Wednesday, August 29, 2012
World Airways’ Last Flight from Danang
“And then I saw them low over Danang Bay slowly climbing out, with their badly damaged wings and their landing gear still down, their cargo door open and their rear air stair extended with several people clearly clinging to it. Incredibly, at that moment they made their last transmission to us which was, See you in Saigon!”
Tony Coalman, Air America pilot, describing World Airways’ last flight from Danang
March 29, 1975.
Edward J. Daly had a plan to save South Vietnam. Not only did he know how to help America’s beleaguered client in Southeast Asia snatch victory from the jaws of defeat, he proclaimed, but in the process he was convinced he could inspire the resolve, confidence and faith of the Free World. All that was needed, he believed, was for one courageous man to act quickly and decisively. And when Daly looked in the mirror in the very early morning of March 29th, 1975, he recognized that man!
The Daly plan required breaking government regulations, disobeying orders from the American Embassy and stepping on some diplomatic toes. But when a small free friendly nation struggled desperately and against tremendous odds to survive, when heroic action was required, infractions were unimportant to the man who fancied himself sometimes as “Wyatt Earp with airplanes” and at other times as “just a Drugstore Cowboy from Chicago.”
At his company, World Airways, Daly assembled a bold corps of seemingly fearless men and women he knew he could count on absolutely to accompany him on his mission to rescue South Vietnam and the Free World. And, best of all, the entire colorful adventure would be filmed and broadcast on the CBS Evening News – guaranteed!
Daly was a man who stirred deep feelings in people who knew him. Graham Martin, the temperamental American Ambassador to South Vietnam in 1975 disliked Daly intensely and let everyone within earshot of his office know it. The man” is loose cannon,” that “could go off at any moment and hurt a lot of people,” he warned, while Daly referred to Martin as “little more than a used car salesman.” Deputy Ambassador in Saigon, Wolf Lehman recalled that “Daly was almost tolerable when he played by the rules and when he wasn’t drinking. But when he was drinking, which was almost all the time, he made a great nuisance of himself and he waved guns around far too much.” “Ed Daly was a loud-mouthed show boater,” a pilot for a competing airline remembers, “and he cost a lot of lives with his reckless behavior.”
A Daly employee at World Airways described him as “a mega drunk.” He recalls Daly coming to union meetings with a gun and smacking it down on the table. “Our union was the Teamsters and he even scared them,” the man recalls. “I’ve got a lot of Daly stories,” he concluded, “some funny, but most were sad.
Yet most of Daly’s crews and staff are more charitable in their estimation of the man. “I tell you Ed Daly was quite a character, “Joe Hrezo, one of his station managers recalls. “I know a lot of people didn’t like him, but he did what he wanted and when he wanted and he got things done. He wasn’t afraid to say what he thought. Yes, he hurt a lot of feelings, but he never hurt anybody, not intentionally anyway.” Charles Patterson, Daly’s Vice President at World, remembered that “there was never any question that Ed Daly was given to the grand gesture. And he could be a pain in the ass on occasion. But he had a great generosity and great humor and great humanity usually overlaid by the bully boy. Yes, he had a great ego. I had no problems with this, though. Hell, he was an exciting guy. There was never dull around him. Never a dull moment!” Valerie Witherspoon, who doubled as Daly’s personal assistant in Saigon as well as a flight attendant for his airline remembers her boss “could be very loud and insistent and he was prone to outbursts of temper. He did not suffer fools easily. And he was unsparing in his criticism of mistakes or of anything less than perfect performance. But he was also forgiving and he had a good heart and he had a big laugh and he could take teasing when he was in a good mood. People didn’t understand how intelligent and how well-informed he was regarding the situation in South Vietnam and the rest of Asia. He was nobody’s fool, that’s for sure. And he knew exactly what he was doing, most of the time.”
“My father’s father was a fireman,” Daly’s daughter Charlotte explained. “He came from an Irish family of generations of firemen and police officers in Chicago. And of course, that means generations of people looking after other people and I guess he grew up with that ingrained in him. Helping others, rescuing others, was in his DNA. He could never resist trying to save humanity whenever the chance arose. And so he tried, again and again. My father was a hero!”
Daly was born in 1923 on Chicago’s tough South Side. When Daly was 15 his father died, leaving his widow with four children to support. “Things got a little tough then,” Daly remembered. He stayed in school while working to supplement the family income. It was “stoop labor, topping onions, things like that,” he said. He became a semi-professional boxer to make some extra money and what he lacked in talent he made up for with determination in the ring. He enrolled in the University of Illinois and majored in chemical engineering. He held several part time jobs and ran a truck line on the side to finance his schooling. He dropped out of the university to join the Army and served in the Marshall islands during WWII. Home from the war he settled in Los Angeles, worked in a bank and then jumped into in the air freight and air cargo business. In 1950, at the age of 27, he used $50,000 he won in a poker game to buy World Airways, a small outfit with two leased war-surplus aircraft and $250,000 in debts. [Daly liked to say he won the airline in a poker game, which is not stretch.]
He struggled to increase the size of his fleet of planes. He bought a burned-out cargo plane for $75,000, restored it with the help of several mechanics and an engineer, flew it for 18,000 hours of business and sold it for $175,000. Substantial profit came to World in 1956 when Daly was awarded several lucrative military cargo contracts. He used his fresh cash flow to buy more airplanes. He lobbied in Washington to get a contract for military service throughout the Pacific. He moved the company’s American headquarters from New Jersey to Oakland, California, and opened an Asian headquarters in Yokota, Japan. “We ran a paper route, at first,” Pilot Ken Healy recalls. “We delivered Stars and Stripes to US military bases in Asia. “We left Yokota every morning at 4:00 with 5,000 pounds of Stars and Stripes and about 5000 pounds of whole blood.” Daly bought more airplanes. He bought and sold a chain of banks in California. By the spring of 1975 World Airlines had 150 crew members and 330 flight attendants to serve his 14 jets – including 3 Boeing 727-100s and a luxurious prop-driven Convair 580 that became his private plane and was christened “The Pickle.”
Daly’s personal fortune was estimated to be $200 million in the spring of 1975. He owned 81 percent of World which was the most profitable airline in the US at that time (profiting $20 million in 1974 on $100 million gross business.) He had homes in Lake Tahoe, Nevada, London and on a hilltop in Orinda, California east of San Francisco. Daly purchased his Orinda property – Rancho Daly –for $1.5 million in cash in small denominations. His wife and daughter spent most of their time at the ranch where Daly maintained a stable of prize Arabian horses.
In California, Daly drove a 1972 red Lamborghini Espada. He dressed short-sleeved safari suits, some in garish colors, made for him by a tailor in Saigon –“Minh the Tailor” - the same tailor outfitted nearly the entire western news corps in Vietnam and also made the safari suit uniforms for World’s, flight attendants and staff. He favored a Montecristi Panama hat exactly like the one Clark Gable wore in “Gone With the Wind.” He carried his snub-nosed .38 (he called his “pistola”) in a leather shoulder holster and he kept a Bowie knife under his pillow for added security.
Daly cultivated powerful friends in high places. He dined regularly with President Nguyen Van Thieu of South Vietnam and his ministers. He was on a first name basis with the military officers of the South Vietnamese Joint General Staff. He dined with leading South Korean government officials in Seoul (and once fell asleep at the table during the after-dinner conversation) and defied the local curfew in order to call on General Richard Stilwell, Commander of Chief of UN Forces in South Korea in order to discuss the deteriorating situation in South Vietnam. He stayed up all night with Stillwell exploring the possible consequences of a victory of North Vietnam over South Vietnam (Stilwell had commanded the U.S. Military Assistance Command, Thailand and had been General Westmoreland’s Chief of Staff in Vietnam).
Daly was a personal friend of King Hussein of Jordan, who donated a pair of priceless Arabian stallions to Rancho Daly. And he loved to hobnob in Honolulu with singers Don Ho and Connie Haines. He relished his role as Grand Marshal of San Francisco’s St. Patrick’s Day parade in 1972 (and he celebrated the event by holding a $10,000 party). He was part Indiana Jones (a decade before Hollywood created the character), part Donald Trump and part young James Cagney.
Daly was also conscientiously charitable and had many philanthropies but he did not advertise them to the press or public. He supported half a dozen orphanages – which he personally visited often -- in South Vietnam. He also financed a state-of- the- art hospital in Saigon. He was a major contributor to the United Negro College fund and established scholarships for students from Korea, Jordan and Mali. He was a benefactor of the University of Santa Clara in California. He rewarded his crews and staff with bonuses, banquets and jewelry for what he considered extraordinary service.
