Present At The Apocalypse

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Early in 1973 a woman named Jan Wollett applied for a job as a flight attendant with World Airways, based in Oakland, California. Her previous job had been as a secretary for the actress Jennifer Jones; she loved to travel and felt that working for an airline would give her a chance to see the world while earning a living.

Wollett had marched in demonstrations against the Vietnam War as a college student in the late 1960s, and like millions of Americans she assumed it was all finally ending as the last American troops now came home. It was not. The Vietnamese continued to fight and die. America continued to provide arms to the South, and the Soviet Union and China gave them to the North and the Vietcong. World Airways, owned by Edward J. Daly, happened to be a principal charter airline for the American military forces in Asia, flying routes between Japan, Korea, the Philippines, Taiwan, Okinawa, Thailand, and Vietnam. Wollett completed her training in March and was assigned to World’s Asian route in July.

She paid little attention when, in early March 1975, the North Vietnamese launched a major offensive in the central highlands, broke through the South Vietnamese lines, and began a rush to the coastal cities of Da Nang and Nha Trang. She had six weeks of vacation coming and had invited her father to visit her in Asia. He made the trip, and they went fishing together in Thailand and then returned to her home in Japan, planning to travel to South Korea for more fishing. Before they could depart, Wollett received a call from a World Airways dispatcher.

“Jan, I’ve got a big favor to ask,” he said. “You know we’re under contract to USAID [the State Department’s Agency for International Development], and we have these special flights running in Vietnam to bring refugees from Da Nang down to Saigon. We are short-staffed here, and we really need you.” The dispatcher promised to double her vacation time and fly her father to Korea if she would go. She agreed.

 

She flew to Saigon the next day. Charles Patterson, one of World’s vice presidents, had been on the flights to Da Nang to bring down refugees and government officials, and that night he warned Daly that the situation at the Da Nang airport was getting out of hand. He feared that a flight might be mobbed on the ground and prevented from taking off by panicky civilians and soldiers trying to escape the North Vietnamese army. Daly listened to Patterson’s warning and decided not to fly to Da Nang again. But, Patterson says, “There was part of Mr. Daly that was John Wayne, and there was part of Mr. Daly that was the caring individual,” and those parts apparently won out over caution. Early the next morning Daly decided to make one last run to collect refugees, presumably mainly women and children, who would otherwise be overtaken by the North Vietnamese army.

Daly gathered together a veteran flight crew consisting of pilot Ken Healy, copilot Charlie Stewart, and flight engineer Glen Flansas. He brought along three flight attendants: Jan Wollett, Val Witherspoon, and Atsako Okuba. He also invited along a CBS news crew consisting of Bruce Dunning, Mike Marriott, and Mai Van Due. Daly’s assistant Joe Hrezo also went on the flight, as did a UPI reporter, Paul Vogel.

Wollett expected the flight to be simply another normal shuttle. It was not. On the morning of March 29 she and her fellow crew members on World’s last flight to Da Nang confronted the war face-to-face. And in the space of only a few minutes, Wollett’s life was changed forever.

I first met Jan Wollett in the fall of 1984, when I began research for my book Tears before the Rain: An Oral History of the Fall of South Vietnam , which was recently published by Oxford University Press and includes her story. When I met her, Wollett was living alone in eastern Washington State. She had no telephone. She did not maintain contact with anyone from World Airways. She still often thought about the events of March 29 and she hoped that by talking about the flight she might at last free herself from the some of the images and faces that returned to her again and again in the night. This is how she remembered it.

I was supposed to get a wake-up call at my hotel in Saigon at five in the morning on March 29, 1975. I was to be the senior flight attendant on a flight up to Da Nang and back. I never got the call.

At six o’clock I got a call from Val Witherspoon. She asked me to be in the lobby in five minutes. So I jumped into my uniform and hurried downstairs. Mr. Daly and Val, who was another one of the attendants on the flight, were waiting for me. Bruce Dunning of CBS News was in the lobby too, and we chatted with him for a few minutes. I told Bruce that we were flying up to Da Nang, and he said that there were rumors that the city had already fallen to the North Vietnamese. I said, “Well, I’m sure we wouldn’t be going up there if it had fallen.” Bruce then asked if he could come along on the flight, and Mr. Daly told him to be at Tan Son Nhut Airport in an hour. “You get there, then you’re there,” Daly said.