Last flight from Da Nang illustrated madness of war

When the Paris Peace Accords were signed in early 1973, it brought a sense of relief to the United States, which had been polarized for eight years by the Vietnam War — a war over matters which never threatened U.S. domestic security, but for which many young American men were conscripted anyway. (Since evading U.S. conscription was not an extraditable offence under Canadian law, many would-be conscripts lived here in temporary exile, or became naturalized Canadian citizens.)

Yet the threat of war remained constant along the border between communist-ruled North Vietnam and the nominally democratic, but poorly governed, South Vietnam.

In late 1974, realizing that both the U.S. Congress and the American public had become demoralized about Vietnam, North Vietnam and supportive Viet Cong rebels in the South launched a military campaign to take over South Vietnam and reunify it with the North, on the North’s terms.

By mid-March 1975, the offensive had reached Da Nang, a South Vietnamese city on the central coast. Surrounded on all sides, the South Vietnamese soldiers forced into the city were cut off from the rest of their country. The North Vietnamese moved in.

On March 24, USAID, the U.S. international aid agency, contracted charter operator World Airways to fly Boeing 727s into Da Nang to evacuate women and children from the war-torn city. The Boeing 727 had the advantage of a back door, and a staircase that could be dropped from below the tail to allow refugees to scramble aboard quickly before taking off again.

More flights ferried refugees out of Da Nang in the days that followed. But the crowds at the airport became increasingly unruly as the city came closer to falling to the North Vietnamese.

Despite being warned not to attempt it, World Airways’ mercurial founder and president, Ed Daly, decided to make one last series of flights to evacuate refugees from Da Nang on Saturday, March 29. The plan was to quickly fly three Boeing 727s in at 20-minute intervals, quickly load them up with refugees, and fly each jet back to Saigon (now known as Ho Chi Minh City).

Daly, planning to be aboard the first flight, invited CBS News Saigon correspondent Bruce Dunning to come along for the ride. Dunning brought along a cameraman and a sound man to record the event.

The airfield seemed deserted when the aircraft landed at Da Nang. This was a deception: thousands of people had been taking shelter, fearing the shelling taking place in the vicinity.

The thousands began making a run for the World Airways jet as soon as it slowed down — and the CBS crew began recording the scene from the windows of the aircraft.

Even before the aircraft had stopped moving, people were trying to get aboard.

“One guy got on. Jesus!”, an unidentified woman can be heard saying. A man, possibly Daly, replied with an astonished, “Huh?!”

But those reaching the plane weren’t the women and children that Daly intended to pick up. Instead, they were South Vietnamese soldiers who, in the chaos of war, had been abandoned by their superiors and left to fend for themselves.

The CBS News video, which has lost none of its shock value after 40 years, tells the rest of the story as 268 people — double the Boeing 727’s normal capacity — stormed the jet. Almost all of them, save for fewer than a dozen women and children, were fleeing soldiers. At one stage Daly, a former boxer, can be seen brandishing a gun and trying in vain to block the rear stairs, even punching South Vietnamese soldiers as they tried to board.

Yet the video only just begins to illustrate the madness that humans can descend to in a war zone. For example, the video did not capture the scenes described later by flight attendant Jan Wollett, who can be seen wearing a red uniform in the video:

Mr. Daly was at the very bottom of the air stair, waving a pistol in the air, trying to restore some kind of order. [Flight attendant Val Witherspoon] 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.

The rest of Wollett’s story of that wild flight out of Da Nang 40 years ago, which makes an interesting-if-grim read, can be found here.


About theviewfromseven
A lone wolf and a bit of a contrarian who sometimes has something to share.

One Response to Last flight from Da Nang illustrated madness of war

  1. derick says:

    That’s insane.

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