be cake and ale and Christmas.’

“Gathered around the table, strangers and friends, we found a glad holiday, however far from home. Thankfully, we didn’t know what the future held. Those at the table would scatter and lose touch. The war would be lost. Pan Am would one day fold its proud wings. The Queen would send her son to preside at the return of Hong Kong to China. One of the young soldiers would die on another holiday a few weeks later in what became known as the Tet Offensive, the Vietnamese Lunar New Year.

“But on that Christmas Day, all seemed merry and bright. Carols rang out. Toasts were raised to the season. The plum pudding flamed in a brandied glow. There was indeed, cake and ale and Christmas, and I knew then there always would be.”

41-Anne Sweeney-1   41-A Sweeney today

A former Pan Am flight attendant, Anne Sweeney also worked in the corporate communications department at Pan American World Airways. She was based in Hong Kong from 1967-68, flying the company’s R&R flights for US troops, taking soldiers from Vietnam to cities throughout Asia. She is president of Anne Sweeney Public Relations in South Brunswick, NJ

 The second story, by Dr. Helen Davey, is featured in the book  Pan American World Airways – Aviation History Through the Words of its People:

 “I’ll never forget my first glimpse of Vietnam. It was the spring of 1968, after the disastrous Tet Offensive had resulted in an escalation of the war.  I was flying my first volunteer flight as a Pan Am stewardess into Saigon to pick up American soldiers and deliver them to their R & R’ (rest and recreation) destination.  Glued to the airplane window as we approached Tan Son Nhut airport, I was astonished to see actual bomb craters and smoke rising from scattered skirmishes on the ground. I had to give myself a reality check: was this really me, and was I really seeing this, and were American men really being killed right below me? I thought I had seen it all on the nightly newscasts at home, but somehow I was shocked to see this vision of hell first hand.

“As we had been briefed, the pilots made the steepest descent I had ever experienced in an airplane.  I remember thinking about all the stories of bullets being found in the fuselage of Pan Am airplanes, and the jokes about Pan Am pilots sitting on their manuals for a little extra protection while flying in and out of Vietnam. In my purse, I carried the paper that awarded Pan Am stewardesses Second Lieutenant in the U.S. Air Force status, which meant that under Geneva Convention rules we would be treated as officers in the event of capture.  Used to providing elegant in-flight service to our passengers in a rather formal atmosphere, I was about to experience the most surreal flight I had encountered to date. We had been told that ‘almost nothing was by the book,’ but only the male purser on our flight and the pilots who had flown many flights to Vietnam knew what that meant.

“As we taxied around the airport, I felt overwhelmed to see the sheer numbers of war machines of all types buzzing around seemingly everywhere. As we swung the door open, the noise was deafening, and the hot humid air enveloped me, taking my breath away. Our stewardess uniforms were made of fabric that was supposed to be ‘all weather, which really meant that it was too hot in summer and too thin in winter. Add to that the fact that we were still required to wear stockings and girdles, and I think you can imagine our discomfort. As I stared out of the open door, I became aware of the pallets of aluminum coffins lined up on the tarmac – each one containing somebody’s precious husband or son or father or boyfriend or uncle or friend.    

“I don’t think anything could have prepared me for the sight of the soldiers that boarded our airplane. I was expecting to see excited young men ready for a new adventure, laughing and joking with each other, and relieved to get away from the war. But as the men quietly filed aboard the airplane, I clearly saw the faces of trauma.  Many were strangely quiet, with expressionless ‘masks’, and most of them stared at our ’round eyes’ as if trying to take in a bit of home. I had no idea how young these men would be, but I wasn’t expecting them to look like they should be in high school! Twenty-five at the time, I wasn’t used to being called ‘Ma’am,’ and I felt strangely old. I’m convinced that my experiences with these traumatized men helped fuel my later professional interest in the study of trauma.      

“The Pan Am pilots, mostly ex-military men, felt deep empathy for these soldiers, and their announcements reflected it.  And here’s where our very talented male purser came in. As funny as any stand-up comedian, he knew exactly how to handle these traumatized men. Totally throwing aside our traditional announcements, he used colorful language that I had never heard uttered on a Pan Am intercom. He spoke right to the men, as if he were waking them up from their nightmare. And he loved to tease the stewardesses! As we were doing our regular emergency demonstrations, we were supposed to point overhead to the forward, center, and aft life rafts in the ceiling. During the part where he was supposed to say ‘forward, center, and aft life rafts,’ he mixed it up and said, ‘aft, center, and forward.’ By rote, all of us stewardesses pointed out the rafts in their normal sequence. He said, ‘So you see, guys, our young ladies don’t seem to know their ‘forward’ from their ‘aft!’ The soldiers exploded in laughter, and the tone was set for helping to relieve these young men’s burdens for a short time. By the end of the flight, some of the soldiers seemed less robotic, and their eyes were coming alive.     

