Scrambling to get out before the fall

CAPTURED: Defeated members of the South Vietnamese Army are escorted by Communist soldiers on April 30, 1975.
CAPTURED: Defeated members of the South Vietnamese Army are escorted by Communist soldiers on April 30, 1975. AFP

After four decades, the memories are clearly branded in my mind. I can still see what took place during the final weeks, days and hours before Pan Am Clipper Unity N653PA lifted off the runway at Tan Son Nhut airport in Saigon before the fall of South Vietnam to the Communists. With Capt. Bob Berg in command and an all-volunteer crew, we headed for the Philippines with 463 souls on board.

I was Pan Am’s director of operations for Vietnam and Cambodia. I was watching the gradual collapse of South Vietnam. I knew what was going to happen and I knew what we had to do: get all of our staff out before it was too late. I just wasn’t sure how we would accomplish that mission. But Pan Am made a commitment: We would evacuate our employees and their immediate families to safety in the United States.

Under normal circumstances, it could take two to three months to process documents to permit a Vietnamese citizen to leave the country. There was no time for that.

In early April, when we participated in Operation Baby-Lift Pan Am operated two 747s loaded with more than 600 children headed for the United States for adoption. This was the result of a very special man, Robert Macauley, the founder and CEO of AmeriCares. When Macauley saw what was taking place in South Vietnam, he mortgaged his house and chartered the 747s.

After several sleepless nights wracking my brain trying to develop a plan to get our people out, I came up with an option that might work: If we can carry hundreds of babies to the United States for adoption, why can’t I ask the South Vietnamese government to permit me, on behalf of Pan Am, to adopt our employees and some members of their family?

Why not? Time is running out. Chaos is building. Panic is in the air. If this plan fails, our only option would be the American Embassy plan. That would mean having our people assemble on designated roof tops in the city and then airlifted to U.S. Navy ships offshore. Too many things could go wrong.

I decided that April 24 would be the date of our final departure because May 1 was May Day, a holiday in some Communist countries. What better time than May 1 to celebrate the take over of South Vietnam?

During this period I could sense that some of our employees were getting concerned about my plan, or lack of a plan. They worried about being left behind and falling into the custody of the advancing communist troops. Looking at the map one could see that Saigon was going to be the end of a funnel. I tried to assure them to have faith and trust me.

I was stunned when our HR supervisor returned from the ministry of the interior with a stack of immigration documents for my signature. It worked. I signed them all and paid the fees — I had officially adopted our 61 employees and family members, bringing the total number to more than 300.

On April 23, I advised our employees that the next day would be our last flight out of Vietnam. They would have to be ready in the morning to board special buses at the downtown sales office that would take them to the airport. I would meet them at the entry checkpoint. That night, many of them slept in the back offices downtown on the floor.

This was a moment filled with trauma. All of these employees and family leaving their country for the first time with whatever belongings could fit in a carry-on bag and heading to a country where they knew nobody and had no idea where they would live.

As we lifted off the runway my heart was pounding. Saigon was surrounded by Communist troops — what a target we were. A huge 747 in broad daylight in full view of troops with weapons that could take us out with a single rocket. But as we continued our climb out and turned to the east, I could see the coastline falling away. I began to breath again. Thank God we made it.

On May 1, 1975 the North Vietnamese tanks rolled into downtown Saigon and it was over. I am eternally grateful to the Pan Am pilots and flight attendants who at great personal risk, volunteered to operate those flights under very hostile conditions.

Al Topping was director of operations for Vietnam and Cambodia for Pan Am and is a former Miami Herald distribution executive.