Flight Status

During the Vietnam War, the women who served on special Pan Am flights flew into a war zone to transport soldiers. Why has their role been forgotten?
Pan Am flight attendants in Saigon in the 1960s. (Courtesy of panam.org)
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In the winter of 1968, a Boeing 707, heavy with American troops and body bags, took rounds of antiaircraft fire immediately upon takeoff from Tan Son Nhut Air Base in Saigon. At once, a right engine burst into flames. It was the middle of the Tet Offensive, when coordinated Viet Cong raids pounded American installations in South Vietnam. A GI sitting by the wing spotted the engine fire outside his window and caught the attention of one of the stewardesses, Gayle Larson, then 25 years old, who sped to the front to alert the cockpit crew of three.

The flight engineer raced into the cabin to inspect. As Larson remembers, the planeload of GIs was unimpressed, “paying no attention to the disaster outside the cabin windows.” The flight was redirected from its original destination — some holiday spot in the Pacific: maybe Hong Kong, Bangkok or Tokyo, no one remembers now — and instead flew to Clark Air Base in the Philippines. The 707 was a first-generation long-distance jet with four engines, but it could fly on just three. In an all-economy configuration, it could carry 180 GIs.

Larson and her roommate, Susan Harris, who was also on the flight, secured the cabin for safety and fed the troops. “We were just trying to make sure everything was okay,” Harris says.

Now in their 70s, Larson, of Portland, Ore., and Harris, of Kingston, Wash., both remember that surviving a sniper attack and an engine failure was a moment of comic juxtapositions: The wing was on fire, but inside the smell of freshly baked Nestlé Toll House cookies wafted through the cabin. During their years of service, it was a ritual for the roommates to mix up and freeze rolls of cookie dough at their home in Sausalito, Calif., for the trips to Vietnam.

“The guys ate a lot of cookies” that day, Larson says. “They had probably seen far worse things on the ground fighting.” A few nights later, while waiting for a new engine to arrive from Hong Kong, at a happy hour in the officers’ club at Clark Air Base, Harris met a pilot for Braniff airlines who would become her husband.

For a small and unrecognized group of women, now mostly in their 70s, such high-drama, meet-cute moments are the personal and pedestrian memories of a war that otherwise divided a nation. These Pan Am stewardesses (now an outdated term but common at the time) were volunteers and got no special training for flying into war, though their pilots were mostly World War II or Korean War vets. Their aircraft routinely took ground fire. The pilots, all male, received hazardous-duty pay for flights into the combat zone. The women aboard did not.

For the Pan Am flight attendants, there were no parades after the war, nor much movement to celebrate their role or their place as accidental pioneers in military history.

The U.S. Air Force gave the flight attendants a rank of second lieutenants; from the point of view of the Geneva Conventions, if they were captured they could claim protections of prisoners of war. But they were civilians. They wore uniforms but not jungle fatigues: wrist-length white gloves and a baby blue “overseas cap.” In addition to serving as first aid and safety officers in flight, the women had to undergo girdle and weight checks.

During the Vietnam War, Pan Am had an exclusive contract with the Department of Defense to run R&R (rest and recreation) flights for soldiers on leave throughout the Pacific. Rented to the nation for only $1, it was effectively a military airline within the airline, starting with a fleet of six DC-6 propeller aircraft and, ultimately, 707 jets, calling daily at three air bases in the theater of combat. “We staff it with our best and most beautiful stewardesses, and the food and service are the finest,” said the Pan Am vice president in 1966 to the Associated Press. Over the course of the war, some of the women would fly as many as 200 times into the combat zone.

The Vietnam airlift crews got no medals or congressional citations for their work, though they were a necessary part of national security. There were no parades, nor much movement to celebrate their role or their place as accidental pioneers in military history. Where airlift crews for the 1991 Gulf War were celebrated with service medals from the Air Force, the pilots and flight attendants of the Vietnam War have not been similarly recognized. For more than 50 years, the stewardesses’ war stories have mostly not been told. They are important battlefield stories, war narratives that just happen to belong to women.

An illustration from Pan Am's 1966 annual report. (University of Miami/Courtesy of panam.org)

The R&R flights were a key part of boosting troop morale for a rapidly unpopular war. The program aimed “to remove the individual from his normal duty environment in order to provide a respite from the rigors of a combat tour in Vietnam,” according to a directive from the Military Assistance Command, Vietnam. Trips initially went to short-haul destinations in Asia such as Taipei or Bangkok.