“Nothing about this flight felt familiar. Several of the men got up and helped with the serving of meals, leaving us stewardesses with more time to talk to the homesick men. Some of them wanted to ask about what was happening at home, especially about the escalation of protests. One of them asked me to call his mother when I got home, which I did. They showed us pictures of family, children, girlfriends, and wives. They wanted to know all about our crew, where everybody was from ‘in the world.’  One Vietnam vet wrote about Pan Am stewardesses that we were ‘some of the sweetest, caring women I’ve ever known and need to be recognized for their contribution. Nurse, psychiatrist, mother, sister, daughter, girlfriend, confessor, sex object – they wore all the hats.’

“So hungry for a touch of home, their eyes pleaded for just a little conversation. I learned on that first flight that if anybody had gone to sleep due to exhaustion, we had to be very careful in waking them up; they would awaken in an extremely startled state, arms flailing, reaching for their imaginary guns. I didn’t realize at the time that I was witnessing Post Traumatic Stress Disorder, which might stay with them for the rest of their lives. I picked out one particularly vulnerable looking soldier who was very shy, and as we talked, I decided to become his pen pal. I knew that having a Pan Am stewardess as a pen pal would qualify any soldier to be regarded as a ‘rock star.’

“This was the first of four soldiers that I eventually agreed to have as pen pals.  When I began to receive notices, one by one, that each one had been killed, I started to regard myself as a jinx and stopped writing letters.  Now I regret this, but at the time it just became too painful for me to be able to put a face to the names of dying men.       

“Music is where my memory of Vietnam lives, and this time of my life comes with its own special sound track; Creedence Clearwater Revival, The Doors, Buffalo Springfield, Jimi Hendrix, Jefferson Airplane, Marvin Gaye, Ike and Tina Turner, Bob Dylan, Crosby Stills & Nash, Otis Redding, the Animals, Aretha Franklin, and Edwin Star who sang ‘War’ (‘War! Huh! Good God, y’all! What’s it good for? Absolutely nothing!’) The music describes wartime — especially the ambivalence about this particular war — better than words can convey. When I hear it, I feel as if I were back there.  I think that any of us Pan Am employees who flew into Vietnam feel that we, too, were a part of that war.  At the time, many of our regular destination cities in Asia were teeming with American soldiers, and wherever there were American soldiers, there was the music, blaring and insistent.

“In a bizarre conclusion to my first flight to Vietnam, I asked the Captain if I could sit in the cockpit for landing.  He said, ‘Of course.’ Again, since all rules were mostly suspended, the Captain decided to generously allow the engineer, who never really got to fly the airplane, to help with the landing.  On final approach, just before touchdown, the left wing of the airplane dipped way too close to the runway.  At the last moment, the Captain grabbed the controls back, and I think that every person in that airplane knew that we probably narrowly escaped disaster. Nobody in the cockpit spoke. I could tell that the blood had drained from the pilots’ faces, and the engineer was shaking     

Trembling from what had just happened, I stumbled out of the cockpit. The purser was up to his old tricks, and was just waiting for me to step through the door. He had signaled to the men, and when I appeared, a soldier yelled, ‘Nice landing, Ma’am!’ Again, everyone exploded in laughter. After all, what was a little ‘near crash’ to them? These brave men were facing death every day anyway. I sat down by the purser on the jumpseat and said, ‘We were just in the middle of a battle, and we almost crashed!’ He replied with a phrase that I was to hear often:

“’Well, welcome to war!‘”

15-Helen707-1    15-Helen Davey today

Dr. Helen Davey is a psychoanalyst and psychotherapist in private practice in West Los Angeles and a former Pan Am Stewardess. Her doctoral dissertation, A Psychoanalytic Exploration of the Fall of Pan American World Airways, is a study of the trauma experienced by Pan Am employees when the airline collapsed.  She published an article entitled “The Effects of the Trauma of 9/11” for airline employees following the terrorist attack.  She is a regular contributor to the Huffington Post.

Below is a YouTube Video of Pan American’s Rest and Recuperation Airlift:

For additional information about Pan American World Airways:

The Book Pan American World Airways – Aviation history Through the Words of its People contains 71 stories written by the people of Pan Am who played important roles in many of the important events in Pan Am’s history. The book is published by BlueWaterPress.

Preview Pan American World Airways – Aviation History Through the Words of its People

For purchasing information, visit the publisher, BlueWaterPress or Amazon

Also available in a Kindle Edition

For a companion book with a timeline of Pan Am history and images of aircraft, timetables and other memorabilia, see a preview of  Pan American World Airways – Images of a Great Airline

The book is also available directly from the publisher, BlueWaterPress or Amazon.

