PRESENT AT THE APOCALYPSE
Jan Wollett found herself on the last flight of refugees out of a crumbling Da Nang in 1975
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.
Bruce rounded up his cameraman, Mike Marriott, and his sound man, Mai Van Due, and brought them out to the airport. We all boarded the aircraft, a World Airways 727. As the senior flight attendant I had been informed that we would be carrying one or two Vietnamese flight attendants as interpreters and that we would also be accompanied by guards for crowd control, since there had been some difficulty with crowds in Da Nang on the previous day. We were also supposed to be carrying soft drinks, orange juice, and sandwiches for the passengers.
“A massive swarm of people came up and out of bunkers. Thousands—and I mean literally thousands—started racing toward us.”
Once we were on the plane, I told Val and Atsako Okuba, the other flight attendants, to check and see what we had on board. Well, we discovered that the aircraft had not been catered. That was our first sign that there was something very strange going on. There were no soft drinks, no orange juice, and no sandwiches on board. And there were no Vietnamese flight attendants and no guards either.
There was a discussion on the plane as to what we should do—whether or not we should make the flight. Daly and the flight crew were on board by that time, and so were Dunning and his CBS crew. Eventually, two officials from USAlD came on board and assured us that everything was fine up at Da Nang and that we would not need the guards and could make the trip.
By that time it was already eight in the morning—much later than we had planned to take off. And Mr. Daly decided that we would go up to Da Nang and pick up some refugees, women and children, and bring them out.
So we took off. And the flight up to Da Nang was very good. We also took along with us a British newsman and another man from UPI. We chatted casually on the way up.
Then we started our descent into Da Nang. About twenty minutes behind us was another World Airways 727, flown by Don McDaniel, and behind him was yet another 727, flown by Dave Wanio. We figured that we would be on the ground for ten or fifteen minutes, load and take off, and then the next plane would land, and then the third. That way we could bring out three plane-loads of people in less than an hour.
When we landed, it was very strange because we did not see a soul at first. Nobody. It was just as if the entire airfield was deserted. And then, as we started to taxi, it seemed as if a massive swarm of people came up and out of bunkers. Thousands—and I mean literally thousands—started racing toward us. They were running, they were on motorcycles, they were in vans, they were in jeeps and cars and personnel carriers, they were on bicycles. They were coming out to us in anything they could find.
We had a plan. Mr. Daly and Joe Hrezo, a station chief for World, would get off the plane first and line up people on the back air stair. I was to stay in the forward part of the plane, Atsako would stay in the middle, and Val would be in the aft.
We started a slow taxi. I was standing in the cockpit door, looking out the front window. Then I realized that something really bizarre was going on. A group of people raced up next to the aircraft in a little truck. And a man jumped off the truck and ran up in front of us. I was looking down at him as we were slowly taxiing, and he took out a pistol and started shooting at us. Suddenly I had the fantastic feeling that I was in the middle of a John Wayne Western. And I thought, “Why are they shooting at us? We’re the good guys.”
We taxied past the man with the gun and slowed down further. I was now waiting for the first people to come on board. We were going to put them in seats starting at the front of the aircraft and then keep going back and fill up the seats in an orderly fashion.
Then the people started coming on board. They were running. And they were just wild-eyed. And they were soldiers. About nine soldiers came on board, and I seated them. Then a tenth came on, and he wouldn’t sit down. He was hysterical, and he kept running up and down the aisle, screaming in English, “Take off! Take off! Take off! They’re rocketing the field!” He was just screaming it over and over again. And I grabbed him, and I shouted, “Shut up and sit where I tell you to sit!” I pushed him into a seat.
Still, there were surprisingly few people getting on board the aircraft. So I thought I’d better go to the back and see what was happening. When I got to the back, I saw Mr. Daly at the bottom of the air stair, and he was being mauled. His clothes were in tatters. And Joe Hrezo was gone. Val was trying to help Mr. Daly and was trying to pull people onto the air stair as the aircraft continued moving down the taxiway. At the bottom of the air stair were hundreds of people, all desperate and crazy and screaming and clawing at Val and Mr. Daly. You could see no end to those people. They were running to the air stair from every direction. I climbed down on the stair and tried to help.
