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Pan Am Staff Commemorate Last Flight from Vietnam

By Jackie Bong-Wright

Last Flight and New Life in America

April 30th marks the fall of Saigon into Communist hands and the exodus of hundreds of thousands of imperiled Vietnamese. Thirty years ago, they left their beloved country to choose freedom in other parts of the world. Nowadays, 3 million former Vietnamese around the globe commemorate this dark day with ceremonies and prayers for the millions who died during the Vietnam War or perished in re-education camps or on the open seas of Southeast Asia. An estimated 2,000 Vietnamese from around the United States will converge on the capital for various commemorative events.
One such group will be the former Pan Am staff in Vietnam. Along with the Pan Am Historical Foundation and World Wings International, they will present a three-day symposium entitled Wings of Freedom at the Crystal Gateway Marriott hotel April 22-25. Their mission is to commemorate the 30th Anniversary of the last Pan Am flight out of Saigon on April 24, 1975. Vietnamese-American immigrants, former Pan Am employees, corporate and media representatives, and legislators have been invited to participate in the reunion. A philanthropic fund to support an orphanage in Vietnam will be one result.
Wings of Freedom will offer lectures and panel discussions to highlight the courage of Pan Am’s personnel and the bravery of Vietnamese refugees. It will also tell the story of the baby-lift charter flights that brought thousands of Vietnamese orphans to safety.
Al Topping, 65, Pan Am’s former Director in Vietnam and chair of the Planning Committee, said that participants would have the chance to record their oral histories for future generations as part of an online oral history archive and data bank and virtual gallery. Photographs, memorabilia and artifacts from the Vietnamese freedom flights will be on display. Planned are a presentation of Vietnamese traditional costumes and dress, a parade of airline uniforms and a showing of the film “Last Flight Out” on April 22.
According to Pan Am Symposium program, “The anniversary indicates that a new and vibrant immigrant community has transformed the American landscape by integrating their own traditions and customs and enriching a new culture in the fields of education, sports, business, arts, and politics. It will provide a forum for the Vietnamese and American community alike to tell their unique stories of struggle, challenge and success, as they became part of the American mosaic. The Vietnamese story is a heroic and stoic one.”
Luong Nguyen, a former Ticket Reservation Supervisor and 34 year-old airline veteran, recalled, “In April, when Vietnamese Communists were surrounding Saigon and the Vietnamese President was withdrawing our troops, feelings of panic and fear spread through the entire population. But all of the Pan Am staff went to work as usual. We never thought that the end would come so suddenly.”
David Williams of Agence France Press wrote in December that Al Topping, who was 36 at the time, struck a deal with the U.S. Embassy and the South Vietnamese authorities to get the local staff out of the country. He adopted all of the 300 employees and their immediate relatives. The affidavit he signed said that he accepted all responsibility, financial and otherwise, for the passengers. A total of 463 people, including U.S. Embassy staff, were squeezed into that last 747 aircraft, meant to hold 375. As the jet taxied from one side of the airport to the other, the Vietnamese control towers placed it in a ground-hold position for 45 minutes.
Topping, according to Williams, was sitting in the jump seat of the cockpit. “At the time, I was scared to death that we would just get blown out of the sky.” As the plane climbed and crossed the coastline of the South China Sea, where U.S. ships could be seen preparing for evacuation, the plane fell silent. And when the captain announced, “Welcome to freedom,” there was no clapping or cheering. “There were just a lot of people crying. They had left their family behind, their belongings behind; the only thing they could bring with them was a carry-on bag,” Topping remembered sadly.
Luong added, “We arrived first in “Tent City” at Anderson Air Force Base in Guam, where volunteer military personnel helped put up tents overnight to accommodate us and the 50,000 other refugees who kept arriving day and night by commercial and military planes. We are so grateful to Pan Am for giving us a new life in our beloved adopted land. Better, we teach our children to thrive and achieve in everything they tackle. All we can do is to leave a prosperous cultural heritage to them and to our American friends. This reunion is an eloquent show of gratitude and success.”

