Homesick Angel: Last Flight From Da Nang | HistoryNet MENU

Homesick Angel: Last Flight From Da Nang

By Larry Engelmann
3/24/2017 • Vietnam Magazine

World Airways CEO Ed Daly defied U.S. authorities and led a daring mission to rescue women and children as the South Vietnamese army collapsed in 1975.

A tsunami of more than a million refugees swept over the coastal city of Da Nang in early March 1975, desperately fleeing the rapidly advancing North Vietnamese Army as South Vietnam’s crumbling armed forces fell back. With chaos looming, the U.S. Embassy stepped in to coordinate the evacuation, asking civilian-owned airlines to join an around-the-clock ferrying operation to move refugees to Saigon, about 500 miles away. American civilians, consulate staff, contractors, businessmen and their families and employees of civilian airlines were the first priority.

Edward J. Daly, the owner and CEO of World Airways, Inc., put the company’s three Boeing 727-100s at the government’s disposal. Aboard World’s first rescue flight to Da Nang on the morning of March 26, Daly, accompanied by two U.S. Embassy security guards, found the situation nearly out of control. As the plane dropped its rear air stair and security guards went down to supervise an orderly boarding, people rushed and quickly filled the aircraft. When hundreds more pushed to get aboard, the guards used mace to turn them back. Though dangerously overcrowded beyond its 131-passenger capacity, the 727 made it back to Saigon. Later flights that day experienced little disorder or panic.

Again the next morning, Daly flew on World’s first flight, and again it was mobbed. But the flights continued. After two days, World Airways had evacuated nearly 2,000 civilians from Da Nang. Hundreds of thousands still awaited rescue.

On March 28, citing the increasing danger, the embassy suspended flights in favor of an international seaborne rescue operation. Daly objected. He met with South Vietnam President Nguyen Van Thieu, who convinced him that the South Vietnamese forces at Da Nang would fight to the last if they were certain their families and relatives were safe. Daly appealed to the embassy to reinstate the air rescue but was turned down.

Daly decided to continue the flights without embassy authorization. He gathered his flight crews and staff at Saigon’s Caravelle Hotel that night, telling them all three 727s were going to Da Nang the next morning. Daly intended this flight for women and children only, leaving the South Vietnamese Army of the Republic of Vietnam (ARVN) to fight against the enemy. Once the flight succeeded, Daly assured his people, the embassy would send other aircraft to help.

The often-flamboyant Daly wanted his heroic efforts to be publicized, so he invited the press along, including Tom Aspell of Visnews, Paul Vogle of UPI and a film crew headed by Bruce Dunning and Mike Marriott from CBS. The crew included pilot Ken Healy, co-pilot Glen Flansaas and flight engineer Charles Stewart. Three flight attendants were on board: Jan Wollett, Valerie Witherspoon and, on her first flight for World, 21-year-old Atsako Okuba.

As Healy guided the aircraft to the end of the runway in Saigon, an air traffic controller ordered the pilot to stop and return to the hangar. But Daly told his pilot to “experience radio failure,” and Healy sped past the main terminal and lifted off.

After 50 minutes, the 727 approached Da Nang and made its descent. Two Air America helicopters were flying low searching for stranded Western diplomats who had radioed for help. Both chopper pilots knew that the situation at the airport was completely out of hand. One of them, Marius Burke, saw the 727 descending and radioed to warn it away, but there was no response.

North Vietnamese troops who occupied part of Da Nang had been firing rockets and artillery shells on the airport, and the second chopper pilot, Tony Coalson, could see clouds of black smoke rising from burning vehicles and buildings. As he flew over the beach near the airport, Coalson thought there was a bug on the inside of his windscreen. “I reached out to swat it, but it was not a bug; it was an aircraft in the distance,” he said. “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, consider ing that Da Nang was already lost.”

Like Burke, Coalson radioed the aircraft, warning that the airport was under attack and the runways were littered with debris and vehicles damaged by mortar and rocket fire. “But they paid no attention to me,” he recalled.

In disbelief, Coalson watched the plane land, turn off the runway and taxi to about midfield near the tower. When it proceeded onto the taxiway, it was pursued by a mob of soldiers and civilians on foot, in cars and trucks and astride motorbikes.

The 727 slowed almost to a stop, and the rear air stair came down. Tom Aspell, with a 16mm camera on his shoulder, stepped to the ground, followed by Joe Hrezo, one of World’s station managers. Aspell and Hrezo were enveloped by the crowd and pulled away from the 727 as it continued to roll down the runway. Hundreds of South Vietnamese soldiers— some shooting at the aircraft—surged toward the air stair.