Mr. Daly was at the very bottom of the air stair, waving a pistol in the air, trying to restore some kind of order. Val was helping people climb over the side of the stair onto the steps. I went to the bottom of the stair next to Mr. Daly. A family of five was running a few feet from me, reaching out for help to get on board. It was a mother and a father and two little children and a baby in the mother’s arms. I could see the fear in all of their faces as they ran and reached out for me. I reached back to grab the mother’s hand, but before I could get it, a man running behind them shot all five of them, and they fell and were trampled by the crowd. The last I saw of them, they were disappearing under people’s feet. There were just several loud shots, and they were gone—all five of them. And the man who shot them stepped on them to get closer to the air stair. He ran them down and jumped onto the air stair and ran up into the aircraft. And everything was so chaotic and insane, I remember registering in my mind at that mad moment: “I’ll deal with that later.” And I just kept pulling people onto the stair.
I felt a woman pulling on me from the side of the stair. She was trying to get over the rail, and she grabbed my arm. I wanted to help her on, but I also had to worry about getting pulled off the stair. I turned and grabbed her arms and tried to pull her over the rail, but a 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 and over the railing. He used her as a steppingstone. Mr. Daly saw that happen, and as the man swung his leg over the railing, Mr. Daly smashed him in the head with his pistol. I remember suddenly seeing a sheet of blood splash across everything and I saw the man fall off and people trample him, and I remember thinking, “Good.” That was just my reaction at that moment. The man disappeared under the feet of the mob.
By that time people were streaming into the plane, so I ran back inside to see what was happening. Atsako grabbed me, and she said, “Captain Healy needs you.” So I went to the cockpit and knocked on the door. It opened, and Captain Healy told me, “Joe Hrezo has been separated from the plane. When he’s back on board, you let me know.” I said okay.
“I saw Mr. Daly at the bottom of the air stair, and he was being mauled. His clothes were in tatters. And Joe Hrezo was gone.”
What had happened during all of this was that Joe and the British newsman had been pulled off the plane by the mob, and then they couldn’t get back on. We lost both of them. Joe had run to the tower, and the guy operating the tower let him in. Joe then called the plane, and Ken Healy said he would taxi over onto the taxiway. He told Joe to make a run for the plane when we came by. We would not be stopping at any time. The moment Joe was on board we were going to take off. Captain Healy told me, “When you know for sure that Joe’s on board, just pound on the door.”
I went to the back of the plane and told Val, “Watch the air stair, and when you see Joe step on it, raise your arms in the air and I’ll signal Ken.”
While we waited to go by the tower, people kept getting on the aircraft. We were just shoving them into seats—five and six people in three seats. I remember asking as I directed them to the seats, “Where are the women and children? Where are the women and children?” It turned out that all of our first passengers were soldiers. Later we found that we had eleven women and children on board, but that was it. The rest were soldiers.
People on the aircraft were sitting in their seats totally in shock. And this one fool kept yelling over and over again, “Take off! Take off! Take off! Take off!”
Then, as we taxied by the tower, Mr. Daly was still somewhere on the bottom of the air stair, pulling people on. A moment after we passed the tower, Val turned around and raised her arm in the air, and I turned around and started to pound on the cockpit door. As I did, I heard the engines start to roar and we started to gain speed. Then this man who had been yelling for us to take just started shrieking. “Oh, no! We’re taking off on the grass!”
What had happened was that we were taking off from the taxiway, and Ken had gunned the engines to warn people to get out of the way or we would run over them. The reason we were on the grass was that the taxiway ended and the grass began and there was no way for us to get back on the runway at that point. We gained some speed and lifted off, and as we did, we hit a vehicle and then a fence pole, which did considerable damage to the wing. There was more damage to the aircraft from bullets and from a grenade that went off under one wing. But inside the aircraft we couldn’t see the damage, so we didn’t really know how bad the situation outside was. But Captain Healy was aware of it.
In any case, we were airborne. We had gotten out of Da Nang. I never really thought we would not make it out. You don’t have time to think about things like that in the midst of so much confusion. But I discovered later that we almost didn’t make it. We ended up with all that damage and with 358 people on board. We had 60 people in the cargo pits, and we had people in the wheel wells. The plane was supposed to carry 133. Ken Healy later sent Boeing all the statistics from our takeoff, and they ran them through their computer and told us that according to their figures, our plane could not possibly have taken off. Ken sent Boeing a telegram later that said, “You build one hell of an aircraft.”
As we took off, I was standing in the front of the plane, and I started looking at the passengers and counting them. At that moment I noticed a man sitting in the front seat who was very pale and who had been badly injured. His intestines were hanging out. I took my hand and just shoved them back inside, and then I ripped a towel off somebody’s neck and tied it around his waist to keep his intestines in. Then I realized that we were going to need a lot of first-aid stuff. I grabbed the first-aid kit and found that it had been looted on the ground in Saigon. We had no medical equipment on board. None. There were no supplies of any kind anywhere on the aircraft. No bandages. Nothing.
