The Short Goodbye:
A Soldier of Fortune’s Farewell to Saigon
[Tom flew, after 1949, after CAT came to Taiwan. They had an operation down south in Thailand. He was chief pilot around that time in Rangoon. How long I don’t know. Then the next thing, a couple of years ago, the French gave about ten of the guys the Legion of Honor, and the thing came in the mail. He was given it for flying C119’s into Dienbienphu. He got it posthumously. Came about cause a guy on board the airplane, who would never speak of it, ended up in Laos in prison camp and over the years, it was his daughter got information from him, he went back to France, he was on the airplane, and he survived. Tom was involved in that. Involved in things I know second hand. They used to make flights into China. Air drops, 1500 miles. One of the navigators, Cyril M. (Pinky) Pinkava, we got navigators 66-67, they were gonna let him go in Taipei. During that time in the 50s before Air America, they had some C130s, which later ones we used, Tom was involved in those and then [CIA] Operations down into Oaktree.]
The chief pilot’s goodbye to the war much like the man himself, his compatriots and friends point out – charitable, methodical and calm. These words one hears often from his long-tme comrades. Not one of them had an unkind or critical word to say about the man. Tom was, they emphasized, a man of few words. He didn’t talk about his missions or his accomplishments, about the almost countless times he’d stared down death. He remained laconic, leaving little of his own record behind for biographers or historians. He just did his job, completed his mission, and went on to the next task. He did this over and over and over again, year in and year out, decade in and decade out, in one of the most dangerous environments in the world, until it all came to an end on April 29, 1975.
. Tom was one of those courageous soldier of fortune who stayed on in Asia after World War II. If Indiana Jones had needed a pilot in Asia, he would obviously have requested Tom Sailer and Tom, according to his friends and coworkers, surely would have completed the task successfully.
Tom spent thirty years in Asia after World War II. He spent the war years there, also, flying with the Army Air Force. He was one of that group of special pilots who flew over the Hump from India to China transporting supplies and men above the deadly teeth of the peaks of the Himmalayas. The whole group carried out its mission with notable success. Only one aircraft was lost in missions. Tom piloted the C130s and had a reputation for coolness and confidence.
After the war he stayed on in China, flew for CNAC and then for CAT. He ferried Nationalist soldiers around the country and carried frantic refugees out of cities surrounded by armies of the Communists. Several times he had to maneuver through frantic and panicked croweds on the ground to become airborne. A short item appeared in a Hong Kong newspaper in the spring of 1949 describing an extraordinary exploit of Tom at that time.
Tom Sailer left only a very abbreviated paper trail. His name pops up on a list of pilots or employees now and then, in a newspaper article in Hong Kong, and so on. It was typical of the man. He seldom talked about his work. He was close mouthed about what he did. And he did extraordinary and heroic things. But he wasn’t one to brag. And he wasn’t one to talk much. When the French government finally got around to acknowledging his service and selecting him to receive the Legion of Honor, it was too late. They do not make the award posthumously. And Tom had died several years early. But, he would have loved the award, the recognition of a few of his extraordinary deeds.
The Legion of Honor was for his piloting on 41 missions a C 46 to supply the beleaguered Foreign Legionnaires surrounded at Dienbien Phu in North Western Indochina in the spring of 1954. The loss of the French outpost had earth shattering repercussions. The incredible life he lived as chief pilot for Air America in Asia can be reconstructed and recounted only through his associates and friends. I interviewed Tom before his death and upon speaking to his friends was able to put together the following account of his extraordinary career and of his last days in South Vietnam before it fell to the invading North Vietnamese Army in the spring of 1975.
Tom was born in Galesburg, Il, in 1918. Following graduation from high school, Felix Smith, who flew with the Flying Tigers in China and then with Air America after the War, recalled that Tom played clarinet and formed a dance band that toured the Midwest. But following American entry into World War II, Tom joined the Army and was assigned to the Army Air Corps. He learned to fly and was assigned after earning his wings to the air force in India, flying supplies over the hump.