In his youth he had been handsome, flamboyant and gregarious. He was of medium height – a few inches less than six feet – slim and muscular, fast talking, and energetic. He was an incurable flirt, and he loved to dance with the ladies and he was surprisingly nimble on his feet. He had a full head of rich red-blonde hair and a broad grin, a firm grip and soft vulnerable blue eyes. His good looks were offset only slightly by a thickened nose that had been broken many times in the boxing ring and added a bit of ruggedness to his otherwise boyish features and a suggestion of credibility to his blustering. His seemingly boundless energy, his boasting and recounting of his adventures indicated he had been there and done that, more than once. And survived. He liked to project fearlessness, but his good friends knew different. Daly had a soft and gentle Irish heart, they say, and any sentimental or romantic song usually silenced him and brought tears to his eyes. True, he loved a good fight but he also only loved a fair fight and he always pulled for the underdog. He carried large wads of dollars in the pockets of his safari suit and he regularly passed it to his assistants when he needed to get something done fast in Saigon – he called the cash “payola” - his assistant remembers. When one of his orphanages near Saigon was faced with a sudden financial shortage, Daly he handed a bag of cash to one of his pilots and had the man fly “half way around the world” to deliver it to the directors of the facility. This is how he got things done quickly.
He lived too fast and too hard for too long and his bad habits took a visible physical toll on the man. He was 52 in 1975 but he looked at least a decade older. He fueled his days and nights with far too much Scotch and vodka and he smoked two packs or more of unfiltered Pall Malls a day – lighting up in bed after he awoke each morning and lighting cigarette after cigarette long into the night. He suffered from insomnia usually got far too little sleep. Once a slim and rangy young man, light on his feet like a boxer, he put on weight in his middle age, developed a paunch and his features softened and his eyes lost their characteristic luster (but not their suggestion of mischievousness) and his hair thinned and turned gray. His skin lost its even tone and became more flushed, his normal booming speaking voice became rasping. His outbursts of profanity became more common and his temperamental fuse became shorter as he aged. He once enjoyed arm wrestling with his employees to settle a difference of opinion, but by 1975 several either refused a contest with him or allowed him to win. It was sad to see the once vibrant man in ruin, his friends remembered. But Daly insisted on living by his own rules and he lived large and he lived loud and he lived without apology.
Daly developed his grand plan to save South Vietnam and the Free World sometime in during the last week of March of 1975, more than three weeks after North Vietnam launched another major offensive against South Vietnam. Following a brief and ineffective resistance in the Central Highlands and in the northernmost province of South Vietnam, the Army of the Republic of Vietnam (ARVN) crumbled and broke and fled. Tens of thousands of soldiers retreated toward the coastal city of Danang where, it was expected, they might either be reorganized into an effective defense perimeter supplied from the sea or they might be evacuated to secure areas further south. In their flight, the troops were accompanied by hundreds of thousands of civilians who feared the wrath of the North Vietnamese Army (NVA) and the Viet Cong (VC). Danang, a city of half a million people, swelled to three times that size in a matter of days. The civil government collapsed and disorganized bands of soldiers and civilians roamed the city streets venting their anger and frustration against local citizens and refugees alike. Chaos and panic engulfed most of the city. Ships and barges by the hundreds anchored off the coast but had only limited resources for carrying those who wanted to flee from the beaches out to the boats. The airport was overrun and commandeered by thousands of soldiers and civilians desperate to find a flight out of Danang. And to add to this confusion, the NVA regularly fired rockets and heavy artillery into the heart of the city and into the airport.
On March 25, World Airways was asked by the Embassy – and consented – to add its three Boeing 727s to a large fleet of planes and helicopters from several different airlines in South Vietnam to ferry civilians from Danang to Saigon. Daly quickly went into action, pulled his pilots off the “rice run” to Phnom Penh, and put them into the rescue operation for Danang.
Joe Hrezo accompanied Daly on the first ferrying flight up to Danang on March 26th. Security guards had been assigned to World from the US Embassy and were on board to help supervise an orderly boarding process. But on the ground in Danang the pilot found the main terminal in chaos and so he taxied to the Air America terminal. “We went in, swung the airplane around, dropped the rear air stair and the two security guards went down, big burly guys, and people started getting on,” Hrezo remembers. “Then, all of a sudden people started rushing and everything and it go to the point where the airplane was full and they wouldn’t stop coming in. The guards had mace and they used it. I think, however, more of it got on us than it did on the people. The wind was blowing toward us.” The aircraft, dangerously overcrowded, managed to take off safely and made it back to Saigon but Hrezo was shaken by the experience and warned Daly that the situation was very dangerously out of control in Danang.
But Daly insisted the situation would improve and that he would not abandon the effort to save civilians trapped in Danang. The round-trip ferrying continued. In two days of constant flying World’s 727s brought 2000 civilians to Saigon.
Charles Patterson, one of World’s vice presidents, accompanied Daly on three shuttle flights on the 27th. “We were moving the plane all over the runway and the taxiway and the field in between the runways and there was no way to load passengers in an orderly way or to assure the safety of our crews or even of our aircraft.” Paterson warned Daly on the way back to Saigon on the third flight that “the whole idea of doing this in an orderly fashion is out of the question. Things have broken down completely in Danang and if we keep aircraft moving while people are trying to come on board, someone’s gonna get hurt! Someone’s gonna get killed! If we try this again, there’s a chance, and a very good chance, that we won’t even make it out of there. Fear isn’t making me say this,” he said, “it simply cannot be done.”
All semblance of order at the airport collapsed in the late afternoon of the 27th. Daly’s aircraft was stormed by panicked soldiers and civilians. North Vietnamese troops around Danang dropped scores of rounds on the airport while Daly’s planes were taxiing. And as Daly’s 727 lifted off the crew could see hundreds of trucks, jeeps and cars that had driven as far out into the water as possible in order to get people closer to the waiting ships. Thousands of people used tires or large baskets as floating devices to get to the waiting barges and ships. The beaches were strewn with bodies and with thousands of uniforms discarded by fleeing soldiers. Air American choppers flew back and forth over the city looking for stray westerners left behind and seeking a way out. They reported to Saigon that the airport had been lost to the enemy. After Daly landed in Saigon the US Embassy ordered a halt to the refugee flights.
Daly was angered by the termination of the rescue flights. He had dinner with South Vietnam’s President Nguyen Van Thieu at the Independence Palace on the night of the 27th (he gave his assistant a fistful of dollars and told her to go out and buy a gift for the President’s wife.). Thieu was instrumental in convincing Daly that if only civilians could be evacuated from Danang the ARVN would stand in fight. Many of the refugees, and particularly those coming out of the Central Highlands, were the families of soldiers who had been stationed for years in those regions. Their families had joined them and now the soldiers refused to leave their families at the mercy of the NVA. The army in and around Danang was competently led, Thieu said. With help it would stand and fight and win and turn the tide – just as it had done during the Easter Offensive of 1972.
Daly’s believed in the domino theory – that South Vietnam was merely the first domino in the row of noncommunist domino states in Asia. If Vietnam fell, Cambodia, Laos, Thailand, Burma, Malaysia and other states – perhaps even South Korea -- would fall and balance in world power would shift toward North Vietnam’s principle communist patrons, the Soviet Union and China. The faith of free nations in America’s resolve would dissolve. Rather than trust in America, those states would make their own agreements with communist aggressors, merely for the chance to avoid prolonged and hopeless conflict. If, in other words, South Vietnam domino fell, it would mean the beginning of the end for the Free World. Daly was convinced he could prevent that from happening.
Patterson thought he had talked his boss out of abandoning rescue flights to Danang. “It probably makes sense not to go up again,” Daly told him, because we can’t assure the safety of the aircraft.” This was an odd statement, Patterson thought, since Daly mentioned nothing about his own safety or the safety of his crews. Patterson went to sleep on the night of the 28th believing he’d convinced Daly to give up any solitary schemes for saving the Free World.
At 7:00 in the morning on the 29th, Patterson was awakened in his room in the Caravelle Hotel by someone pounding on the door and shouting, “Hey, Patterson, get up! I’m going back to Danang. You don’t have to come with us if you don’t want to.”
Patterson climbed out of bed in a state of disbelief at what he’d heard. He opened the door and found Daly already dressed and armed with his pistola beckoning him to join the rescue effort to Danang. Patterson dressed and accompanied Daly to the lobby. “Ed,” he said at last, “I’m not going with you. I just can’t do it.”
“Your call!” Daly responded and smiled. “Suit yourself.” Daly’s expression seemed to say, Patterson recalled, “You’re gonna regret this, Charlie!” And Patterson was thinking the same thing about Daly, “You’re gonna regret it, Ed!” But, then again, Daly was the gambler and Patterson wasn’t. He wished Daly and the flight crews assembled in the Caravelle lobby good luck and Godspeed. And then he said a silent prayer for them.
