- Historic Sites
Present At The Apocalypse
Jan Wollett found herself on the last flight of refugees out of a crumbling Da Nang in 1975
July/August 1991 | Volume 42, Issue 4
So then it came to the final hour of the flight, and I was again in the aft of the plane. I started walking forward, and a man handed me his M-16. He didn’t speak English and I didn’t speak Vietnamese, and I was not quite sure what he wanted. But I knew he wanted me to take it. So I put that damn gun on my shoulder, and as I walked, people started handing me things. When I ended up at the cockpit, I had a couple of M-16s hanging off my shoulders and a bandoleer full of bullets and a handful of loose bullets. Some of the men handed me one or two bullets, and some handed me more, and I had two pistols hanging on my little fingers.
There I was holding that little cache of bullets and weapons, and there was suddenly the most obvious feeling: that the war was over for these people. They didn’t want their guns or their bullets or anything anymore. And it was so poignant. They were finished with it. Then, as I was walking toward the cockpit, this one fool put a hand grenade on top of the pile in my hands. And I looked down and I thought, “That’s a hand grenade!” My instinct was to turn around and toss it out the back of the plane. But I was afraid it would hit the air stair and explode, and I thought then, “My God, what am I going to do with all this stuff?”
I made my way up to the cockpit and kicked on the door, and Charlie Stewart, our flight engineer, opened it. I can remember saying to him, “Charlie, take this thing!” I was terrified of that hand grenade. I had never really been exposed to a hand grenade before. Charlie took it. Then he and Mike Marriott took electrical tape and started taping all the stuff. They taped the hand grenade and the bullets and whatever else I had carried in. The reason for this was that if something went off, they wanted to deaden the impact as much as possible.
When it came time to land in Saigon, I checked out Mike Marriott on the side by the galley door. I showed him how to open it in an emergency and how to inflate the emergency slide. Normally that would have been Atsako’s seat, but she was a fairly new flight attendant, and her English was not that good, and I wasn’t sure at that point how she would perform in a real emergency. So I wanted Mike there.
“When everyone was off we walked through and started picking up guns and bullets and hand grenades left in the seats.”
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 Da Nang 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.
Then Mr. Daly said to me, “These people don’t know that my gun is empty.” He had shot off all his bullets on the air stair trying to maintain order in Da Nang. And he said, “I’ll hold it on them when we land and give you time to open the door and pop the slide.” And I said, “Fine.”
So we started the long descent into Saigon. Of course, we were coming in much faster than we should have because we could not adjust the flaps or anything. And the front jump seat was right over the nose gear. I could feel it if it came down and if it didn’t hold. I felt the main gear touch the ground, and I watched the airport go flying by. I kept waiting to feel the nose gear touch the ground. Ken held the nose of the plane off the ground for so long. I don’t know how he did it. All of a sudden I looked at the buildings flying by, and we were running level, and I knew then that the nose gear was down and that it was holding. I hadn’t even felt it come down. That’s how gently Ken put that 727 down.
We raced along the runway because we couldn’t stop really well. Thank God they had a fourteen-thousand-foot runway in Saigon. There were fire trucks racing along next to us. And at the last minute we turned onto the taxiway. Then we stopped and had no visible sign of an emergency. I threw open the door, but I did not pop the emergency slide. Joe Hrezo was on the ground already. He’d run out the aft air stair. Joe and I both yelled at the same time, “We need an ambulance and stretchers.” Then we waited for them to bring a stair up to the front door. The people inside stayed very calm. Due told them over the PA to stay seated and not to move. Nobody moved. Finally we started getting people off. I remember that one man lit a cigarette, and as he got to the front door, I told him that he couldn’t have the cigarette because of the fuel. And 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.