Leaving America Behind
Night fog swirled as I stood at the top of the ramp in my Pan Am uniform, sporting my jaunty blue hat and ready to greet our passengers. I watched as a familiar scene unfolded below me. I looked down as a four-year-old girl reached for her father, shrieking, “Daddy, Daddy, Daddy, don’t go, please Daddy, don’t go!” I saw raw emotion on the young father’s face and tears in his eyes as he reluctantly pulled away from her. His wife was holding their daughter’s hand, while bravely wiping away her own tears. She waved slowly as her soldier husband walked away through the cold fog. This was at least my twentieth replay of this scene. No matter how many times I watched it, it still seemed surreal and each time I saw it I was deeply touched.
The young soldier walked towards the ghostly white plane with the sky blue stripe running down its length, the Pan Am logo emblazoned on its tail. The logo represented the lines of latitude of the world, Pan Am’s world. To most people it represented excitement and the adventure of carefree travel — however, I am sure this was not on this soldier’s mind that night. Just glancing at the large blue logo surely would have caused fear and sadness to stir in his gut.
This plane was taking him to a war zone: Vietnam, a world away from Travis Air Force Base in California, America, and his family.
The year: 1969. Drafted. Shafted.
As I watched, other soldiers hugged their crying mothers, and telling them, “Don’t worry, Mama. I’ll be ok.” In fact, there was much to worry about. Fathers were clapping their sons on the back reassuringly, desperately trying to hold back their own their tears. The saddest scene in my mind was a group of several GIs standing in a group apart from the others. There were no loved ones to send them off. They were nervously shooting the bull and smoking cigarettes while watching the smoke disappear into the fog. They were joking with one another, trying to be brave and not show their fear.
When I started work for Pan Am at age 23, I had been looking forward to a life of fun and luxury, seeing the capitals of the world. This I had been enjoying, but the job of ferrying soldiers in and out of a war zone was neither fun nor luxurious. Now, at age 24, I was carrying papers identifying me as a second lieutenant, should I become a prisoner of war, a scene not even remotely in my mind when I applied for the coveted job of Pan Am stewardess.
Since we left at midnight, my passengers were fast asleep soon after takeoff. The previous few hours had been stressful for them, and sleep had come quickly. I walked down the aisle checking seat belts, using a small flashlight so as not to disturb the guys. As I was tucking them in, I surveyed their faces, the faces of innocence. Most were several years younger than I was, and had only seen the TV version of what they were about to face. I had been there, several times. I had already seen things nobody should see. I knew. I had seen the body bags being loaded for the trip back home. We were taking them to hell. As I made sure their blankets were snug around them I was thinking, “Oh my goodness, they are barely old enough to shave!” Sometimes I would ask myself, “Who will come home in the belly of my plane instead of a seat? Would it be this one?”
Once while checking seat belts, I noticed the glint of something shiny. Looking back at me were the eyes of a small teddy bear, tucked almost invisibly a soldier’s arm with only its furry head showing. Smiling, I gave Teddy a pat on the head before continuing my duties. Imagine a young man going off to war carrying his teddy bear.
This leg of their journey would take them to Japan where we would change crews. The next crew would take them on to the hell we all called “Nam.” All I could do for these young men now was to assure their safety while they were on my plane. After that, they would be in the hands of God.
After many hours of flight, we neared the shores of Vietnam. Pretty beaches with beautiful white sand and transparent aqua water passed below us. I am sure the men on board could not see the beauty, for their fear transfixed them. They were quiet, lost in their own thoughts. Ahead was the unknown, the horror that up till now they had only heard and read about. The silence was deafening. Their fears were now about to become reality. We told them to put their seat belts on early, way before final approach. We came in high, very high. Our pilots had been instructed to land this way. We dropped like a rocket into Tan Son Nhut. This was SOP (standard operating procedure) for Nam. We had been warned. Reason was we would catch fewer bullets this way. Our planes were checked after each landing for bullet holes. Reassuring, right? This time we were safe and I was thinking “So far, so good.” Slowly we rolled closer to the terminal. Looking out the windows, I craned my neck to see what was going on. I saw maybe six other Pan Am planes on the ground and F4s. The earth was scarred with huge bomb craters. Smoke was rising from several places. We saw tanks, lots of tanks. Military vehicles of all sorts covered the landscape. Some were intact, some in pieces. Military and Pan Am uniforms everywhere. The fellas we were going to take on R and R were waiting in a group in front of Pan Ops.
The portable stairs were rolled up to the plane and the doors were opened.
Palpably wet heat.
Our bodies were instantly drenched.
Both the front door and the back door were opened, and within minutes the plane was like a sauna. Our clothes were sticking to us — especially with girdles and stockings on, per Pan Am’s uniform code. Forget the white gloves, though. The joke was we were wearing our “all weather uniform” by Evan Piccone (read too hot for Vietnam and too cold for Fairbanks). This is the Vietnam I knew and they would soon know. With the doors now open, we were assaulted by the noise of F-4s taking off and landing, the smell of jet fuel, and the chaos of bombs and rockets exploding. Welcome to Vietnam.
Jill in uniform, 1969
“Memories from a Pan Am Stewardess – circa 1969” by Jill Nieglos