Daly had asked the switchboard operator at the Caravelle give every crew member and flight attendant a wakeup call at 5AM (Daly provided a free room in the hotel in exchange for the young woman to be on call for him 24 hours a day). But many of those calls – including one to senior flight attendant Wollett – were not made and so the crew members who were awakened at 5 and met in the lobby phoned their still-sleeping comrades. Wollett got her wake- up call from flight attendant Valerie Witherspoon at 6. Daly told the crews that his three Boeing 727s would take off at 30 minute intervals for the 50 minute flight up to Danang, return to Saigon, be serviced and fly back to Danang (Daly used 727s in Danang because of their ability to take off on the shorter runways of several of South Vietnam’s airports). No doubt, he said, the spineless American Ambassador in Saigon would be shamed into ordering other aircraft to assist in the evacuation.
In the Caravelle lobby Wollett and Witherspoon chatted with a news crew from CBS, which was headquartered in the hotel. Correspondent Bruce Dunning, cameraman Mike Marriott and soundman Mai Van Duc had asked Daly if they might come along on the flight and he responded, “the more, the merrier.” Of course, they had been tipped off about the flight earlier in the morning by Patterson, who also called NBC (which didn’t make it on time), UPI and Visnews. Tom Aspell of Visnews was in the lobby with his 16 mm camera ready to accompany Daly on the first flight as was veteran UPI reporter Paul Vogle.
As they waited for their ride to the airport, Dunning told Wollett that he’d heard that Danang had fallen to the North Vietnamese during the night and that the airport was in enemy hands. “I don’t think so,” Jan responded, “because I’m sure if it wasn’t secure we wouldn’t be going up.”
At the airport the crews, attendants, newsmen and Daly and Hrezo climbed aboard the first 727 –N691WA --scheduled to make the flight to Danang . Wollett, 34, was the senior flight attendant for that aircraft and she was accompanied by Val Witherspoon, 24 and Atsako Okuba, 21, who was World’s newest and youngest flight attendant in Saigon. Wollett’s understanding was that armed guards were to be provided by the American Embassy for the flight in order to maintain order around the aircraft and to assist in the boarding. She had also been told that the aircraft’s galley would be serviced and stocked with water, soft drinks and sandwiches for the passengers. But once on board she found that the aircraft had not been catered and the galley was empty and there were no guards. Wollett does recall, however, that two men who identified themselves USAID officials came on board the aircraft and assured Daly that it was safe to land in Danang and there would be no need for guards. [Later Jan found this incident troubling and wondered if there may not have been some conspiracy to sacrifice the World flight and use it as a pretext for inserting American combat forces once again into South Vietnam.]
The main cabin of each of the three 727s was in a “military configuration” with seating for 131 passengers in rows of three on each side of the aisle (and one row of 2 seats at the rear of the cabin). The galley was at the midpoint between the front and rear of the passenger cabin.
The cockpit crew of the first 727 included veteran pilot and Senior Vice President of World, Ken Healy, copilot Glen Flansaas and flight engineer Charles Stewart. All three were longtime employees of World. After Healy and his crew checked out the aircraft they proceeded down the taxiway and turned onto the runway. There were frantic calls from the control tower but Daly ordered Healy to “experience radio failure,” which he did. Over and over the tower radioed for a response and demanded that 727 return to the taxiway. As the 727 roared past the control tower and lifted off the controller telephoned the American Embassy and let them know that Daly’s aircraft had departed without clearance. Deputy Ambassador Lehman guessed correctly that Daly was on his way to Danang and he radioed the American Consul General in the city, Albert Francis, to let him know what had happened. Francis, who had spent most of the previous day and night shutting down the consulate while at the same time trying to talk the South Vietnamese military commander in Danang out of committing suicide, blurted out his response: “Oh, shit!” He reaffirmed that the airport in Danang had been shut down and was being shelled by the nearby North Vietnamese Army. At any moment that Army was expected to occupy the facility.
Healy’s 50 minute flight to Danang was without incident. . Flying conditions were excellent. The flight attendants sat in the passenger cabin and chatted with the five newsmen and Joe Hrezo. Daly remained in a jump seat behind Healy in the cockpit.
Healy planned to circle the airport at a low altitude to make sure landing conditions were safe. But Daly told him to that things looked good as they approached and he should land immediately. Healy approached the airport from the southeast over the Gulf of Tonkin and touched down on runway 17 Left. Daly ordered his crew to maintain radio silence.
Daly planned for Hrezo to be the first man off the aircraft. He was to go to the communications tower and take over air traffic control for Healy and the other jets as they landed, loaded and took off. The newsmen and cameramen were also expected to deplane and to film the orderly loading of the aircraft from the outside while the flight attendants remained on board to load and seat passengers – women and children primarily –Valerie at the rear air stair, Atsako in the middle near the galley and Jan at the front of the main cabin.
The landing was smooth and Healy slowed momentarily to a stop, the rear airstair was lowered and Hrezo and newsman Aspell jumped off the stairs and onto the runway. Almost instantly they were caught in the midst of a hysterical crowd of people and were unable to return to the plane. Healy accelerated and continued down the runway.
The moment the plane touched down, Jan recalled, “Something really bizarre began to unfold.” Standing in the cockpit door she watched out the front windshield in astonishment as a car raced out onto the runway in front of the 727 and stopped. A man jumped out with a pistol and began shooting at the plane. “I had the fantastic feeling that I was in the middle of a John Wayne western,” she recalled. And I thought to myself, ‘Why are they shooting at us? We’re the good guys!’”
Healy stared directly down into the eyes of the soldier aiming the pistol at him. “I wasn’t worried,” he says. “The windshield is bullet proof. What I didn’t think about, however, is if the guy was a bad shot and hit below the windshield. That could have been a problem.”
The soldier in front of the 727 with the upraised pistol was 19 year old Tran Dinh Truc, a military policeman with the Vietnamese Air Force who had been assigned to duty at the main gate of the airport. Truc’s home was Saigon. When he reported for duty early that morning he found that his commanding officer and all of his fellow MPs had deserted and left him alone to guard the open gate. For the next two hours he rode his motorbike around the airport trying to figure out what he was supposed to do. He was armed with his service pistol. He saw a group of three of his friends drive into the base through the open gate in an automobile. He signaled for them to stop and he climbed into the car – a new Ford Mustang that the three were supposed to deliver to the Chief Commander of the Military Police who had already fled. The driver of the car was Nguyen Tuan, also 19, who had brought his 16 year old girl friend, Tam, with him. The third man in the Mustang was a student Truc knew only as Long.
Truc’s friends told him that the city was in chaos and that the roads to the port were blocked and the North Vietnamese Army already occupied much of Danang. The four friends decided to try to get out of Danang by air and, hopefully, make their way to Saigon. Truc directed his friend to drive to the Air America terminal and park. He saw large crowds of soldiers and civilians huddled in and around every hangar and shed on the base, all watching anxiously for approaching aircraft. Tam first spotted the approaching 727 and all four youngsters cried out with joy when they saw it, believing they had been saved. “The plane was so big and it had enough vacancy for all of us,” Truc remembers. “We were like drowning people suddenly sighting a nearby lifeboat.” Tuan raced the Mustang onto the runway. Truc looked out the rear window of the car and saw thousands of people running or driving behind them and further down the runway he saw people on foot and in cars and on motorbikes pursuing the plane. At the same time mortar shells began falling on the infield. “No one cared about the dangers,” he said, “they just kept running after that plane.”
As the plane slowed, Truc told Tuan to block the runway so the plane would stop. “We drove across the infield – swerving to miss people and motorbikes –and pulled up onto the runway and used the car as a barricade. I jumped out and raised my pistol and fired several times into the air just above the cockpit. I want you to understand I did not intend to harm anyone. I wanted the pilot to stop. I remember looking directly into his eyes and also seeing the flight attendant standing behind him looking down at me.” But the plane did not stop. Truc screamed at Long to get the car out of the way fast – and the Mustang, tires spinning and smoking, sped back into the infield. “The plane passed us followed by all of those desperate people,” Truc recalls. “I saw the back stair come down and two men jumped off and people on the ground tried to run up the stairway into the plane.”
The four friends in the Mustang chased the aircraft down the runway until it slowed and made a turn onto the taxiway. Long stopped the car and all four passengers jumped out and ran to the air stair. “We were in the middle of the mob,” Truc remembers. “Sometimes I was carried along and my feet were not even touching the ground. But I didn’t fall down.” He was pushed away from the air stair and at that moment spotted a group of people climbing into an open slit beneath the body of the plane. Truc concluded that this was a “secret entrance” into the passenger cabin. He pulled himself up inside the plane and then helped pull in Tuan and Tam after him. “It was pitch black inside,” he remembers, “and there were a dozen people in there – including women and children – and they were screaming and crying and feeling around in the darkness for the doorway to the main cabin.” As they felt for the door a huge explosion shook the compartment – Truc recognized it as a grenade that was thrown at the plane.
