Friday, April 22, 2005

Salute to Pan American Airways

Last flight from Saigon relived after thirty years

The memories are still vivid: a steaming bus ride through the humid morning, the acrid odor of jet fuel, the clouds of smoke from distant gunfire, getting closer. Then about 450 people boarded the last commercial flight out of Saigon, headed for the United States.

That was April 24, 1975, six days before the North Vietnamese tanks rolled into Saigon. A Pan American World Airways Boeing 747 -- crammed with Pan Am and U.S. Embassy staff, frightened refugees, crying orphans and volunteer crew members -- lifted off the potholed tarmac at Tan Son Nhut International Airport on the outskirts of the chaotic city, and took flight while distant rockets took aim.

"It was a heroic rescue mission," recalls David Lamb, who was a Los Angeles Times correspondent who joined the flight when it landed at Clark Air Base in the Philippines. "That was truly a dangerous moment."

The Federal Aviation Administration had ordered all U.S. commercial flights barred from flying in or out of Vietnam, but Pan Am received permission for one final flight. Twenty days earlier, another jetliner, a C-5A Galaxy assigned to Operation Baby Lift, exploded and crashed after an explosion tore off a rear door. More than half of the 300 children and adults aboard died.

But this weekend, the crew of "Clipper Unity," Pan Am's familiar Flight 842 and their Vietnamese baby refugees -- most of whom are now in their 30s -- will reunite at the Crystal Gateway Marriott Hotel in Arlington for a tearful anniversary of the celebrated evacuation, dubbed "Wings of Freedom."

"It represents the drama of the final hours of Saigon. It's the link to the past," says Mr. Lamb, who will participate in the four-day symposium that will call up reminiscences from the Operation Baby Lift survivors.

Stephanie Mansfield - THE WASHINGTON TIMES

The really friendly skies of Pan Am

Once upon a time, before the airplane replaced the streetcar as the way to haul cattle from here to there, the American airliner was the ultimate in extravagant luxury and romance above the clouds.

Travelers dressed like grown-ups for the adventure they expected to get for the price of their ticket. Men took baths on the day of the trip, shaved, and put on clean shirts, long pants and leather shoes. Women felt no compulsion to look (or smell) like men, and dressed accordingly. The scenery aboard was often exquisite.

Nobody looked as bold, as bright or as buff as the crew. The pilots had the look of command authority, and the stewardesses (who would have considered it an insult to be called an "attendant," which is what hospitals call bedpan technicians and restroom superintendents), were the best looking of all. None drew the admiring glances like those aimed at the young women of Pan American World Airways.

Pan Am's planes, gleaming as white as wedding cakes and their tails emblazoned with the baby-blue globe that was the most recognizable icon on the flight line, moved through the traffic on the tarmac as if Pan Am owned the airport. Which was only right, since Pan Am had built the airports in many of the world's most exotic ports of call in the days when a jet was only a vagrant gust of wind, and air travel was for the hale, the hardy, and the well-heeled. The best advice I ever got, arriving in Southeast Asia as a grassy-green correspondent, was from the late Keyes Beech of the Chicago Daily News, who went to Asia to cover World War II and stayed: "Get to know the Pan Am station chiefs. They'll always know more about what's going on than the American ambassador will."

This weekend the ghosts of Pan Am (the airline went to airline heaven in 1991) will hover over a hotel in suburban Virginia, where Pan Am veterans of the last days of the Vietnam War will gather for an emotional reunion with some of the orphans of the storm they rescued at the risk of their own lives as North Vietnamese tanks closed on Tan Son Nhut International Airport on the outskirts of Saigon.

They will be joined by a few other Pan Am veterans of the Vietnam War, the crews from the airline's celebrated R&R flights from Hong Kong, fondly remembered by hundreds of thousands of GIs. The fondest recollections of the GIs are, as mine are, of the stewardesses. I kept a room in a hotel across Nathan Road from the apartment block where a good number of the 50 or so stewardesses assigned to Hong Kong lived. I was even engaged to one of them for that season when everybody in the world was young. (That was my championship season.)

Pan Am took the GIs from Saigon to long weekends in Hong Kong, Bangkok, Taipei, Manila, Singapore and Kuala Lumpur. Even the Muslim fleshpots of K.L., such as they were, looked good to kids who had been in the Vietnamese backcountry for months, with still months to go before returning to what they called "the real world." The first things they wanted were (a) a girlfriend, even if temporary, and (b) running water. They sometimes flushed toilets over and over just to hear the water run, and stood in the shower by the hour.

Those rest-and-recuperation flights were Pan Am's gift to the war effort. Soon into the war, the late Juan Tripp, one of the last of the men who built America's airlines, pulled a fleet of old DC-6s out of storage in the Arizona desert, refurbished them and put them at the service of the military for a dollar a year. Pan Am was determined to give the kids a bit of home, if only for the duration of a flight, and he installed pizza ovens and milkshake machines in the galleys. The stews stuffed the GIs with all the steak, shrimp, pizza and milkshakes they could devour; no airline's first-class passengers were ever treated with such loving kindness. But it's "the girls of Pan Am" the guys remember most.

"I can still see those young faces, the wistful sadness and the gratitude for the smile of a girl from home," recalls Peggy Moore Parr, now retired in St. George, Utah. "The kids were so lonely, and most of them fell in love as soon as we got them to Hong Kong or Manila or wherever. They mooned over photographs of their new 'fiancees' on the trip back to Saigon. The 'fiancees' seemed to have collected lots of beaus. We came to recognize the faces in the photographs. I consoled a lot of heartsick kids with a smile, a tender word, a touch, a well-done rib-eye and a double chocolate malt."

Wesley Pruden is the editor in chief of The Times.

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