For further information about the history of Pan American World Airways, visit: Pan Am Historical Foundation

Pan Am Series – Part XXXIII: Saigon

Pan American’s Presence in Saigon

Part 1

On 24 April 1975, Clipper Unity, a Boeing 747, departed Tan Son Nhut Airport in Saigon with 463 passengers on board, ending an over twenty year Pan American World Airways presence that started with two weekly scheduled DC-4 passenger rotations in the mid-1950’s, growing to daily 707/747 scheduled passenger operations in the 1960’s and early 1970’s, along with extensive cargo operations in support of the U.S. military, was eventually reduced to two rotations a week in the mid 1970’s and finally ended just before the  fall of South Vietnam in 1975. This is the first of three stories about Pan American’s presence.

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The Airport

Saigon’s Tan Son Nhut International Airport had its origins in the early 1930s, when the French colonial government constructed a small airport with unpaved runways near the village of Tan Son Nhut. By mid-1956, with U.S. aid, a 7,200-foot (2,190 m) runway had been built and the airfield became Saigon’s and South Vietnam’s principal international gateway.  Between 1968 and 1974, the airport was the major base for military operations during the Vietnam War and was one of the busiest military airbases in the world.

Tsn-1962   SGN-1

camp-airport1-550   main_gate_1

Pan American’s Operations in Saigon

Saigon as a Pan American city first appeared in its timetable maps in the late 1940’s, but was not listed in the flight schedules or shown in the “List of Principal Offices”. In the May, 1950 timetable, a route to/from Saigon was identified as “services authorized but not operating”. In the January and April 1952 timetables, Saigon was not even on the route map. By the June 1954 timetable, two weekly rotations were being offered between Manila-Saigon-Singapore with DC-4 equipment.  The flights linked at Manila with Pan American’s San Francisco service  Below is the map from a 1948 timetable and the Pacific services in the 1954 timetable:

Map 1948

1954 Pacific Skeds

In the September 1957 timetable, the Manila-Saigon-Singapore service was increased to three rotations weekly with DC-6B equipment. These flights linked to Pan American’s to San Francisco and Los Angeles services at Manila. In the April 1959 timetable, the service was increased to five rotations weekly with both DC-6B and Boeing 377 Stratocruisers. By the September 1961 timetable, two weekly rotations were offered on the Honolulu-Guam-Manila-Saigon-Singapore-Djakarta route with Boeing 707’s or DC-8’s. In addition the eastbound round-the-world flight number 2 made a weekly stop.

Timetable pages -0001   Timetable pages -0002

Timetable pages -0003

 

In the April 1965 timetable, three weekly rotations were offered between Honolulu and Saigon (with both intermediate and beyond points) as well as the weekly eastbound round-the-world flight 2.  All-cargo freighters were shown operating three rotations weekly in the timetable as well. By the September 1966 timetable, the passenger operations were up to four rotations weekly plus the once-a-week eastbound round-the-world flight. The all-cargo service was shown as a daily operation, although some all-cargo flights required a minimum revenue load to be “flag-stopped” . By the September 1969 timetable, the number of rotations was increased to five and with extensive cargo operations.

Timetable pages -0004

Timetable pages -0005    Timetable pages -0006

 In the January 1971, Pan American offered a daily rotation with Boeing 707 aircraft as well as daily all-cargo services. By late 1973, Pan American severely reduced its Saigon service to a twice weekly rotation and three weekly all-cargo operations. After April 1975, there was no Pan American presence in Saigon.

Timetable pages -0007   Timetable pages -0008

Clipper Unity (Photo Eduard Marmet)

Clipper Unity (Photo Eduard Marmet)

The End of the Pan American Era in Saigon

Al Topping was Pan American’s last Station Manager at Saigon and organized the airline’s last ever departure from Ton Son Nhut Airport. His story was captured in a made-for-TV movie, Last Flight Out, starring James Earl Jones as Topping and Richard Crenna as Clipper Unity’s pilot Dan Hood. Topping’s story also appears in Pan American World Airways – Aviation History Through the Words of its People. Below is an excerpt:

“[In] November of 1972, I was in charge of the Pan Am operation in South Vietnam.  * * * Saigon was very hot, very humid, very noisy, and due to the tens of thousands of motor bikes (the primary means of transportation) the air was polluted.  The international arrivals area at [Saigon’s] airport had dirt floors and no air conditioning. Downtown was a bustling crowded city with a variety of shops, restaurants, an open / active black market, street money changers, prostitutes and beggars roaming the streets holding babies—many of them scared  and crippled by napalm.

“As for the war, there were signs of it everywhere. A tank guarded the entrance to the airport, and heavily armed troops guarded every government building.  The most telling of all were the sounds of war.  Every night one could hear muffled booms of shelling off in the distance. Nevertheless the war was supposedly winding down and peace talks were on-going in Paris.  A peace agreement was finally reached and by June of 1973 the last American combat troops departed Vietnam.  The 10,000 day war was finally over.  So we thought.  Optimism was in the air.  The government began promoting tourism and encouraging foreign investments.  Back in Washington, DC the United States Congress voted to virtually terminate all military aid to Vietnam.   The South Vietnamese were now on their own.