In the passenger cabin of the 727 correspondent Paul Vogle described the confusion into his cassette recorder. “MOBS OF PEOPLE ARE PUSHING AND SHOVING, THOUSANDS TRYING TO GET ABOARD. THE PLANE IS TAXIINBG AWAY FROM THE MOB,” he shouted above the roaring of the engines. “THE CREW IS SCARED. THE MOB IS PANIC STRICKEN. THERE’S A MAN WITH AN M16 POINTED AT US, TRYING TO GET US TO STOP. WE’RE LOADING MORE PEOPLE. THE PANICKED CROWDS ARE RUNNING AFTER US. WE JUST PASSED A PHTHOLE IN THE RUNWAY. A JEEP, A PICK-UP TRUCK, JUST CRUMBLED UNDER AN ENGINE…THEY’RE IGNORING THE ENGINES…PEOPLE ARE GRABBING AT THE STAIRS.” Vogle, who was fluent in Vietnamese, shouted at the armed men running up the aisle of the plane, “IT’S ALL RIGHT. WE’VE GOT ROOM FOR EVERYBODY. DON’T PANIC.” As Healy began to accelerate on the taxiway, Vogle recorded, “PEOPLE ARE STORMING ABOARD, SHOUTING…PUSHING…SOLDIERS, CIVLIANS. PEOPLE ARE CLMBING UP ON THE WINGS NOW…THEY’RE FALL OFF. SOLDIERS ARE FIRING INTO THE AIR TO SCARE OTHERS AWAY…WOMEN AND CHILDREN ARE LYING ON THE GROUND. SOME ARE TRYING TO LIE IN FRONT OF THE WHEELS.”
Air America helicopter pilot Marius Burke, had been flying low over Danang trying unsuccessfully to locate missing American Consul Francis. He could not find Francis but as he was flying near the airport saw a 727 approaching from the southeast. He tried several radio frequencies to contact the pilot as he approached the airfield, to warn him not to attempt a landing. He received no response.
The weather was clear over Danang bay that morning, reported Tony Coalson, another Air America helicopter pilot searching for refugees. But the city itself was “in transition” and huge clouds of black smoke boiled up from several places where military vehicles, automobiles and buildings were burning. Coalson picked up a French school teacher who had been left behind and was on the roof of the French Cultural Center frantically waving a large French flag. The man described for Coalson the hellish scenes he had witnessed earlier in the morning – large gangs of civilians and ARVN soldiers roaming the streets ransacking, looting, robbing, and murdering at will. As he flew along the beach near the airport looking for more refugees, Coalson recalls, “I thought there was a bug on the inside of my windscreen and I reached out to swat it but it was not a bug, it was an aircraft in the distance. My first thought was that it was a MIG coming down from Hanoi. But as the spot grew larger I could see it was a 727, which was a real surprise considering that Danang was already lost.”
Like Burke, Coalson tried to radio the aircraft but received no response. He repeated the same message several times telling the pilot that the airfield was under attack and there was mortar and rocket damage to the runways and they were also littered with debris and vehicles. “But they paid no attention to us,” Coalson said.
And then as Coalson recalled, “in what was the most idiotic and stupid display of total ignorance I have ever seen, they landed! I watched them as they turned off the runway and started taxiing to about mid field next to the tower. As they proceeded down the runway and the taxiway they were pursued by a growing number of soldiers and civilians on foot and in cars and trucks and on motorbikes. They could not see any of this, I thought, and after I told them the gravity of the situation they were in, it didn’t seem to be of any concern to them. Never before or after did I witness anything so totally oblivious to reality as the sheer stupidity of their action.”
Coalson watched the 727 roll almost to a stop and the rear air stair come down. He saw a man carrying a large 16 mm camera on his shoulder step to the ground followed by another man. “I guess they intended to take some ‘action shots’ of the episode,” Coalson says, “but it didn’t quite turn out the way they expected.” Both men were pushed and pummeled and pulled away from the aircraft which continued rolling slowly down the runway. The men were left behind while thousands of soldiers – some of them shooting at the aircraft – tried to reach that air stair.
At this desperate moment Healy finally responded to Burke’s radio calls. Burke asked Healy what in the hell he was doing in Danang and Healy replied, “You wouldn’t believe us if we told you.”
Burke told Healy he was flying above them and would try to guide them to a clear runway for a quick takeoff. As the plane rolled down runway 17 Left, Burke says, he said that the runway behind it was littered with bodies and overturned vehicles. He told Healy to turn onto Runway 17 Right and take off since it was relatively open. “A noncommittal response was again given,” he says. “About this time I gave up hope of their getting off the ground and was trying to figure out how we could possibly pull them out by helicopter. It looked hopeless.”
Hrezo remembers stepping off the air stair onto the runway and being pulled violently away from the aircraft by the crowd. The noise from the airplane’s three engines along with the screaming and shouting and shooting was deafening. “The next god-damned thing I know,” he recalls, “there goes the airplane!” He watched in near disbelief as one soldier stood next to the runway firing a pistol up at the cockpit of the plane. Another man, further down the runway, “sprayed it with an M16,” he recalls. Hrezo was nearly trampled as the huge mass of people swept around him and past him.
Wollett remembers watching out the window as thousands of people rushed across the infield toward the aircraft. “Thousands – and I mean literally thousands of people –started racing toward us. They were running, they were on motorbikes, they were in jeeps and vans and cars and personnel carriers, they were on bicycles and they were all coming after us on anything they could find, this tidal wave of very desperate humanity.”
Wollett and the two junior flight attendants waited apprehensively at their stations for the first passengers to board the plane. They expected mostly women and children. “We were going to put them in seats starting at the front of the aircraft and then keep going back and fill up the seats in an orderly fashion.”
Suddenly, there was an explosion of people into the rear of the aircraft. “They were running,” she remembers. “And they were just wild-eyed. And they were all soldiers. Nine soldiers came on board and I seated them at the front. And then the tenth came on board and he would not sit down. He was hysterical and he kept running up and down the aisle screaming in English, ‘Take off! Take off! Take off! They’re rocketing the field!’ He was screaming this over and over again. So I grabbed him and I shouted in his ear, ‘Shut up and sit where I tell you to sit!’ and I pushed him into a seat.
Several seconds lapsed and few people followed the first group of soldiers onto the plane so Jan hurried to the rear air stair to see if there was a problem. When she got there she found flight engineer Stewart and flight attendant Witherspoon struggling to pull people through entrance that was jammed with people. She stepped down on the stair to assist them and saw Daly “at the bottom of the air stair being mauled by soldiers trying to get onto the plane. Daly’s clothes were in tatters and his trousers had been pulled down around his knees. He was waving his pistol in the air with his right hand, now and then bringing it down on the heads or arms of men pulling at him, and swinging his left hand wildly to knock men off the stairs. Hrezo and the Aspell were nowhere to be seen. At the bottom of the stair she saw hundreds of people chasing the plane, all of them desperate and seemingly crazed and screaming and clawing and grabbing Daly and Witherspoon. “I could see no end to those people,” she says. “They were running to the air stair from every direction. I climbed down another stair and tried to help Mr. Daly.” Witherspoon followed her down the stairs. She began helping people climb over the side of the stair and crawl up into the plane. Marriott, the CBS News cameraman now stood next to Stewart at the top of the stairs filming the chaos. Wollett remembers standing one step above Daly and watching “a family of five running a few feet from me, reaching out for help to get on board. It was a mother and a father and two small children and a baby in the mother’s arms. I could see the fear in their faces as they ran and reached out for me. I stretched my arm out to grab the mother’s hand but before I could get it a man running behind them shot all five of them and they fell and were trampled by the crowd. There were several muffled shots and they were gone. All five of them. And the man who shot them stepped on them to get closer to the air stair. Everything was so chaotic and insane.”
Wollett tried to help Witherspoon pull a woman over the twisted side of the air stair. “But the man behind her grabbed her and jerked her out of my arms and as she fell away he stepped on her back and on her head to get up over the railing. He used her as a stepping stone. And Mr. Daly saw that happen and just as the man swung his leg over the railing Mr. Daly smashed him in the head with his pistol. I remember suddenly seeing a sheet of blood splash across everything and I saw the man fall off and I saw people trample him and I remember thinking, ‘Good!’ That was just my reaction at the moment. The man disappeared under the feet of the mob.”
Marriott of CBS News remembers watching out the window and suddenly “there must have been 20,000 people suddenly heading toward our aircraft. We were all going to get off before we saw those people. Then all of a sudden I had a gut feeling – it was one of those feeling you get when you are covering a way. And I said to myself, ‘Don’t get off this plane, Mike! Those people are panic stricken. Anybody, no matter how small they are, if they panic, are stronger than you are.” He took his camera to the top of the air stair and began filming. “As I was filming they started shooting each other,” he recalls. “They were shooting each other in the back to get closer to the aircraft. That’s when I turned and said to Bruce [Dunning], ‘We are in deep shit!’”