"I think when Ed Daly’s World Airways 727 came out of Danang (March 29 , 1975) and we learned all that had happened to it on the ground, well, the handwriting was on the wall for Vietnam,” Tom recalled later. “ They kept losing country -- the South Vietnamese-- and as they did our Air America missions became more and more restricted. My last flight in the country was on April 26th, a Saturday, transporting supplies to consulate staffs. After that it was pretty much over.
On April 28th I found myself sitting around in apartment -- on Cong Ly street -- with nothing much to do. And I decided to go out and buy some stuff. I bought presents for my family and put them all in the trunk of my car. Then I drove home and left the car parked at the curb with the packages still in the trunk. As far as I know it's still there today.
That night there was an attack on the airport. My apartment was on the sixth floor of the building and out the window I could see out near Tan Son Nhut and it was just a sea of flames out there. I had several other Air America pilots over for dinner that night and several of them said that they thought they'd never see their aircraft again. And without the aircraft we didn't know how we were ever going to get out of Vietnam.
All that that night we watched the shelling of the city from the roof of my apartment building. My building was supposed to be a rescue point if it ever got really bad. And that night we thought it was getting pretty bad. We sat around and talked until pretty late in the night. And the other pilots said they thought it would be best if they stayed at my place that night. So they did.
We got up on the morning of the 29th and we were sitting around the table having breakfast when all of a sudden we heard a chopper approaching. We wondered who it was, since we hadn't gotten any word or anything from our terminal at Tan Son Nhut. And they said they would keep in touch with us at all times as to what was happening. As it turned out, they had been holed up out there behind sandbags and they were not able to use their radio to call us.
Now the big evacuation was on. As we heard that chopper coming in we ran out the door and up to the roof. He had already landed there. And he told us, "We're gettin' out. Right now. Bring one bag." There were five of us who had stayed in my apartment and we all ran back down, grabbed a travel bag and then ran back up to the roof. We left breakfast on the table, coffee on the stove and the door wide open on the way out.
When we got back on the roof there was a little Vietnamese kid standing there, all alone, about six years old. He said he wanted to go with us. One of the guys said, "Leave him." But he said he wanted to go and I thought, "What the hell," so I scooped him up and brought him into the helicopter with us. Then we took off for Tan Son Nhut. When we landed at the airport that kid wandered off somewhere. I never saw him again.
On the way out we were told that all hell had broken loose at the airport. They had been shelled and bombed and sniped at and now some of the Vietnamese were stealing our choppers and taking off in them. Everything was gone.
They dropped us off on the tarmac next to a C 46 and told us to get on board. We did just that. We scrambled onto the plane, started the engines and just started rolling.
One of the main tires on the plane was low, I noticed when getting in. But there was no time to take care of it. We had to go. It seemed that everybody was leaving at the moment -- there was a lull in the shelling. Dependents of the Air America personnel were there and they were streaming out of various buildings to climb aboard the Air America planes. We had about twenty on our C 46. When I taxied out onto the runway I saw a line of C 130s all ablaze and people lying dead on the ground around them. Then, as I was coming to the nearest intersection, here came a little French car. It pulled up right in front of me, just like he was preparing to ram us. And a Vietnamese major got out. He signaled to me that he wanted to go out with us. He signaled by waving and pointing into the sky. My co-pilot, a kind of hot-headed guy, said, "I'm going back and shoot that guy. He's a god-damned deserter." And I said, "Ah, what the hell. Let's take him. It's all over here anyway."
So I signaled to the major that he could come on board. He backed his car off the runway. And we threw the ladder down for him and he came on board. He was unarmed. And he never said a word the whole trip. I could have left him there, I suppose. But I really thought we should take him. At the moment it seemed like the right thing to do. After he was on board we took off.
I wasn't sure how much fuel we had at that time. After we took off I saw we had full tanks. We took off toward the west because of a westerly wind at the time. Then I turned and headed southeast toward the nearest water. The main thing was to get over water, so we could be safe from ground fire and from SAMs.
My last look at Vietnam was through the clouds as we banked. I looked down and it seemed to be peaceful. Then I headed for Hong Kong."
Tom Sailer was a gentle soul in an ungentle and dangerous world. Again and again, those who flew with him, remember, he demonstrated not merely grace under pressure but also enough self-confidence and competence to calm his anxious companions. The flight attendants referred to him as “the Buddha.” In the way he said goodbye to Saigon on April 29, 1975, was typical and a microcosm of the man.
