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 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.

sai-gon53-giaoduc.net.vn

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