Pan Am’s Orphan Airlift

In the last frantic weeks of the Vietnam War, humanitarian organizations such as Holt International Children’s Services, Friends of All Children, Catholic Relief Service, International Social Services, International Orphans and the Pearl Buck Foundation pleaded with the American government to evacuate the orphans. These were illegitimate children of American servicemen and of mothers who had either died in the war or deserted them.
On April 3, President Gerald Ford authorized Operation Baby-Lift. It was to fly about 70,000 orphans out of Vietnam on 30 flights, using $2 million from a special foreign and children’s fund. The airlift began the next day with commercial and military aircraft flying the children out to the United States, Canada, Europe and Australia for adoption.
Then tragedy struck. A C-5A Galaxy plane, at 23,000 feet during its take-off, exploded, blowing out the rear doors. The ensuing crash killed more than half of the 300 passengers and injured many of the 170 who survived.
However, Operation Baby-Lift went on. Two Pan Am Boeing 747s, chartered by Holt International, departed with 409 children, including the survivors of the crash and 60 volunteer escorts. The planes carried nine crew members, thousands of diapers and hundreds of bassinets and bottles of formula. Three hundred of the orphans were under a year and a half, each had a white ID band on one arm with name and case number, and, on the other, the adopting parents’names and the baby’s destination, whether Seattle, Chicago or New York. Fortunately, the 30-hour flight landed safely on the West coast. In total, 2,300 were brought to safety.
To commemorate the tragedy and joy of a bold initiative that saved those thousands of Vietnamese 30 years ago, the Pan Am conference will include some of the babies and children who survived the C-5A crash. Dr. Matt Steiner, whose Vietnamese name was Long, will tell the audience how the Baby-Lift experience affected his life. He is the subject of a book by Andrea Warren – Escape from Saigon: How a Vietnam War Orphan Became an American Boy. Al Topping, John McGhee and Karen Ryan will tell their dramatic stories as well.
Other topics at the symposium will include a “Historical Background of Pan Am in Vietnam,” by John Krimsly; “The Fall of Saigon and Pan Am’s Role in Evacuation of Employees,” by Al Topping and Will Knapp; the “Flight of Clipper Unity,” by crew members; “Evaluation, Escape and Arrival in America,” by Ken Sitton; “The Fall of Saigon and Those Who Were Left Behind ” by Jim Eckes and Luc Van Nguyen; “Pan Am’s Role in the R&R Story;” and, finally, “Vietnam, Moving Out of the Past” by David Lamb and Sandy Northrop.
Thuy McMurray, a former Pan Am Ticket Agent, said she was looking forward to the event. “It will be an emotional reunion. We will get to see hundreds of our colleagues and friends from around the world. This will be a time to reminisce and close out the past, and look forward to the future. At the reunion, we want to renew the strong friendships which have held us together these past 30 years.”
Although Pan Am jumpstarted the 30th-anniversary commemoration, many other events will be held by the one and a half million Vietnamese now resettled in the United States. On the day of April 30th, three other large groups are organizing huge commemorations.
In early morning, the Vietnamese Community Organization (VNCO) of the Washington Area, in conjunction with 16 other VNCOs from Massachusetts, Connecticut, New York, New Jersey, Georgia, Texas (Houston, Austin, Dallas and Fort Worth), Washington State, Colorado, and Florida (Tampa and Orlando) will celebrate the dedication of street names at the Eden Shopping Center in Falls Church, Virginia. Five Vietnamese military heroes, who refused to surrender to the Communists 30 years ago, but fought and died valiantly, will have their names recorded inside the Center’s parking lot.
In the afternoon, these VNCOs will participate in a peaceful demonstration in front of the Vietnamese Embassy at Sheridan Square in the capital. This is to ask the Communist regime in Vietnam to improve their human rights records by releasing Vietnamese religious leaders and political dissidents who have been held in jail. In its annual report to Congress, the Department of State nominated four countries in the world, including Vietnam, as countries of “Particular Concern” for their violations of religious freedom.
The same morning, both the Vietnamese Veterans and the American Veterans Associations will take part in a parade of motorcycles and cars from the Iwo Jima Statue in Rosslyn to the Vietnam Memorial in D.C. They will celebrate a special service for the 58,000 Americans heroes who died bravely in Vietnam.
In late afternoon, The Viet Tan Party and 10 other groups will hold a Freedom March from John Marshall Park to the West Capitol, where singers will perform until late evening.
It is expected that a total of five thousand Vietnamese will converge from all parts of the U.S. to commemorate the 30th anniversary.