The current exhibit at the San Francisco Airport Museum recounts the little known role commercial airlines played in the Vietnam War, particularly highlighting the women flight attendants who helped shepherd GIs to and from that conflict.
“They were so young, just kids out of high school,” said Eleanor Krausse, who worked for American Airlines in the days when flight attendants were known as stewardesses. She appeared in a video that is part of the display “Flying the Freedom Birds: Airlines and the Vietnam War,” which runs through June 21 at the museum in the International Terminal. Krausse recalled that in the early days of the war the soldiers who boarded her planes wanted to “fight for freedom.” Things changed over the years and “became not so nice. Put it that way,” Krausse continued, seemingly fighting to control her emotions.
Sandra Herrmann, who flew for United Airlines, remembered seeing the GIs line up in formation before getting aboard the aircraft at Travis Air Force Base. “That is when your heart starts tugging” she said. Leslie Pfeifer was with Flying Tigers airline when a soldier gave her a rosary. She didn’t want to accept gifts, but her supervisor said it would be OK because the soldier “wanted to leave something” with her. “I never forgot him,” said Pfeifer, who has kept the rosary all these years.
The “stews” also accompanied soldiers on their return home. Nancy Miller, who was with Pan American, said a GI confided that he was scared about meeting his wife because he had been “living like an animal.’’ He wanted to “talk to a woman before seeing her.” Miller added that it bothers her “when people can’t see the human story beyond the politics.”
The aircraft belonged to airlines that were under contract to the Air Force Military Airlift Command and served by civilian crews, according to museum publications. The trips were long and demanding. A typical flight took soldiers from one of the Air Force bases on the West Coast and then flew via Hawaii or Alaska across the Pacific with several layovers. The final segment involved landing at a military air base in Vietnam and letting the soldiers off. The plane was serviced and then departed with men returning home. From start to finish, the flight crews were away from home for five to seven days.
The exhibition is based on extensive interviews with people involved in the airlift. The display contains historic material and personal effects of those who flew on the Freedom Birds. The items include a colorful army jacket adorned with campaign ribbons and unit patches worn over a Pan American attendant’s uniform. One ribbon is a Purple Heart.
According to museum literature regarding the display, in spite of the intensity of the operations many flight attendants found the military contract flights rewarding and continued to serve on them for years. Judy Meyer, who flew for United Air Lines, recalled the experience as “some of the best flying I ever did.”
The exhibit, sadly, might trigger for some museum visitors memories of the tragic crash of an Air Force Galaxy cargo plane taking part in “Operation Babylift,” which was designed to bring Vietnamese children to safety as Saigon fell to the Communists. It did for this writer. On April 4, 1975, the first flight of Operation Babylift crashed while making an emergency landing at an air base in Vietnam, killing 78 children and 50 adults. Eventually, about 3,000 children, many of them orphans, would be evacuated during Operation Babylift. Flight attendants from commercial airlines were recruited or volunteered to accompany the children to their destinations. That, however, is another story.
The Rear View Mirror by history columnist Jim Clifford appears in the Daily Journal every other Monday. Objects in The Mirror are closer than they appear.