Daly’s plan called for Hrezo to get off the aircraft first, go to the control tower and have his employees escort passengers, primarily and perhaps exclusively women and children, to the plane. He would also take over the air traffic control for Healy and the other jets as they landed, loaded and took off. The TV crews were to disembark and film the loading. Once Marriott and Dunning saw how Hrezo and Aspell were mobbed, however, they decided to film from inside the plane.

In the cockpit doorway, senior flight attendant Wollett watched in horror as thousands of people, pouring from the hangars and other buildings, chased the aircraft. A shiny sports car bounced across the infield, pulled into the path of the 727 and stopped. A soldier jumped out, drew a pistol and aimed it directly at the cockpit. Nobody said a word as the plane steadily bore down on the man and the car. Healy glared into the eyes of the soldier holding the pistol. “I wasn’t worried,” he recalled, “because that windshield was bulletproof.”

The soldier with the pistol was 19-year-old Tran Dinh Truc, a Vietnamese Air Force military policeman from Saigon who had been assigned to the airport’s main gate that morning. Left alone there, deserted by his commanding officer and fellow MPs, he stopped some friends passing through in a new Ford Mustang they were to deliver to the military police’s chief commander. At the wheel was 19-year-old Nguyen Tuan, who had his 16-year-old girlfriend, Tam, with him. Also in the car was a male student Truc knew only as Long. Truc’s friends told him that the roads to the port were blocked and the North Vietnamese occupied much of Da Nang.

Truc climbed into the car and told Tuan to drive to the Air America terminal. When they spotted the World Airways 727, Truc recalled, “We were like drowning people suddenly sighting a nearby lifeboat.”

As Tuan raced the Mustang down the runway, Truc could see in the rearview mirror thousands of people pursuing the plane while mortar shells were falling on the infield. When the aircraft slowed, Truc told Tuan to block the runway. “We drove across the infield—swerving to miss people and motorbikes—and pulled up onto the runway and used the car as a barricade,” Truc said. “I jumped out and raised my pistol and fired several times into the air just above the cockpit. 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 Tuan to get the car out of the way fast. Tires spinning and smoking, the Mustang sped back into the infield. “The plane passed us, followed by all of those desperate people,” Truc recalled.

Tuan pulled the Mustang back on the runway, chasing the 727 until it slowed to turn onto the taxiway, where he stopped the car and all four passengers jumped out and ran to the air stair. “We were in the middle of the mob,” Truc remembered. “Sometimes I was carried along and my feet were not even touching the ground.” Pushed away from the air stair, he spotted people climbing into an open slit in the body of the plane. Thinking it was a “secret entrance” into the passenger cabin, Truc pulled himself up inside and helped pull Tuan and Tam in after him. “It was pitch black inside,” he remembered, “and there were a dozen people in there. They were screaming and crying and feeling around in the darkness for the doorway to the main cabin.”

An explosion shook the compartment as a grenade detonated under the plane.

Wollett remembers a rush of hysterical people at the rear air star. “They were just wild-eyed. And they were all soldiers,” armed and desperate. As flight engineer Stewart and attendant Witherspoon were pulling people through the entrance, they kept screaming, “Where are the women and children?”

Wollett saw Daly “at the bottom of the air stair being mauled by soldiers trying to get onto the plane. His clothes were in tatters and his trousers had been pulled down around his knees. He was waving his pistol in the air with his left hand, now and then bringing it down on the heads or arms of men pulling at him, and swinging his right hand wildly to knock men off the stairs.”

Marriott, the CBS cameraman, stood just behind Stewart at the top of the stairs. “As I was filming, [people] started shooting each other,” he recalls. “They were shooting each other in the back to get closer to the aircraft.”

Wollett tried to help Witherspoon pull a woman over the 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,” Wollett said. “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.” Wollett watched the man fall off and disappear under the feet of the mob.

In his helicopter above, Burke heard a panicked American voice over the radio. It was Hrezo, pleading from the tower for someone to save Aspell and him. Healy called back from the 727, “I’ll swing by and pick you up, but I won’t be stopping.” The two bolted down the stairs and sprinted to the taxiway as Healy rolled toward the tower. Running behind the plane and attempting to jump onto it, Hrezo made it aboard, but Aspell lost his grip and fell.

