Pan Am Stewardesses Recall Last Flight Out Of Vietnam, 40 Years After Fall Of Saigon


Category:  History & Sociology

Via:  kavika  •  3 years ago  •  18 comments

Pan Am Stewardesses Recall Last Flight Out Of Vietnam, 40 Years After Fall Of Saigon

S E E D E D   C O N T E N T

Pan Am, the iconic airline that served American for decades and covered the world with their flights. 

The Pan Am Clipper is iconic in aviation history. 

This is the story of thre most fareful flight. The last flight out of Siagon.


(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 are aware of.

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.


jrDiscussion - desc
Professor Principal
1  seeder  Kavika     3 years ago

The all volunteer crew of the ''Last Flight'' are, IMO, hero's....

Mr. Al Topping, who adopted hundreds to get them out of Vietnam and was instrumental in the flight is my neighbor. He lives only a few blocks from me and it's been most interesting to discuss it with him. Being close to the same age and being a Vietnam vet we've had some most interesing consersations. 

I flew on Pan Am numerous times to the Orient and a memorable flight to Belgrade Yugoslavia.. 

Al was with Pan Am for 22 years and stationed in NY, SF, Miami, Vietnam, Okinawa, Osaka and Beijing. After they closed their doors Al went to work for the Miami Herald Publishing company for 13 years before retiring. He couldn't stay retired and went to work for the Miccosukee Golf & Country Club for 10 years before retiring again. 

Al can be seen around our community wearing his ''HERE TODAY AND GONE TO MAUI'' T-shirt. 

Professor Principal
1.1  seeder  Kavika   replied to  Kavika @1    3 years ago



Professor Quiet
1.1.1  Ed-NavDoc  replied to  Kavika @1.1    3 years ago

On the step..

Raven Wing
Professor Expert
1.2  Raven Wing  replied to  Kavika @1    3 years ago

An extremely interesting and informative article, Kavika. Thank you so much for sharing it with us. It is truly great to learn about the many unsung and unacknowledged 'heroes' who have helped save so many lives in disregard of their own safety. 

It is wonderful that these brave women still meet annually and live in Sisterhood with each other after so many years. In situations like the one they lived through give true meaning to the words "We Are One."

Professor Principal
1.2.1  seeder  Kavika   replied to  Raven Wing @1.2    3 years ago
In situations like the one they lived through give true meaning to the words "We Are One."


Professor Quiet
1.3  Ed-NavDoc  replied to  Kavika @1    3 years ago

Further proof that not all heroes wear a military uniform. This old sailor says Bravo Zulu to that incredible crew! 

Professor Principal
1.3.1  seeder  Kavika   replied to  Ed-NavDoc @1.3    3 years ago
Further proof that not all heroes wear a military uniform.


Professor Guide
2  1stwarrior    3 years ago

Left Da Nang on 9/20/68 on a Continental "Golden Tail", filled to the max.  There was a medium cheer when we took off, but, man, when we hit LA, you'd have thought everyone had just won the lottery - which we had.

The crew was fantastic.  One Stew, Kathy, said this was her 40th flight out of country and always got tears when the bird touched down in LA, watching the men literally run off the plane, get on their hands and knees and kiss Mother Earth 'cause they were finally home.  And then we got outside the gates to the tomatoes, cabbages, lettuce, spit, balls of shit, toilet paper, sanitary napkins and other things.  Yeah - great to be home.

Totally admired the crews on the Pan Am/Continental flights 'cause they put up with a tremendous amount of emotions from the troops - and all of us gave all we could to the crews for their gifts of giving to us.

Professor Principal
2.1  seeder  Kavika   replied to  1stwarrior @2    3 years ago
Totally admired the crews on the Pan Am/Continental flights 'cause they put up with a tremendous amount of emotions from the troops - and all of us gave all we could to the crews for their gifts of giving to us.

Agreed. I came out on a Continental flight. Stop in Guam, Hawaii and then the Golden State. 

Professor Quiet
2.1.1  Ed-NavDoc  replied to  Kavika @2.1    3 years ago

Good story Kavika. Since I was Navy flying as medical aircrew on USMC UH-1 Hueys off the USS Okinawa as embarked personnel I had to ride the ship back to Pearl Harbor and then fly Continental on to CONUS. Those Stewardess's treated us great! They knew we had just come off 6 months of air ops off of Da Nang.

Professor Guide
2.1.2  1stwarrior  replied to  Ed-NavDoc @2.1.1    3 years ago

When were you on the Oki?  Our squadron (HMM-362/Ugly Angels) was there also in '68.

Professor Quiet
2.1.3  Ed-NavDoc  replied to  1stwarrior @2.1.2    3 years ago

That was way before my time which was early 74.

Sister Mary Agnes Ample Bottom
Professor Guide
2.2  Sister Mary Agnes Ample Bottom  replied to  1stwarrior @2    3 years ago

1968 was waaayyy before my time at Continental (now United), but regardless of hire date, everyone would eventually hear the stories that came from that time.  There were a few flight attendants who were still working.  They scared the crap out of me, but respect for them was automatic.

The closest thing I came to it was bringing troops home from Desert Storm.  As part of an all volunteer flight crew, we would fly in under cover of night with fighter escorts, fill every seat on the plane, and haul buns out of there.  It was far and away the most worthwhile thing I did during my time at CAL.  I still have a box of patches and pins that I...accumulated...during those flights.  A kiss or a hug would net some fairly respectable goodies, but you wouldn't believe what they wanted in return for giving us patches or pins straight off of the uniforms they were wearing.  It took me weeks to pick the sewing threads off of all of those patches.   Wait, what?     

Professor Principal
2.2.1  seeder  Kavika   replied to  Sister Mary Agnes Ample Bottom @2.2    3 years ago
but you wouldn't believe what they wanted in return for giving us patches or pins straight off of the uniforms they were wearing.  It took me weeks to pick the sewing threads off of all of those patches.   Wait, what?     

I'm not going to follow up on that Sister...LOL....

Kudo's to you for the missions that you flew...

Professor Principal
2.2.2  seeder  Kavika   replied to  Kavika @2.2.1    3 years ago

Meeting Al was great but I really love to meet all the stewardesses, pilot and co pilot.

Sadly the pilot has passed away.

Al told me that they were the best, the very best. 

Masters Participates
3  Enoch    3 years ago

Dear Brother Kavika: Very interesting and inspiring article.

I agree with and support all previous posts in this discussion thread.

Peace, Abundant Blessings, and Salted Peanuts in a Tin Foil Wrapper to Pass Time Until Touch Down.


Buzz of the Orient
Professor Principal
4  Buzz of the Orient    3 years ago

Yet another interesting, in fact compelling story, posted by NT's champion storyteller, whether his own or borrowed.

Professor Principal
4.1  seeder  Kavika   replied to  Buzz of the Orient @4    3 years ago

Thanks Buzz,

Having Al Topping as a neighbor was been more than interesting...Amazing the people that you find living in a retirement community....More stories at a later time.


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