The Pan Am stewardesses served a military role during the Vietnam War some 30 years before the U.S. armed forces would revoke the combat exclusion policy for women. Of the 2.7 million American troops who saw active duty in the Vietnam War, 91 percent traveled to the war zone on one of 23 U.S. commercial air carriers, which hauled one-fourth of military cargo overseas.

“It seems unreal,” Patricia Ireland says of the notion that these flight attendants performed a key role in America’s war footing. Ireland, past president of the National Organization for Women, is perhaps the best-known former Pan Am flight attendant of the ’60s; seven years working for the airline helped inspire her feminist activism, which included campaigning for the Equal Rights Amendment. “That just changes the nature of their job.”

The R&R flights were only one part of the total Vietnam airlift. For every conflict since World War II, America has moved its troops and cargo across the seas via airplane. By policy, our military does not maintain enough aircraft to perform that job, as buying and servicing a large fleet of transport planes is expensive in peacetime. Instead, American forces rely on a partnership between the Pentagon and commercial airlines so that in times of national emergency there is a set organization and command structure in place. By 1967, some 800 flight attendants were working in the combat zone, transporting around 2.5 million military passengers. For many young soldiers, the female crew members would be the last American women they would ever see.

Pan Am flight attendant Isabel Dustman with Robert Gear. (panam.org)

“We are war buddies,” Helene Harper Shapiro of Potomac, Md., says of the friendship bonds with former colleagues that span half a century. It was a time in their lives marked by hard work but also by adventure. They signed on for around-the-world trips and exotic layovers with the United States’ first global airline; Pan Am had only international routes, no domestic flights. “We were kind of the first women who were globalized, who lived a globalized existence long before anybody else did,” says Helen Davey, who now lives in Los Angeles. It was easy to make friends at work, the former flight attendants remember, because everyone was about the same age, everyone had outgoing personalities, everyone had been to college at least two years and spoke a foreign language. They were predominantly white, though the Pacific routes employed Asian women, about 11 percent of the total stewardess corps. The uniform was a great equalizer. “We were clones of each other,” says Marjorie Perry of Tucson.

Flight attendants were among the largest group of American civilians in the combat theater. A typical soldier’s tour was only 12 months in country; the infamous “one and done” policy hampered America’s ability to contest the war, but it was designed to quell anti-draft sentiment. These women, therefore, had an unmatched longitudinal vision of America’s years in Vietnam.

Some volunteered to staff the airlift through the duration of the conflict, from the troop buildup under President Lyndon B. Johnson to the very last flights out of a surrendering Saigon in April 1975. No other women — and few men — can say they saw as much of the Vietnam War for as long.

Pan Am flight attendant Marjorie Perry. (Courtesy of Marjorie Perry)

Former stewardesses repeat the refrain: Despite the horrors of war, flights out of Vietnam were joyous, the happiest places in the Pacific; GIs often broke into applause on takeoff. Likewise, returning flights were somber. “You could hear a pin drop, not a word, not a peep out of them,” recalls Jacqui Nolte of Granite Bay, Calif., among the women who flew through the Tet Offensive. “They knew where they were going.”

While the women were all young, most just out of college, they remember the troops were even younger. Many were teenagers who read comic books throughout the flight.

Flight attendants shepherding GIs overseas were trained to be first responders and safety officers in the sky, but they offered themselves up as therapists, big sisters and pen pals, too. It was an age before in-flight movies, and the women were extroverts and aimed to have fun with the troops, bringing more than just cookies aboard, but also Easter eggs, party hats, wigs and costumes for in-flight dress-up contests. They acted as unofficial tour guides for the exotic destinations ahead, recommending the right places to buy pearls, silks or perfume for some girlfriend or sister back home.

Because of the duration of the flights, the women had time to get to know the troops. Some say they tried to keep up the friendships afterward, occasionally to sobering effect. “I started writing to different soldiers, being a pen pal to several of them, but they all got killed, and I felt like a jinx,” remembers Helen Davey, who flew with Pan Am for 20 years.