Burke recalled, “About 20 to 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.” Burke asked Healy if he could take off from the taxiway. “Hell yes I can,” Healy responded, but he recalled later, “I was not at all sure that our airplane was going to fly. 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.”

In the 727, UPI reporter Vogle shouted into his recorder: “The crew is scared. The mob is panic-stricken. There’s a man with an M-16 pointed at us, trying to get us to stop…. A jeep, a pick-up truck, just crumbled under an engine.” As Healy began to pick up speed, Vogle roared, “People are storming aboard, shouting, pushing, soldiers, civilians. People are climbing up on the wings now…they’re falling 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.”

Still on the taxiway, Healy saw a flash of light and heard an explosion under his left wing. A grenade had gone off and destroyed the aileron controls on that side. Burke watched the aircraft as a half-dozen mortar rounds exploded 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.”

Healy knew the taxiway was as long as the runway and there was a chance he could gain enough speed to take off. “For a 727 that’s normally plenty of room, but 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 alongside it. His left wing hit one, two, three sheds, each exploding as the wing sliced through it. Healy ignored the wildly flashing control panel. “I was too busy looking outside trying to miss things,” he said. “I was committed to the takeoff. Everything forward!”

As he struggled to point the nose up, Healy discovered something deeply disconcerting—when he pulled on the controls, they pulled back. He figured the hydraulic system had been damaged and he would probably have to make a water landing in Da Nang Bay. Healy was unaware that the wheel wells were filled with people, clinging to the cables. It was the pull of those people he was feeling.

Burke and Coalson watched anxiously as the 727 neared the end of the taxiway. Burke warned Healy about a 6-foot rock pile just beyond the tarmac. If Healy could get over the rocks, he might be able to make a water landing in the bay. He knew the taxiway was 20 feet above sea level, and beyond the rock pile it was 150 yards to the sea. The plane slowly lifted off and made it just over the rock pile. But as it did, Healy felt the stick shake—an indication the plane was in a stall. “I held it steady,” he said, “and we dropped a few feet toward the water.” But a moment later he was able to tease the nose up a bit and the 727 started to climb. “All of a sudden there we were,” Healy remembered, “coming up out of Da Nang like a homesick angel!”

For a moment Coalson lost sight of the 727 because of the smoke and debris from the exploding communications sheds and from artillery rounds that appeared to be chasing the 727 down the taxiway. He thought that Healy had hit the rock pile. “Then I saw them over Da Nang Bay climbing out with the landing gear down and the air stair extended, with several people still clinging to it.” He heard Healy call over the radio, “See you in Saigon!’”

As his eyes adjusted to the darkness inside the aircraft, Truc realized he was not in an entryway to the main cabin. The space, full of mostly women and children, seemed to be a cube of no more than 6 feet on each side. He and the others were in the 727 wheel well. As the sound of the engines changed and they sensed the acceleration of the aircraft, people were screaming. “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 recalled. He looked down through the slit beside the door and saw the tarmac rushing by. He also saw men, women and children for a few seconds as they were run over by the aircraft’s tires. As the plane lifted off he saw water below.

“The cold wind became very powerful,” he recalled. “I felt that everybody with me in the wheel well was so lucky to be leaving on this plane. 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 parents’ legs in the roaring wind. Suddenly the bottom of the wheel well opened and people dropped out, like little bombs falling from a plane, and disappeared.” When the wheels began to retract toward the well, one of the soldiers slipped and got caught in the hydraulic mechanism. His body, squeezed tightly around the waist, ended up half in the wheel well and half out. Only Truc, Tuan and his girlfriend Tam and a soldier remained in the well, unable to communicate, with the roar of the air around them.

Truc stood clinging to the cables at the front side of the wheel well next to the trapped soldier while Tuan and Tam were perched on the thin lip of the well across from him. Truc saw his friends weakening after 30 minutes in the cold wind. “Tam looked at me for a long time,” he recalled. “I could see in her eyes that she was trying to tell me something….I tried to tell her to hang on, just hang on.” Tuan’s back was to Truc as he pressed tightly against Tam to hold her to the wall of the wheel well. The wind was slowly sucking Tuan down. Tam hooked one 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 recalled. Tam whispered something into Tuan’s ear and kissed the side of his face. She released her grip from the cable and put her other arm around Tuan’s neck, and Tuan let go of the cable. “I closed my eyes, turned my face to the wall. It was too painful,” Truc remembered. “I never knew that Tam’s gentle glance at me was her way of saying goodbye.”