Hrezo ran to the tower, made his way up to the air traffic control center, convinced the man inside to let him in and radioed Healy and asked the pilot to come back and pick him up. “I tell you what,” he said later, “if I had been Ken Healy, I would have taken off right there. But he couldn’t. There were vehicles all over the active runway. He was stuck!”
Burke remembers that “suddenly a panicked American voice came on the radio from the tower. He identified himself as Joe Hrezo and screamed for someone to save him. With this the 727 taxied down the runway, across the taxiway in front of the tower and stopped. About 20-30 seconds passed at which time I informed them that both runways were now unusable and their only chance was to take off on the taxiway from where they were.”
“We think you’re right,” Healy radioed back to Burke.
Healy radioed to Hrezo and told him to come down to the taxiway. “I’ll swing by and pick you up,” Healy said, “but I won’t be stopping.” Hrezo bolted down the stairs of the control tower and sprinted to the taxiway to watch Healy make a” perfectly beautiful 180 degree turn” and roll back towards the tower. The other newsman was nowhere to be seen at that moment and Hrezo didn’t intend on taking the time to look for them.
“All I wanted to do was get on that airplane,” Hrezo recalls. “That’s all I was thinking about.”
At the rear air stair of the 727 the sound of the engines was deafening – “like the piercing and powerful screaming of an army of banshees,” one flight attendant described it, “unearthly and completely deafening. The loudest sound you can imagine. Remember, the three jet engines are just behind the rear air stair but on each side of it and above it.” Another crew member compared it to “standing directly in front of a three air-raid sirens running at full power.” To communicate with each other, the crew members had to shout directly into each other’s ear or use exaggerated hand signals. Healy pulled Wollett into the cockpit and told her he was going to try to pick up Hrezo and asked her to signal to him when Hrezo was on board by pounding on the door to the cockpit. Wollett ran back to Witherspoon who was struggled with men clawing their way into the cabin and shouted into her ear that when Hrezo was on board she was to raise both arms over her head. Wollett hurried back to her station just outside the cockpit door and watched Witherspoon. After several tense minutes Witherspoon turned and raised both arms in the air and Wollett spun around and began pounding furiously with both fists on the cockpit door. The engines screamed even higher and louder than before and Jan felt the aircraft shudder and the metal shelves in the galley began to shake and she felt the aircraft accelerate gradually and she braced herself between the rows of seats and then at the back of the plane she saw a tattered and shaken but very happy Hrezo smiling at her and giving her a thumbs up.
As he ran to the rear of the aircraft Hrezo saw Daly half way up the stairs waving his pistol wildly over his head and punching soldiers in the face as they tried to push and claw their way onto the aircraft. Daly’s shirt was in shreds, his trousers had been pulled down to his knees and his face was scarlet, his mouth moving – probably cursing the soldiers trying to pry him out of their way – but the only sounds that could be heard was the scream of the three engines almost directly overhead. Behind Daly at the top of the stair, a few steps above him, Hrezo saw Witherspoon, Wollett and Stewart pulling people over the side of the stairs and shoving and pushing them into the aircraft. Both of the crew members appeared to be in a state of shock, operating on adrenalin and instinct.
Burke asked Healy if he thought he could take off from the taxiway. “Hell yes I can,” Healy responded. But Healy remembered thinking, “I was not at all sure that our airplane was going to fly. But I figured if I try to take off and fail I’ll live for approximately 30 seconds longer than if I stay here on the ground.”
As Healy began to accelerate down the taxiway, Marriott pushed past Wollett and Witherspoon and filmed Daly struggling at bottom of the stairs. “I did not want to fall down those steps,” Marriott says, “and there were five Vietnamese below me on the steps. With the assistance of Wollett and Witherspoon, Marriott was able to climb back up the steps and into the main cabin.
Healy narrowly missed a large military truck that seemed to come out of nowhere and stopped in the path of the aircraft. Healy swerved off the taxiway and onto the infield and then back onto the taxiway. “I really wish somebody would have filmed that maneuver,” he says. Then a motorcycle coming from the opposite direction smashed into the tires, hurling its driver onto the infield.
Healy heard an explosion under his left wing – a grenade had gone off under it and destroying the aileron controls on that side of the aircraft.
Daly helped pull up one man with a badly fractured leg who was still stuck in the stairs. Then he and Witherspoon and Hrezo tried to pull up the air stair. But it had been bent badly and the hydraulic system was broken and they could not close it. They pulled it up as high as it could go and Daly and Hrezo removed their belts and tied the stair in place. Daly’s pants had been badly torn and now with his belt gone he had to hold them up with his hands. Witherspoon went into the lavatory and removed her panty hose and returned to the back of plane and gave them to Daly to use as a belt.
Burke watched the aircraft and the chaos around it and under it. He saw several men firing at it as it passed and several mortar rounds fell in rapid succession along the infield. “About this time,” he remembers, “I really didn’t think they had a chance of getting off the ground” and so Burke starting trying to figure out how he and Coalson might possible pull all of the crew out by helicopter
Healy knew that the taxiway was as long as the runway and there was a chance he could gain enough speed to take off from it. “For a 727 that’s normally plenty of room, but, as I say, we didn’t know that we were grossly overloaded by about 20,000 pounds.” He also misjudged the distance between the taxiway and several small communications sheds along the side of the taxiway at the end. His left wing hit one and then a second and then a third shed and each of them exploded as the wing of the aircraft sliced through them. The control panel lights were flashing but Healy couldn’t pay attention to them –“I was too busy looking outside trying to miss things,” he said. “I was committed to the takeoff. “There was no choice anymore,” he remembers. “ Everything forward. Forward!”
As he struggled to pull the nose of the 727 up, Healy discovered something deeply disconcerting about the controls – when he pulled on them they suddenly pulled back. He concluded that the hydraulic system had been damaged and he’d probably have to make a water landing in Danang bay. What he did not know was that the wheel wells were filled with people and they were clinging to the cables around them for stability and it was the pulling from those people he was feeling.
Burke and Coalson watched anxiously as the 727 sped toward the end of the taxiway. Burke warned Healy about a rock pile just beyond the end of the tarmac. The rocks were piled six to ten feet high. If Healy could get over the rocks he might be able to make a safe water landing in the bay. “A water landing is no problem,” Healy says. “If you are building a plane to land on water you could not build a better aircraft than the 727.” The airport taxiway he knew was 20 feet above sea level and beyond the rock pile it was 150 yards to the sea. The plane lifted off, slowly. Healy made it just over the rock pile but as he did he felt the stick shaker – the indicator that the plane is in a stall -- going crazy. “I held it steady,” he says “and we dropped a few feet toward the water.” But a moment later he was able to bring the nose up a bit and the 727 started climb up into the blue morning sky. “All of a sudden there we were,” Healy remembers, “coming up out of Danang like a homesick angel!”
For a moment Coalson in his helicopter lost sight of the 727 because of the smoke and debris from the exploding communications sheds and from artillery rounds hitting on both sides of taxiway just behind the aircraft. He thought that Healy had hit the rock pile. “Then I saw them over Danang bay climbing out with the landing gear down and the air stair extended with several people still clinging to it. Incredibly, at that point they made their last transmission which was, ‘See you in Saigon!’”
As his eyes adjusted to the darkness Truc realized that he was not in an entryway to the main cabin. The space he was in was full of people – mostly women and children – and was, he guessed, a cube of no more than of two meters on each side. He and the others with him were in the wheel well of the 727. There were screams and cries from the people now trapped inside the wheel wells as the sound of the engines changed they sensed the acceleration of the aircraft. “I knew that when this plane took off and the wheels retracted they would come into this space and all of us would be crushed to death!” Truc recalls. He looked down through the slit beside the door and saw the tarmac rushing by. He also saw men and women and children for a moment as they were hit and run over by the aircraft’s tires. As the plane lifted off he saw water below.
Truc felt the plane lift off. “The cold wind became very powerful,” he recalls, “but the people inside the wheel well clung to each other so they didn’t feel so cold. I felt that everybody with me in the wheel well was so lucky to be leaving on this plane. So many others – thousands of others – were left stranded at the airport waiting desperately for someone to come save them.
“But our luck did not last for long. People tried to grasp the cables and pipes in the wheel well in the dark and children hugged their parent’s legs in the roaring wind. Then suddenly the bottom of the wheel well opened and people dropped out like little bombs falling from a plane and disappeared.” The wheels began to retract toward the well where four people still held onto the cables and pipes along the inside walls. One of the soldiers lost his grip and slipped into the retracting mechanism of the wheels. His body was caught in the hydraulic sequencing mechanism and he was squeezed tightly around the waist, half in the wheel well and half out. But the wheel stopped retracting. The four remaining people in the wheel well, Truc, Tuan and his girl friend Tam and a soldier, could not communicate with words because of the noise. They merely stared back and forth at each other and at the man in the wheel mechanism.