Stewardesses could be as bawdy as they were compassionate: Some cabin crews taped suggestive magazine ads to the tray tables, so when the trays were brought down for meal service, soldiers were greeted with images of scantily clad models in bikinis. On one flight, the purser announced a surprise: “Dessert is going to be served topless,” recalls John Marshall, a former Pan Am flight engineer, now an aviation safety inspector for the Federal Aviation Administration in St. Louis. The cabin of GIs erupted in cheers and whistles. As the dessert cart rolled down the aisle, the flight engineer — a man — walked behind it with his shirt off, delivering ice cream to the troops.

The meal service for military charters was first class, though cabins were configured in all economy seats: The troops got thick steaks prepared to order, ice cream and fresh milk. There was no alcohol service, but flight attendants would sometimes reach into the cocktail kit, pour milk into a martini glass, insert a swizzle stick, and add a few drops of maraschino cherry juice and a cherry to simulate a tropical drink. “We treated them like kings,” says Jacqui Nolte, who flew with Pan Am for six years. “It was really an honor to be able to do that for them.”

Military personnel near a Pan Am B-727 in Saigon. (panam.org)

Even airplane landings were intense. Instead of a low and gentle approach, as at a modern airport, the aircraft came in high to the very approach-end of the airstrip. At the last possible moment, the captain would point the plane’s nose at the ground and dive “practically straight down” to avoid antiaircraft fire, says Marshall. “It took a lot of skill to flare [a DC-6] at the last minute and get the airplane in a position to land on that runway.”

The former stewardesses still remember the blast of heat upon opening the aircraft door in Vietnam. They would change from flat-heeled cabin shoes — so as not to puncture an inflatable slide in an emergency — to mandatory stilettos. Their baby-blue wool skirts and blazers were alleged to be all-weather material, even in the tropics, but the regulation nylon stockings were intolerably hot for a jungle.

The ground operation was quick. Aircraft were allowed no more than two hours to turn around and unload a full plane of GIs, refuel and reload. After landing, engineers checked the fuselage for bullet holes. In an era of hijackings, crews would get held hostage by both Vietnamese dissidents and American soldiers. For security, cabin crews were often ordered to not leave the airplane once it was on the ground.

A white passenger airplane with a big blue ball on its tail was a standing target, visible above the tree line. The airfield at Danang was littered on either side with downed military aircraft and blown-up trucks.

“We dropped the guys off, and there were machine guns at the end of the ramp, and they were shooting at us at the end of the runway,” says Nolte. As a new flight full of GIs would race up the stairs, men sometimes handed off pieces of fresh shrapnel to the women for souvenirs.

Men who had families frequently chose to take leave in Honolulu if they could, meeting up with wives and small children. Those flights and the airport reunions stand out for the stewardesses. “I remember one little boy grasping the leg of his father, saying, ‘Don’t go! Don’t go!’ That really broke my heart,” says Donna Igoe of Sherman Oaks, Calif. “That’s what they were facing, and they were enormously courageous.”

For Thieu-Tra Duong Iwafuchi, Pan Am’s first Vietnamese stewardess, who lives in San Francisco, the route was painful and personal. She was born in North Vietnam and fled to the south after French colonists killed her father. To visit her mother and sisters, who remained in Saigon, Duong Iwafuchi would bid for flight patterns that took her home. “I’m from a big family, and I got to see my family every month at least one or two times.”

When the city fell in April 1975, Duong Iwafuchi evacuated Saigon on the very last commercial flight out, a “mercy flight” carrying the Vietnamese families of Pan Am personnel as well as Vietnamese orphans. Her five sisters escaped on that flight by wearing surplus Pan Am uniforms.

A Pan Am B-707 in Saigon. (panam.org)

As jets came to dominate the R&R service, troops could take leave as far away as Australia and Hawaii. The destination list expanded alongside American commitment in Southeast Asia, with evermore cities absorbing the tens of thousands of GIs streaming into the region. At its peak in 1969, the R&R program flew to Bangkok, Hawaii, Hong Kong, Kuala Lumpur, Manila, Taipei, Tokyo and Sydney. Trips got dangled as an incentive for reenlistment: Soldiers who extended their tours could be eligible for a second leave after only three months. By the later half of 1970, about 17,000 soldiers would take R&R every month.