As Tran Dinh Truc’s grip weakened, he began to pray: “I put all my faith in God. May God save me, I prayed.”

Healy cautiously climbed to 10,000 feet over the Gulf of Tonkin. Unable to pressurize the main cabin, he could go no higher. He radioed the other two World 727s. Pilot 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 nearing Nha Trang, about 300 miles south of Da Nang. Healy told him to hold over the city, wait for his 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 circled over Nha Trang at 30,000 feet until he finally noticed a speck far below and dropped. Peering out a window, Wollett spotted “one of the most beautiful things I have ever seen in my life— another World 727 flying next to us.”

McDaniel assessed the damaged 727 and gave Healy a running report. The left wing was very badly damaged. The nose wheel had retracted, but the hydraulic sequencing system for retracting the other wheels had stopped working. McDaniel reported the reason: “There is a body hanging out of the wheel well.” He also said the cargo hold door was open and the hold was filled with people. The plane was leaking fuel badly, and Healy did not know if he could make it all the way to Saigon. If he got to Saigon and the nose wheel did not come down, he planned to land in the Saigon River.

McDaniel guided Healy by radio as the 727 descended into Saigon airspace. In his final communication to Healy, he said that the nose gear had come down. Healy was not sure if it or the other wheels would hold, but he decided to try to land on the runway.

Truc saw that the floor of the wheel well was starting to close again. But the body of the soldier 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. Staring helplessly down at the man, Truc noticed that the aircraft was descending over green land. “I am still alive,” he whispered to himself. “Thank you, God!”

Tension in the cabin grew 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 Healy could not adjust the flaps or anything.” Her jump seat was directly over the nose gear. “I kept waiting for that nose gear to touch down,” she said, “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.”

Healy said: “We raced along the runway because we could not stop real well. Thank God they had a 14,000- foot runway. 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.”

As the plane rolled to a stop, 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 and collapsed. “For a moment everything went black,” he said. “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.” Getting to his feet, he assured the medics that he was all right and walked away from the aircraft, across the taxiway and through the terminal. Outside, he hitched a ride into Saigon from a boy on a motorbike.

The flight attendants tried to tally those who had been on the flight. They counted 250 in the main cabin, estimated that 80 people had packed themselves into the baggage compartment and an additional 24 people had been 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 in the cockpit, including Daly, three flight attendants, five journalists and Hrezo, for a total of 367 people on board—nearly three times the capacity. When Healy later gave Boeing his estimated weight and number of passengers, a group of engineers assured him 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!”

Back in Da Nang, Burke contacted lost journalist Aspell in the tower of the airport. Burke told Aspell to make his way to the end of the runway, where he would 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. Aspell’s film of the last flight was lost. 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.

Marriott’s film with Dunning’s narration was broadcast Easter Sunday on the CBS Evening News. “As calm fell on the smug men who had managed to fight off their friends and relatives to get on, the hardworking cabin crew took a count,” Dunning says. “Among [the people on board were] five women and two or three children. The rest were some of the men whom President Thieu said would defend Da Nang. They had no apparent feelings about leaving others behind; only gratitude that World Airways had saved their lives with a flight that Ed Daly intended for refugee women and children.”

On April 2, Healy piloted a DC-8 Daly had transformed into a “flying crib” to bring 57 orphans from Saigon to Oakland, Calif. Healy mysteriously experienced radio failure again before flying out of Saigon and could not respond to orders from the tower, which had turned off the runway lights and ordered him to abort his takeoff.

Truc was reunited with his parents in Saigon after the World flight landed. When the city fell to the North Vietnamese, he was sent to a reeducation camp and then returned to Saigon. Truc left Vietnam in 1982 aboard a refugee-packed boat and fell in love with a young fellow refugee. After five days at sea, the boat came ashore in Galang, Indonesia, where the couple married before eventually settling in Australia.

Daly ordered and supervised the evacuation of orphans from Saigon in April 1975, subsidizing the mission with some $2 million out of his own pocket. He also paid $243,000 in fines to the U.S. Immigration and Naturalization Service for bringing his first group of orphans to Oakland. “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.”

 

Larry Engelmann is the author of Tears Before the Rain: An Oral History of the Fall of South Vietnam. He is at work on his seventh nonfiction book.

Originally published in the June 2014 issue of Vietnam. To subscribe, click here.

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