Truc stood clinging to the cables on the front side of the wheel well next to the soldier while Tuan and Tam stood on the thin lip of the well across from him. After 30 minutes of standing in the cold wind tightly grasping to the cables, Truc saw his friends weakening. “Tam looked at me for a long time,” and “I could see in her eyes that she was trying to tell me something. I just shook my head. I wanted to share with her my desperation and my strength. We were all struggling desperately to stay alive. I tried to tell her to hang on, just hang on. Hang on. Tuan’s back was to Truc as he pressed tightly against Tam to hold her to the wall of the wheel well. Tam felt Tuan growing weary and she tried to communicate her alarm with her eyes to Truc. The steady terrific wind was slowly sucking Tuan down toward the open bottom of the well. Tam hooked her arm around the cables and held her other arm around Tuan’s neck. “They kept trying to help each other struggle to get a footing in the wind,” Truc recalls. Finally the Tuan’s strength also ran out. Truc watched as she said into Tuan’s ear and kissed the side of his face. A moment later she released her grip and put her other arm around Tuan’s neck and Tuan let go of the cable and they both fell from the wheel well. “I closed my eyes, turned my face to the wall. It was too painful,” Truc remembers. “I never knew that Tam’s gentle glance at me was her way of saying goodbye. Now the lovers need no longer struggle against the wind or the cold. I know they are finally at peace in the soil of our Motherland.”
Four people remained in the wheel well, including the man caught in the retracting mechanism. Truc watched that man who was wearing a flying suit of the air force. “His legs were out of the plane. The wind was blowing so hard it bent his body into a V. He could neither climb in nor fall out. I looked at him and smiled. I wanted him to know that I was alive because he had blocked the retracting mechanism. He made a slight smile back at me. We were near each other but because of the noise could not hear but the wind and the engines.
As Truc’s grip weakened he began to pray. “I put all my faith in God. May God save me, I prayed. May God bless me and save my soul and forgive my sins. I prayed to God, to Mother Mary, to all the Saints. After praying I felt more peaceful and comfortable. I commended my soul to God.”
Healy cautiously climbed to an altitude of 10,000 feet – the maximum he might go because of the inability to pressurize the main cabin in the 727 -- over the Gulf of Tonkin, and he radioed the two 727s scheduled to follow him into Saigon. Dave Wainio, who had just taken off from Saigon in the third 727 of Daly’s operation was ordered to return to Saigon and supervise preparations for a crash landing or a water landing in the Saigon River. The second 727 piloted by Don McDaniel was already nearing Nha Trang and Healy asked him to hold over the city, locate the damaged 727 and give him a report on the outside condition of the aircraft. Healy needed to know why the wheels would not retract and if the nose wheel was still down. McDaniel, flying at 30,000 feet circled over Nha Trang and had difficulty spotting Healy’s 727. Finally, he noticed a speck far below and came down to examine it. He located Healy flying at the lower altitude and dropped down beside him. Wollett was watching at the window of the 727 when suddenly she spotted “one of the most beautiful things I have ever seen in my life – another World 727 flying next to us. A sister ship that had come to escort us home!”
McDaniel flew above, below and beside Healy and assessed the damaged 727 and gave Healy a running report. The left wing, as Healy knew, was very badly damaged. The nose wheel had retracted. But the hydraulic sequencing system for retracting the other wheels had stopped working because, as McDaniel reported, “there is a body hanging out of the wheel well.” He reported that the door to the cargo hold was open and he could see that it was filled with people. Healy reported that he was leaking fuel badly and he did not know if he could make it all the way to Saigon. If he could, he said, and if the nose wheel did not come down, he would make a water landing in the Saigon River. McDaniel radioed back that he would fly with Healy all the way to home. And then he added, “We’re praying for you.”
Wollett remembers that it became it became incredibly hot inside the aircraft, even though the aft air stair was down. “With that many of people in the plane -- there were four and five and six people in a row of three seats – we just could not breathe. It was so hot. We had Duc -- the CBS sound man --keep announcing over the PA system in Vietnamese, "No smoking!" The passengers were not allowed to smoke at all because we could not have dealt with a fire and we knew there would be one if some of them started smoking. So we didn't let any of the passengers smoke.
“After working on first-aid stuff for injured passengers for a while I noticed that there was nothing for these people to drink on the aircraft. But there was a drawer that had been full of ice and it had melted and now the drawer was filled with cold water. I asked Dunning to rip up the galley curtains into little squares, about four or five inches square, and to soak them in the water. Then I took them and I walked up and down the aisle passing out little wet pieces of galley curtain so people could mop their faces. They were all just sweating like crazy. And we'd go along and pat their shoulders and I told Val and Atsako to do something to bring up the morale of these people. The shock of what they had done to their friends and comrades seemed to be destroying them slowly. They had left their families behind them on the ground. They had run over each other and shot each other to get on this plane. Now the panic was disappearing and the realization of the horror of what had happened -- of what they had done --was starting to sink in. So we went around and talked to them and patted them on the shoulders and wiped their brows and their hands and tried as well as we could to comfort them.
“I was dying of thirst myself by that time. And Mr. Daly came up to me and opened his shirt and showed me some Coke bottles. He said, ‘Go to the cockpit.’ I went up to the cockpit and sat down on the observer's seat, and Mr. Daly came in with the Cokes and he opened one and gave it to me. I remember putting the Coke to my mouth to drink, but everything went down my chin and onto the front of my uniform. I couldn't swallow. We passed that one Coke bottle around the cockpit. And once more Ken Healy told me about the damage to the aircraft. He said he was not sure about the nose gear on the plane coming down and if it did come down he was not sure that it would hold. He warned me to be ready for anything when we came down in Saigon.
“I was sitting on the front jump seat with Bruce Dunning when Mr. Daly came out of the cockpit and asked Bruce to sit in the back of the aircraft. We wanted Bruce to put the film of the Danang landing in the back because we figured that if anything survived from the flight, that film would, and there was this strong feeling among all of us that the world should know what had happened to us that day.
“Mr. Daly sat down on the front jump seat with me and asked me if I knew the condition of the aircraft and I said I did and then he asked me if I was afraid to die and I said, "No, I'm not afraid to die." Then he put his arm around me and said, ‘Good girl. I'll buy you a drink if we make it to Saigon.’ And I said, ‘Mr. Daly, if we make it to Saigon I want you to buy me a case of beer.’ He laughed at that.”
McDaniel guided Healy by radio as the 727 descended into Saigon air space. In his final communication to Healy he said that the nose gear had come down. Healy was not sure it would hold or that the other wheels would hold, but he decided to try for a landing on the solid runway rather than the Saigon River.
Truc saw that the floor of the wheel well was starting to close again. But the body of the soldier in the flying suit jammed it and prevented it from closing completely. Truc watched as the hydraulic system crushed the man’s chest and blood began pouring from his mouth and nose. His head slumped forward. In a few minutes his shirt was soaked with blood and his head rested against the cables and struts of the floor. As Truc stared down at the man, helplessly, he saw that the aircraft was descending rapidly over green land. “I am still alive,” he whispered to himself. “Alive! Thank you God! Thank you God! I am still alive.”
Wollett recalls the tension inside the cabin as the aircraft descended. Daly remained in the jump seat in the cockpit. “We were coming in much faster than we should have,” Wollett said, “because Ken could not adjust the flaps or anything. Wollett’s jump seat was directly over the nose gear and in the past she could feel the contact when it touched the ground. “I watched the airport go flying by,” she says. I kept waiting for that nose gear to touch down. Ken held the hose of that plane off the ground for so long – I really don’t know how he did it. And then all of a sudden I looked at the buildings flying by outside and we were running level and I knew that the nose gear was down and it was holding. I hadn’t even felt it come down.
“We raced along the runway because we could not stop real well. Thank God they had a 14,000 foot runway in Saigon. Wainio had done his job well – there were fire trucks racing right along beside us. We stopped and had no visible sign of an emergency. I threw open the side door but did not pop the emergency slide. Hrezo was already on the ground – he’d gone out the aft air stair. Joe and I both yelled at the same time, ‘We need an ambulance and stretchers.’
As the plane rolled to a stop, inside the wheel well Truc could hear the sirens of the ambulances and fire trucks. He slowly lowered his body past the dead man in the hydraulic system and touched the ground. He was too weak to stand and he collapsed. “For a moment everything went black,” he says. “I was in a dazed state and I heard many voices around me. When I opened my eyes, finally, two medics were helping me stand and there were many journalists watching me. I was still not sure if I was alive or dead.” He regained consciousness and was got to his feet. He assured the medics that he was all right. He walked away from the aircraft, across the taxiway and through the terminal. No one stopped him. Outside he hitched a ride from a boy on a motorbike and was taken into Saigon. He was still alive and he was home.