When I finished helping the guy in the front row, I looked down the aisle and saw a man crawling toward me. I recognized him right away. His whole head was caked with blood, and there was blood all over his face. It was the man who had pulled the woman out of my arms—the man Mr. Daly hit with his pistol. The last time I had seen that woman she was just pulp and cotton on the ground. And the last time I had seen the man he was being trampled. But he had managed to get on board, and now he was crawling up the aisle toward me. I knew he was coming to me. And that was the only moment I remember saying a prayer that day. I asked, “Oh, please, God, don’t have him come to me.” And he crawled up to me. And he grabbed my pants leg, and he looked up at me, and he just said, “Help.”
So I grabbed somebody and pulled him out of a seat, and I helped this man into the seat. His head was laid wide open and I could see inside his head, and it was just a bloody, pulpy mess. I had nothing to stop the bleeding with. I knew that if I didn’t stop the bleeding, he would die right there in my arms. A soldier next to the man had on a flak jacket. So I ripped open the flak jacket and grabbed the sawdust stuffing and pushed the sawdust into the man’s wound to try to stop the flow of blood. I just kept packing the wound with sawdust. I am sure that the American Medical Association would have been shocked by what I did. But it worked. I ripped off another man’s shirt, and I tied it around the wounded man’s head in order to keep the sawdust in and in order to keep his head in one piece. He made it through the flight alive. He must have been very strong. He never even went into shock.
I then went to the back of the plane once more. I saw Val and Mr. Daly and Joe Hrezo working to free a man who was trapped in the aft air stair. The aft door could not be closed. The man stuck on the air stair had broken his leg. They finally got him loose and brought him inside the aircraft. Val and I tried to put together a splint for his leg. Joe then told me that the British news guy had never made it back on the plane. He had stepped off onto the runway in Da Nang to film the crowd and was unable to get back on board in the panic. He was in the tower back there, and Ken Healy promised him that an Air America chopper would come in and pick him up. Later that day it did, and he made it safely back to Cam Ranh Bay.
Val and Atsako and I just kept working and repairing the obvious damage to the people on the plane. That consumed most of our time. I guess we had been airborne for about an hour when I started looking at the passengers who weren’t wounded. And I saw this horrible look on their faces. Finally they had realized what they had just done. And the questions started. “Will another plane come?” We lied and assured them, “Yes, there will be other planes.” They realized that they had shot and killed their own people to get on board our aircraft. Now they were sorry. So we lied to them. We knew there would be no other flights to Da Nang. We were the last. The people left behind would not get out. In fact, Ken Healy had talked to Don McDaniel on the next 727 and told him to wait for us over Phan Rang, and he radioed Dave Wanio and told him to go back to Saigon to prepare for an emergency landing. We had quite a bit of damage to the aircraft, and Ken was not sure that the landing gear would come down when we tried to land in Saigon. I knew what that would mean.
“Mr. Daly 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.”
In the meantime it got incredibly hot inside the aircraft, even though the aft air stair was down and the door was wide open. With that number of people in the plane you just could not breathe. It was incredibly hot. We had Due, who was the CBS sound man, keep announcing over the PA system in Vietnamese, “No smoking!” We could not have dealt with a fire and we knew there would be one if some of the passengers started smoking.
After working on the first-aid stuff for the passengers for a while, I noticed that there was nothing for these people to drink on the aircraft. But there was a drawer that had been full of ice, and it had melted, and now the drawer was filled with cold water. I asked Bruce Dunning to rip up the galley curtains into little squares, about four or five inches square, and to soak them in the water. Then I took them and I walked up and down the aisle passing out little wet pieces of galley curtain so people could mop their faces. They all were just sweating like crazy. And we’d go along and pat their shoulders, and I told Val and Atsako to do something to bring up the morale of these people. The shock of what they had done to their friends and comrades seemed to be destroying them slowly. They had left their families behind them on the ground. They had run over each other and shot each other to get on this plane. Now the panic was disappearing, and the realization of the horror of what had happened—of what they had done—was starting to sink in. So we went around and talked to them and patted them on the shoulders and wiped their brows and their hands and tried as well as we could to comfort them.
I was dying of thirst myself by that time. And Mr. Daly came up to me and opened his shirt and showed me some Coke bottles. He said, “Go to the cockpit.” I went up the cockpit and sat down on the observer’s seat, and Mr. Daly came in with the Cokes, and he opened one and gave it to me. I remember putting the Coke to my mouth to drink, but everything went down my chin and onto the front on my uniform. I couldn’t swallow. We passed that one Coke bottle around the cockpit. And once more Ken Healy told me about the damage to the aircraft. He said he was not sure about the nose gear on the plane coming down, and if it did come down he was not sure that it would hold. He warned me to be ready for anything when we came down in Saigon.
