Watch Flight From Saigon: 40 Years Later – Thursday, April 30 at 7:00 p.m. on KPIX 5
(KPIX 5) — 40 years ago, a heroic mission unfolded at Tan Son Nhut Air Base near Saigon, a few days before the North Vietnamese army and the Viet Cong took over South Vietnam on April 30, 1975.
It involved a group of women who volunteered for an extremely dangerous mission that few people know about – the last commercial flight out of South Vietnam.
Four of them recently gathered to remember this bond that they formed decades ago during the Fall of Saigon and the end of the Vietnam War: Susan Matson-Krings, Pamela Borgfeldt Taylor, Laura Lee Gillespie, and Thieu “Tra” Duong Iwafuchi.
“We had a mission to do so we just went in and did what we had to do,” explained Gillespie.
In April of 1975, they were all working as stewardesses – ‘flight attendants’ became the preferred term years later – for Pan American World Airways. The situation in South Vietnam was unraveling as the Communists massed on the outskirts of Saigon in preparation for final victory.
In late March, World Airways tried to evacuate refugees out of Da Nang, but the rescue plane was mobbed by hundreds of panicked South Vietnamese soldiers, armed with guns and grenades.
Those who could not shove their way onto the World Airways plane, crowded into the luggage compartments, overloading the plane. Those left behind, threw grenades and fired at the plane as it took off, damaging a wing and the landing gear. The situation was chaotic and violent.
“Saigon had not fallen yet, but they were moving. The front was moving south, and it was just going to be a matter of hours,” said Taylor.
By the end of April, the Federal Aviation Administration had banned all U.S. commercial flights in and out of South Vietnam.
But Pan Am got special permission for one final flight: a mercy mission to Saigon that involved a Boeing 747 jumbo jet.
“It was an eerie feeling to me to know we were going. Flying into a place that people did not want to go into but only to leave and get out of,” said Matson-Krings.
The airport was closed, so the 747 went in without tower and without any restrictions. They parked quite a bit away, on the tarmac.
The goal: to evacuate Pan Am’s Vietnamese employees and their families, and to cram anyone else they could onboard; that included Duong Iwafuchi’ s four teenage sisters. Duong Iwafuchi was based in San Francisco.
“I tried to get my family out because I’m Vietnamese,” explained the stewardess.
Borgfeldt Taylor had a plan. In the cargo area, with extra uniforms, they disguised Tra’s teenage sisters as stewardesses. The Pan Am uniform style is similar to ones in the SFO Museum archives at San Francisco International Airport.
One by one, the sisters were driven out to the plane on the tarmac, past soldiers with machine guns. Matson-Krings had them practice their new story lines: that they were not from Saigon, but San Francisco, just in case immigration authorities stopped them.
Once onboard, the teenage sisters were stashed upstairs, in the lounge. It was a safe hiding place.
As for the Vietnamese Pan Am airport employees, they needed documents to leave the country. The American station manager took a cue from Operation Babylift – where thousands of Vietnamese orphans were evacuated to the U.S. – they all had adoption papers.
So station manager Al Topping thought he’d give it a try. He ended up submitting papers to adopt roughly 300 of his airport employees as well as their immediate family members. It worked.
Since the jumbo jet could fit dozens more, the stewardesses passed around pillowcases for donations and bought visas for any other Vietnamese refugee that they could squeeze onboard, including children and babies. The FAA and pilot Bob Berg allowed them to suspend the rules and crowd passengers on the floor, in the bathroom – anywhere they could fit them.
The flight then took off – with almost 500 passengers.
But takeoff was not without serious challenge. First, a fighter jet crashed on the runway, blocking their departure. Once that was cleared, they taxied and took off, but the Communists started firing at their plane.
“You could see there was gunfire, at the end of the runway, they were firing at us.” remembered Gillespie.
Duong Iwafuchi remembers working very hard to get everyone settled onboard. She did not have time to think about the danger. “It was such a relief that everyone got on the plane, including my sisters,” she said.
The mood on the plane was somber.
“Very sad, emotional,” said Duong Iwafuchi.
The Vietnamese on board were leaving everything they knew behind and flying into an uncertain, unknown future. Even so, they asked the stewardesses if they could help, and shared whatever food they had brought on board, passing trays around.
The crew from that flight reunites almost every year – sadly, without Berg who recently passed away. By all accounts, Berg was a wonderful pilot who trusted his crew to do what they needed to do to evacuate their employees and any other refugee that they could cram onboard.
Berg had taken a big risk flying into Saigon, according to Borgfeldt Taylor. One of his brothers was a POW and the other worked for the CIA. “But he was the kind of man you’d want on a flight like that,” said Borgfeldt Taylor.
Another stewardess, Gudren Meisner, was unable to come to the reunion, but she was instrumental in getting children onboard and getting the flight ready for takeoff. All four of the stewardesses sung her praises and hopes that she can make it to the next reunion. “I wanted to remember her for her willingness to go into Vietnam and serve the refugees,” said Gillespie.
All spoke highly of working for Pan Am and appreciate the role it played in their lives. “Pan Am was a wonderful airline. It was the airline of the world. It pioneered the whole world, and I was happy to be with Pan Am for 28 years,” said Gillespie.
Duong Iwafuchi is the only one still working as a flight attendant.
These women consider themselves sisters. They’re grateful for each other and grateful for the Vietnamese passengers that they helped shepherd to freedom.
“It’s made for a richer country,” said Matson-Krings
“A part of the fabric. A wonderful part of the fabric,” said Borgfeldt Taylor.