Many of the women used layovers in Asia to visit wounded soldiers at military hospitals in Vietnam, Guam, Manila and Tokyo. “The kindness between some of these men was unbelievable,” Ann Moon, in Santa Fe, N.M., remembers of her hospital visits. Moon flew with Pan Am for 24 years. “I’ll never forget this man with a head wound helping a man without legs, amputated at the thighbone. And the man with no legs helping the man with [the head wound], without his faculties.”

“One [amputee] asked me, ‘Is my wife going to accept me this way?’ recalls Marjorie Perry. “ ‘Of course she will,’ I said. Now I wonder, did he even live?”

Former stewardesses say AWOL attempts grew more frequent, and the number of drugs found in the aircraft cabins increased. Smoking was still allowed on airplanes then, and flights were thick with marijuana smoke.

Over the base loudspeakers, President Johnson announced a halt to naval and air attacks in Vietnam. The GIs looked up from the tarmac as the president spoke. Stewardesses stood still.

“I had 19 heroin addicts I was bringing out of Vietnam, and they were going through withdrawal on the plane, and it was terrifying to watch,” says Nancy Hult Ganis, a former flight attendant of eight years who lives in San Francisco and produced the short-lived television series “Pan Am” for ABC. “I felt really angry because I thought these were young kids put in a situation where they couldn’t cope, and [drug use] was their method, and we have no means to handle this. I was mad at the whole situation, at realizing the insanity of war.”

The souring tenor of the war was impossible to miss, even for women who say they were nonpolitical. Helen Davey was in Danang on April 1, 1968, when she heard President Johnson’s famous Vietnam speech over the base loudspeakers. He announced a halt to naval and air attacks in Vietnam, an olive branch to the North Vietnamese. The GIs looked up from the tarmac as the president spoke. Stewardesses stood still.

“With America’s sons in the fields far away, with America’s future under challenge right here at home, with our hopes and the world’s hopes for peace in the balance every day, I do not believe that I should devote an hour or a day of my time to any personal partisan causes or to any duties other than the awesome duties of this office — the presidency of your country. Accordingly, I shall not seek, and I will not accept, the nomination of my party for another term as your president.”

Afterward, “The soldiers came on board shocked,” Davey says.

With jobs and pay that divided sharply along gender lines, the airline industry was among the first workplaces to face scrutiny under the 1964 Civil Rights Act. Within a decade, courts would undo the industry’s gender, age, marriage, race and pregnancy restrictions. In 1968, a mandatory retirement age between 30 and 35 for flight attendants was struck down. In 1971 the airlines’ marriage ban was ruled illegal, as was the prohibition on male flight attendants. In 1974, courts ruled that men and women doing the same work should get equal pay.

Marjorie Perry, like all women who flew to Vietnam, was required to get inoculations for tropical diseases such as yellow fever and cholera, from the company doctor. In 1969, she told the physician she wasn’t feeling well. He diagnosed the flu and gave her the shots. After a few days, when she hadn’t recovered, Perry returned to the clinic. As she remembers, the doctor told her, “Congratulations. You’re pregnant. You’re fired.”

In 1971 Perry joined a lawsuit filed in federal court challenging workplace discrimination against pregnancy and motherhood. The U.S. courts would soon make it clear: If fathers of small children were not getting fired on the spot, there was no reason mothers should not also be allowed to keep their jobs. It was possible to argue and enforce Title VII of the Civil Rights Act in no small part because commercial carriers got so much federal money from the war.

Perry won her suit, and she returned to Pan Am as a working mother in 1973. Congress passed the Pregnancy Discrimination Act in 1978, an amendment to Title VII, protecting working women’s rights to maternity leave and benefits. “We changed the airlines,” Perry says.

The stewardesses played a critical national defense role in the war. And though Pan Am no longer exists — the company folded in 1991 — its female crew members were eyewitnesses to history. The women who worked for the Vietnam airlift say that, by and large, they are not troubled that they have been left out of America’s Vietnam chapter, or that the nation has barely recognized their place in the war.

“The guys recognized it,” Ann Moon says. “And that means a lot.”

Sarah Rose is the author of “D-Day Girls: The Spies Who Armed the Resistance, Sabotaged the Nazis, and Helped Win World War II” and “For All the Tea in China: How England Stole the World’s Favorite Drink and Changed History.”

Photo editing by Dudley M. Brooks. Design by Victoria Adams Fogg.

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