The passengers inside the aircraft remained calm as the rear air star was lowered. Wollett asked Duc to announce that everyone should remain seated. “Nobody moved,” she recalls. “Finally we started getting people off. I remember one man lit a cigarette and as he got to the front door I told him he couldn’t smoke because of the leaking fuel. He dropped it and stepped on it. I saw he was barefooted. And I thought, ‘Oh, my God, that must hurt.’ But he wasn’t feeling anything anymore. Not many people on the plane were.”
The flight attendants tried to make an accurate tally of the number of people who had been aboard the plane during the flight. The seats were configured for 131 passengers. They counted and compared numbers and the best figure they came up with was 250 in the main cabin. They estimated that 80 people had packed themselves into in the baggage compartment and during takeoff another 24 people were in the two wheel wells (although all but seven had fallen out when the bottom of the wheel wells opened after takeoff.) There were four men – including Daly – in the cockpit, three flight attendants, five newsmen and Hrezo for a total of 367 people on board. Healy estimated he was overloaded by at least 20,000 pounds. He later checked with Boeing in Seattle, gave them his estimated weight and number of passengers and a group of engineers ran the numbers and assured Healy that it was impossible for a 727 so overloaded to take off. He didn’t argue with them. He merely replied, “You build one hell of an airplane!”
The three flight attendants were the last crew members to exit the aircraft. Once on the ground they walked around the 727 examining the damage, pointing to the bullet holes and the damage caused by the grenade. One after another each of them reached out to run her fingers over the skin of the aircraft, gently, as if it was a living thing. “This was our very precious guardian angel,” Witherspoon remembers thinking, “and she miraculously carried all of us safely home.”
Inside the terminal the flight attendants were reunited with pilots Wainio, McDaniel and Healy. Wainio was the first to realize that all three of the flight attendants were still in shock. He embraced Val and told her, “It’s over now. It’s all right to cry.” And at that, all three of the women began to sob.
The crew was driven back to the Caravelle Hotel. That evening Daly held a banquet for them in the hotel’s main dining room. Newsmen were invited to the festivities because and a large number of them came, Witherspoon remembered, “because there was free food and free booze. They never passed on that.” Daly gave a speech about the flight but several journalists at one table continued talking and laughing as he spoke. Daly pulled out his gun, slammed it down on the table and roared, “God damn it, keep quiet. I’m paying for all this and you’re my guests.” Witherspoon, who was seated at the table with the noisy newsmen, remembered that they all got up and walked out, leaving her alone at the table. “They were all Brits and Aussies,” she recalls. “The American newsmen stayed.”
The following morning, Easter Sunday, Daly arranged for a private mass for the entire crew and staff at one of the orphanages he supported in Saigon. On Monday morning it was back to business as usual for the people of World. Ed Daly was not done saving people. He announced that he did not believe South Vietnam could survive much longer. So he was going to fly Vietnamese orphans out of the country to Oakland on a DC8 piloted by Healy. The aircraft was being configured to carry as many infants as possible, he said. And the crew would be the same one he’d taken on his last flight to Danang.
Marius Burke was able to contact the lost newsman Tom Aspell in the tower of the Danang airport. Burke told Aspell to make his way to the end of the runway where he’d land and pick him up. Aspell was pursued by half a dozen armed South Vietnamese soldiers who insisted on getting on the helicopter with him. Burke flew them all to Nha Trang. Tony Coalson landed near the runway and picked up the wife and children of the Vietnamese Air Traffic Controller and transported them to Nha Trang. Burke organized Air America resources in Saigon and supervised AA’s helicopter evacuation of refugees out of the city just before it fell to the North Vietnamese at the end of April. He says of the evacuation of Ambassador Graham Martin, “they did not send anyone from Air America to bring him out because they knew if he tried to get in out of our aircraft we’d have thrown him off the Embassy roof.” Coalson also flew refugees out of Saigon to the waiting US Seventh Fleet in the South China Sea. Both Coalson and Burke are retired and living in the American South.
Mike Marriott’s film with Bruce Dunning’s narration was broadcast in the US on Easter Sunday on the CBS Evening News in New York. It won awards from the Oversea’s Press Club and the National Press Photographer’s Association. Marriott, Dunning and Duc all retired from CBS.
Hrezo, Healy, Wollett, Okuba, Witherspoon, Flansaas, Stewart, Wainio, and McDanielan stayed with World Airways into the following decade.
Paul Vogle was in Saigon at the end of April 1975, when it was taken by the North Vietnamese. He was eventually was flown out to Bangkok and waited there to bring out his Vietnamese wife and three children from Saigon. Once reunited with them he worked for UPI bureaus in Bangkok, Hong Kong and Detroit, Michigan. He retired to Plymouth, Michigan, in 1997, with his family. He was especially proud of his son, Tuan, who became a US Marine. “The last plane from Danang was one hell of a ride,” he remember in later years. “For me. For Ed Daly. For Ken Healy. For the soldiers. And for two women and a baby.” But he said that the face that remains most clearly in his mind from that day “is that of an old woman lying flat on the tarmac seeing hope, seeing life itself, just off the end of her fingertips and rolling the other way.” Vogle died in 2001.
Tom Aspell’s film of the last flight was lost. Aspell, a native of New Zealand, became a news reporter and producer for both NBC and ABC and lived with his wife and sons in Cyprus. He died on February 13, 2013.
Valerie Witherspoon, a native of Springfield, Missouri, earned her BA in psychology from the University of Arkansas. After college she traveled in the US and worked for a time as a Playboy Bunny at the Playboy Club in Kansas City. She was accepted into the PhD program in psychology at the University of Arkansas but postponed her education and joined World Airways in 1973 as a flight attendant in order to see more of the world. She also became Ed Daly’s personal assistant in Saigon. . She left World in 1977 and returned to school, earning returned to school and earned a Masters Degree in Community Health Nursing. In 1991 she earned a PhD in Psychology and today has a private practice as a psychotherapist in southern California.
Jan Wollett grew up in Santa Monica, California. She attended Santa Monica City College, UCLA and Otis Art Institute and pursued studies in graphics, etching and engraving. Following graduation from Otis she moved to Baltimore and became director of an art gallery. After three years she returned to southern California. While volunteering at a counseling center in Los Angeles she met actress Jennifer Jones and the two women became close friends. Jones hired Wollett as her live-in assistant and Jan worked for Jones for the next four years until Jones met and married Norton Simon in the Spring of 1971. Jan made all of the arrangements for the couple to be married aboard a small boat in the English Channel. Jan joined World in 1972 and remained with the company until 1984. She left the airline and bought herself a small home out in the country in the state of Washington, where she lives today.
On April 2, 1975, four days after the flight form Danang, Ken Healy Daly piloted a World Airlines DC8 that Daly had transformed into a “flying crib” to bring 57 orphans from Saigon to Oakland. Healy experienced radio failure before flying out of Saigon and could not respond to orders from the tower turned off the runway lights and ordered him to abort his takeoff. As he approached Yokota, Japan, and radioed ahead for landing instructions, the traffic controller told him, “Gee, you can’t land here, because you never left there. So, welcome to Yokota!”
The next day President Gerald Ford announced the government would begin evacuating orphans from Saigon in a series of 30 planned flights. “Within a week of the babylift the government wanted us flying again,” Healy says. Daly ordered us to fly a 747 to Saigon and bring back all the orphans we could carry. So we got 20 doctors and nurses and 5,000 pounds of medical equipment to go to Saigon and on the way they told us we could not land in Saigon because the plane was too big and was too much of a target for the North Vietnamese. So we flew to Clark in the Philippines and waited for 3 to 4 days and they brought the orphans there, some were not even walking yet – just little bundles, up to 8 or 9 years old. A couple of our remaining 727s brought kids over and they gave us the basketball court to triage. The airplane was triaged and we came out of there with 502 orphans, all in little cardboard bassinets, most in cardboard boxes with a seat belt going through it to hold them in, and all of those doctors and nurses. One child died in route, but that was the only one we lost.” Healy retired from World, but returned to Vietnam in 2005. “World Airways donated an MD11with 100 first class seats and they took all of my crew and as many of the orphans as they could find back to Saigon to commemorate the Operation Babylift. I sat with one of the men who had been an orphan in 1975. We talked quite a bit. He was about 7 years old when I brought him out. He told me he had become an engineer with Boeing in Seattle.”
Tran Dinh Truc was reunited with his parents in Saigon after the World flight landed. After the city fell to the North Vietnamese he was sent to the countryside for reeducation through hard labor. He survived and returned to live in Saigon. He left Vietnam by boat in 1982 aboard a boat packed with 130 refugees. After five days at sea the boat came ashore in Galang, Indonesia. During the voyage, Truc met and fell in love with a young woman who was also a refugee. They married in Galang. The couple was eventually sponsored to Australia where he married and started a family. Truc went to work for a company that supplied and serviced fire extinguishers. Truc and his wife have three children – two boys and a girl. Truc told his children that his experience on the flight from Danang to Saigon changed him profoundly. He became much more selfless in everything he does. He did not say that his belief in God was any stronger after the flight but he says he is sure that his experience “exemplifies the power of God’s influence in our lives.”[Truc’s eldest son, Tran, along with Ho Chi Minh City journalist Khai Don, translated Truc’s narrative for me].