Felix Smith laughs when talks about Tom Sailer, the gentle pilot, noting that Tom was not merely calm and confident but like statues of the sitting Buddha he was a bit round and had a pink cherubic face. Nobody I talked to who knew him had a single unkind word to say about Tom Sailer.
My interview with Tom was published in the Washington Post on April 21, 1985, and is cited in his obituary, which follows.
Thomas C. Sailer, an Illinois native who flew with the Flying Tigers in World War II and for Air America in Vietnam, passed away April 27, 1999, in Knob Hill Convalescent Center. He was 80.
He was born July 14, 1918, in St. Augustine, Illinois, the son of Clare T. and Margaret Kennedy Sailer.
He married Zena Flayer in 1949 in Shanghai, China.
Surviving are his wife; one daughter, Peggy Malcolm, Andover, MO; one son, Douglas Sailer, in Luxembourg; three sisters, Kathleen Boone, St. Augustine, Betty Sailer, Des Moines, Iowa, and Virginia Pica, Fort Washington, MD; one brother, Philip Sailer, Rock Island, Illinois; two grandsons, and nieces and nephews.
He was graduated from Avon High School in 1937. He attended Army Air Force School at Texas A&M University.
Mr. Sailer’s career as a pilot included service with Gen. Claire L. Chennault’s Flying tigers, an American volunteer force that fought the Japanese in World War II, and flying in Vietnam for Air America. Air America, reputed to be a commercial service, was widely reported to be financed by the U.S. Central Intelligence Agency.
Mr. Sailer was stationed in Saigon when it fell to the Communists in April 1975, and flew one out of the last plane loads of refugees to Hong Kong.
Mr. Sailer’s story was told in an article in the April 21,1985 edition of The Washington Post Magazine. It said, in part:
“On April 28, I was sitting around my apartment-on Cong Ly Street-with nothing much to do.
“That night there was an attack on the airport. My apartment was on the sixth floor of the building and out the window I could see out near Tansonnhut and it was just a sea of flames out there.I had several Air America pilots over for dinner that night and several of them said that they thought they’s never see their aircraft again.
“That night we watched the shelling of the city from the roof of my apartment building. My building was supposed to be a rescue point if it ever got really bad. And that night we thought it was getting pretty bad. We sat around and talked until pretty late in the night. And the other pilots said they thought it would be best if they stayed at my place that night. So they did.
“We got up the morning of the 29th, and we were sitting around the table having breakfast, when all of a sudden we heard a chopper approaching..Now the big evacuation was on. As we heard that chopper coming in, we ran out the door and up to the roof. He had already landed there. And he told us, “We’re getting out. Right now. Bring one bag.’’ We were told that all hell had broken loose at the airport. They had been shelled and bombed and sniped at an now some of the Vietnamese were stealing our choppers and taking off in them. Everything was going.
“They dropped us off on the ground next to a C-46 and told us to get on board. We did just that.We scrambled onto the plan, started the engines and just started rolling..When I taxied out onto the runway, I saw a line of C-130s all ablaze and people lying dead on the ground around them. Then, as I was coming up the nearest intersection, here came a little French car. It pulled up right in front of me, just like he was preparing to ram. And a Vietnamese major got out. He signaled to me that he wanted to go out with us..My copilot, a kind of hot-headed guy, said, “I’m going back and shoot that guy. He’s a deserter.’’ And I said, “Ah, hell. Let’s take him. It’s all over here anyway.’’ And we threw the ladder down for him and he came on board.. I could have left him there, I suppose. But I really thought we should take him. At the moment it seemed like the right thing to do..
“We took off toward the west because of a westerly wind at the time. Then I turned and headed southeast toward the nearest water. The main thing was to get over the water, so we would be safe from ground fire and SAMs. My last look at Vietnam was through broken clouds as we turned. I looked down and it looked peaceful. Then I headed for Hong Kong.’’
Mr. Sailer’s family moved later to San Francisco.
He retired from flying in 1984.
Cremation was accorded. A memorial will be held later.