I returned to the cabin to do whatever more I could do for the passengers. Then there was a startling moment when everyone on the plane suddenly looked over to our left and there was a great deal of excitement. What had happened was that we had finally arrived over Phan Rang, and Don McDaniel and his crew had been sitting up at thirty-five thousand feet waiting for us. They finally saw this little dark dot way down below them, and they thought it might be us. And they came down to us. We looked out the window, and there against the gorgeous blue sky and the big puffy white clouds was this beautiful red and white World 727. I know that there was suddenly a terrific feeling that went through the aircraft at that moment—and I know that it certainly went through me—a feeling that our sister ship had found us and that we were going to be safe because she was going to escort us home.
So Don flew his aircraft all around ours and assessed our damage. That’s when he told Ken Healy, “It looks like you have a body hanging out the wheel well.” And Ken asked him about that. One person did get crushed as the wheels were retracting. But his death saved the other eight people in the wheel wells because his crushed body stopped the gears and did not let the wheels fully retract. The others were saved when he was killed.
So by that time we knew we were possibly going to have a problem with all the wheels, and we knew also that the cargo doors were open and that the aft air stair was hanging down and the back door was open and the air flaps were shot and we would not have them to assist us in landing. We were in very serious trouble.
We continued on to Saigon. I said to Val at one point, “Come on, let’s go into the lavatory and have a cigarette.” So we went into the lavatory and we both smoked a cigarette, and I told her all about the problems with the aircraft. During the landing I was going to be sitting in the front seat over the nose gear. And she was going to be sitting in the aft of the aircraft. I told her I did not know if we were going to make it. So I told her what I wanted her to tell my family if she made it and I did not. And she told me what she wanted me to tell her family if I made it and she didn’t. I remember saying to her, “Just tell my family that it was okay. I didn’t have any fear.” I didn’t cry, and she didn’t either. You don’t have time for emotions that are obviously there at a time like that. You keep them hidden.
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.
Most of our passengers were herded off to a side area. Stretchers were brought on board, and they carried out the man who had the bad wound in his head and the other man with his intestines hanging out. When everyone was off, we started to check out the inside of the aircraft. Val and I walked through it and started picking up guns and bullets and hand grenades left in the seats. I realized that there was far too much for us to carry out. So I said to Val, “Never mind. Just leave this stuff. Somebody will come ana take care of it.”
Then Val and I got off. We were the last two people off the plane. We looked at the damage to the aircraft, and we were really quite appalled at how torn up the metal was and at the bullet holes in the wings. And I said to Val at that time, “It’s amazing that this plane could fly.”
Val and I were picked up and taken to flight operations and then to the Caravelle Hotel. We were escorted to Mr. Daly’s suite, where NBC was interviewing all of us. I was sitting on the couch drinking beer as they made their film. There was a room next door and a suite where there were several dozen reporters waiting for us. They all wanted an interview. I asked Mr. Daly, “What should we say about the flight?” He said, “Just tell the truth.”
Mr. Daly took us all out to dinner that evening. When we got back to the hotel, I took a long shower. Then I lay down on the bed to sleep. But I couldn’t sleep. I kept seeing the people from that morning in Da Nang. I saw the woman trampled to death, and I could see her clothes and the bloody pulp of her body. And I saw that family of five again, all shot in the back and falling. And the man crawling down the aisle to me. I realized that I was not going to sleep at all that night.
I got up and went over to the desk. I thought maybe I could write it all down. I tried writing. I got some of it. But it was really frustrating because it was too big for words. I didn’t know how to write it down like it really happened.
Time went by. I had lost my conception of time. All of a sudden the phone rang. I answered, and the operator told me that I had an international call. I looked at the clock and realized it was seven in the morning. Then a woman came on the phone from a radio station in Los Angeles. She wanted to interview me. She had seen the CBS film of the flight from Da Nang on the news. So I told her what had happened. And at the end of the interview she said the dumbest thing I ever heard anybody say in my whole life. She said, “Miss Wollett, it sounds to me like you’re still upset.” Many things went through my mind at that moment. But all I could say was, “Let’s just put it this way. It’s not the kind of thing you see every day.”
Then she said, “Well, thank you, Miss Wollett. And by the way, have a happy Easter.” Only then did I realize that it was Easter Sunday.
Larry Engelmann is a professor of history at San Jose State University, in San Jose, California.
This article appeared in American Heritage in July/August 1991.