Edward J. Daly ordered and supervised the evacuation of orphans from Saigon in April 1975. He paid for World’s role in the evacuation -- some $2 million –out of his own pocket. He also paid $243,000 in fines to the US Immigration and Naturalization Service for bringing his first group of 57 orphans to Oakland. At the end of the month Daly evacuated all of World’s employees and their families from Saigon to Oakland. Among those he brought to the US were “Minh the Tailor” who made safari suits, the switchboard operator from the Caravelle Hotel, the elevator operator from the hotel and the son of the hotel’s manager.
“I’m not a hero,” Daly said of his activities in Vietnam in 1975. “I’m a catalyst. None of those bureaucratic bums in Saigon or Washington would have gotten off their butts if someone hadn’t defied them and gone in after the refugees and orphans.”
Daly passed away at Rancho Daly in Orinda on January 21, 1984, at the age of 62. His body was cremated, following his wishes, and his ashes were sprinkled over the Pacific Ocean off the coast off California.
Daly’s World Airways continued doing business. It does not have any passenger service but provides passenger and cargo service. In 1987 the company’s headquarters was moved to Peachtree City, Georgia.
The Boeing 727-100 number N691WA was repaired and returned to regular service with World Airways. In 1977 the aircraft was sold to UPS and flew with that company for another ten years until it was sold to the Republic of China Air Force where it was used for training pilots. Early in the 21st century it was sold again to a flight school in Taiwan for use in training commercial pilots. As far as can be determined by this author, it is still flying.
Col George Jacobson, assistant to Graham Martin, remembers the entire incident like this:
In the midst of all of the confusion and planning, Ed Daly of World Airways comes in. Now Daly is a total ass. He is absolutely a total ass. He is one of the most despicable human beings I have ever had the misfortune to meet. A four flusher, a loud mouth, unhousebroken, miserable man. He's just one of those four flushing types. Obviously he had ability, but World Airways, I'm sure is doing better now that he is dead. I read his obituary with the greatest of pleasure, I'll tell you that.
He was raising hell around Vietnam, and Graham Martin, God damn it I'll never forgive him for this, put me in charge of Ed Daly, in addition to the thousand things I had to do I had to put up with this idiot. He was a mad man.
Remember when he flew up to Danang? What stupidity. He's a true horse's ass, is what he was. One of those loud mouthed characters who carries a big pistol and runs around in a Honolulu shirt and he's got these stewardesses with him, on his god damn airplanes, just a miserable impossible man. Nobody could like him better than I do.
I saw the video tape of the flight out of Danang and I wasn't surprised at all. It was just too bad that Daly wasn't the guy that was caught in the wheel well. That was my feeling. Let's say I despised this man. Let's just leave it at that.
August 26, 2013
(CBS News) Bruce Dunning, the CBS News correspondent whose 1975 television report on the last flight from Da Nang vividly captured the frantic end of the Vietnam War, died Monday in New York at the age of 73.
The retired CBS newsman died at Mt. Sinai Hospital in Manhattan from injuries suffered in a fall. He lived in Union, City, N.J., where he had resided since his retirement from CBS in 2005.
As a young correspondent reporting on the Vietnam War, Dunning developed an affinity for the region and spent most of his 35-year career at CBS News in the Far East, where he rose to become Asia bureau chief in 1989 based in Tokyo. In that position, he supervised all of the news division's operations in Asia until he retired. During that time, he served as president of the Tokyo Foreign Correspondents Club.
Dunning was the first CBS News reporter to be based in China when he opened the Beijing bureau in 1981; in 1979, he was one of the first American broadcast journalists to report from North Korea.
He is best remembered for his award-winning and dramatic report on March 29, 1975 aboard a 727 World Airways jet attempting to rescue refugees from the airport in Da Nang, South Vietnam. The five-and-a-half-minute report -- long even then for a television evening news segment -- was broadcast on the "CBS Evening News" Saturday edition anchored by Dan Rather, who introduced Dunning's segment with the words "Da Nang has become a Dunkirk."
As Dunning narrated on the scene, the camera showed the throngs running for the plane as it landed and then he described how it filled up almost instantly with young Vietnamese military deserters, some armed and "menacing." "The men President Thieu said would defend Da Nang," said Dunning. The camera then captured the stunning images of the airline's president, Ed Daly, punching young men to the tarmac who were trying to get aboard the overloaded airliner's rear stairs and then, at 6,000-feet up, pulling in one last straggler, still holding on through take-off and ascent after seven others had fallen. The aircraft's mission was to gather as many women and children as it could hold, but as Dunning reported, the crew counted 268 persons, among them just five women and "two or three young children."
Dunning's Frantic Flight
His report, dubbed "Back from Da Nang," won the Overseas Press Club's "Best TV News Spot from Abroad" award and was named to the Columbia University Journalism School's 100 Great Stories list. Dunning also shared in a collective OPC award for CBS News radio coverage of the last days of the war.
Dunning joined CBS News in July 1969 as a reporter/assignment editor in New York after working as a freelance reporter in Paris since the previous December. He was posted to the Saigon bureau in August 1970, where, reporting from the field with U.S. troops, he did stories on the air war in North Vietnam and covered the war's effect on the average Vietnamese. Dunning was named a correspondent in July 1972. He returned to Vietnam to cover the 10th and 20th anniversaries of the fall of the South Vietnam regime.
Dunning was assigned to the division's Tokyo bureau in 1972. There he covered major news of the region, including the political scandal involving Japanese Prime Minister Tanaka; the attempted assassination of South Korean President Park Chung Hee; and the incredible story of the Japanese WWII lieutenant who came out of a Philippine jungle after 30 years of hiding.
In 1983, Dunning was called back to the U.S. to be assistant bureau manager for CBS News Miami, where he covered news events throughout Latin America and the Caribbean, as well as south Florida and Puerto Rico. He frequently reported from Central America on the insurgent wars in Nicaragua and El Salvador. He also made two trips to the Persian Gulf in 1987 to cover the conflict between Kuwaiti tankers and Iranian warships.
In January 1988, Dunning was re-assigned from Miami to Seoul, Korea, as a field producer preparing for the 1988 Seoul Olympic Games. He also covered the last days leading up to the death of Emperor Hirohito in December 1988 through January 1989. Dunning returned to Beijing that spring to cover the historic visit of Soviet leader Mikhail Gorbachev, which sparked the democratic uprising and massacre in Tiananmen Square. He spent two months covering the 1991 Gulf War from Dubai, Tel Aviv, Saudi Arabia and Kuwait.
Dunning began his journalism career as a reporter and then the entertainment editor for the St. Petersburg (Fla.) Times from 1963 to 1966. From there he became features editor for the International Herald Tribune in Paris, where he also studied French civilization at the Sorbonne.
Bruce Gardner Dunning was born April 5, 1940 in Rahway, N.J., and grew up a few miles from there in Westfield, N.J. He attended local public schools before being accepted to Princeton, where he earned his A.B. degree in English Literature in 1962. He received his masters in journalism from Columbia University in 1963.
Dunning's devotion to Princeton was a lifelong one. While overseas, he served as the president of the Princeton Club of Japan; at his 50th class reunion, classmates unanimously named him class president.
Dunning is survived by his life partner, the artist Tetsunori Kawana; a brother, Alan, and his sister-in-law, Anne, who live in Manhattan.
Paul Vogle passed away in 2001.
"Paul Vogle was a rare individual. The type of gentle soul one can never forget," said famed Associated Press Vietnam correspondent George Esper. "There will never be another like him," said friend and UPI colleague, Chad Huntley, (Vice-President for News at MilitaryCorruption.com). And MCC Editorial Director, Dan Cameron-Rodill - who, with newsman Eric Cavaliero, risked his life to man the CBS NEWS Bureau in Saigon when Vietnam fell to the Communists in 1975 - perhaps put it best when he said: "To know Paul was to realize there was still something and someone good and decent among all the depravity of a war that ripped Vietnam apart. His unselfishness and high degree of professionalism is what I will remember the most."
Tom Aspell passed away in 2013.
Aspell began his career in television as a scriptwriter and cameraman in 1970 and joined NBC News in 1985 as a Cyprus-based producer.
“From Southeast Asia to the Middle East… to the Balkans … to Afghanistan, Iraq, Iran and dozens of other ‘hot spots,’ Aspell made his mark on behalf of NBC News for 28 years. To a person, all of his colleagues will tell you Tom was great company in the field who loved sharing stories at the end of a day spent documenting history,” NBC News president Steve Capus said in a note to staff.
On Tuesday’s “Nightly News,” Brian Williams described him as a journalist with “an intense brand of cool under fire.”