“Approximately 18 months passed and the political landscape of South Vietnam began to dramatically change. Huge chunks of South Vietnam were taken over by advancing North Vietnamese troops. Cities, provinces and villages were falling with hardly a shot being fired. It was becoming obvious to me that North Vietnam had Saigon in its cross-hairs. In early April 1975, panic was in the air.

“Various American companies began sending some of their employees to places like Hong Kong and Singapore.  As the situation deteriorated I convinced Pan Am to commit to evacuating all of our local staff and their immediate families.  But it was up to me to come up with a plan for the actual evacuation, a workable plan that would not endanger lives.  It was only later that I realized I was embarking on a decision-making process I would never forget.

“Tension and suspense engulfed us as evacuation plans were being made. There were some surprises. When I asked our personnel manager for a listing of all 61 employees and their immediate family members, I was presented with a list of over 700 names. In the Asian culture, the immediate family is the extended family. Now what, I wondered?  For the first time, I saw the enormity of the situation. Lives were at stake. I held some emotional, gut-wrenching meetings with our department heads.  It was necessary to review again and again the company commitment of evacuating our employees and their ‘immediate families’.  It was extremely difficult to convince them of the differences in interpretations of an immediate family.  In the end they would have to make the final decision as to who goes and who stays.  So it was now a matter of freedom for some and unknown consequences for others.  Once the decisions were made I  had a list of 315 employees and their family members.  One more major challenge was lurking.

“Although the government of South Vietnam was rapidly deteriorating, they were still in charge. A Vietnamese citizen could not leave the country without proper documentation.  Under normal circumstances it may take two to three months for Vietnamese to obtain a passport and visa.  However, we had little time left.  We needed those documents in a matter of days.  In the past, I had witnessed hundreds of orphans being expeditiously evacuated to the U.S. for adoption.    I soon realized that this may be our only way out.

“Our personnel manager spent countless hours at the Office of the Ministry of Interior to obtain the required documentation for adoption.  My staff prepared these stacks of legal documents for my signature that would also permit our Vietnamese employees to leave the country.  In effect, the documents I signed said I was adopting more than 300 people, that I would be responsible for their well-being in the United States.  It worked!

“The situation in Saigon was now in panic mode.  In order to avoid further chaos the final date and time of Pan Am’s LAST FLIGHT OUT was kept secret until the night before.  It was to be Thursday April 24, 1975.  Most of our employees and their families spent the night in the back rooms of our downtown ticket office.  Three buses brought them to the airport that morning.  At the airport checkpoint armed troops boarded the buses to check the documentation.  The tension in the air on those buses defied description.

“The aircraft was Clipper Unity N653PA, a Boeing 747.  After cramming 463 souls on board into a cabin configured with 375 seats, the LAST FLIGHT OUT lifted off the runway on the designated date.  Many of the passengers doubled up in one seat.  Others stood in the aisles, sat on the floor or found space in the lavatories.

Clipper Unity at Saigon on the day of the LAST FLIGHT OUT (Al Topping)

Clipper Unity at Saigon on the day of the LAST FLIGHT OUT (Al Topping)

 

“The flight’s departure, however, had not been assured. Shortly beforehand, the Federal Aviation Administration had banned U.S. commercial flights into Saigon. It was not until high-level U.S. officials had designated our flight as a U.S. government charter that the jumbo jet could fly into Saigon to take us out.  When Capt.  Bob Berg finally received take-off clearance and we began our take-off roll, my heart was pounding like a bass drum. The tension was overwhelming until we cleared the coastline and I could see the fleet of American warships in the South China Sea below us. At that point I said, thank God we made it.”

Pan American’s involvement in Saigon extended beyond its scheduled passenger and cargo operations. In the next two postings will be stories about how the people of Pan American went out of their way to help their fellow human beings in desperate and difficult circumstances.

For additional information about Pan American World Airways:

The Book Pan American World Airways – Aviation history Through the Words of its People contains 71 stories written by the people of Pan Am who played important roles in many of the important events in Pan Am’s history. The book is published by BlueWaterPress.

Preview Pan American World Airways – Aviation History Through the Words of its People

For purchasing information, visit the publisher, BlueWaterPress or Amazon

Also available in a Kindle Edition

For a companion book with a timeline of Pan Am history and images of aircraft, timetables and other memorabilia, see a preview of  Pan American World Airways – Images of a Great Airline

The book is also available directly from the publisher, BlueWaterPress or Amazon.

For further information about the history of Pan American World Airways, visit: Pan Am Historical Foundation