For a small and unrecognized group of women, now mostly in their 70s, such high-drama, meet-cute moments are the personal and pedestrian memories of a war that otherwise divided a nation. These Pan Am stewardesses (now an outdated term but common at the time) were volunteers and got no special training for flying into war, though their pilots were mostly World War II or Korean War vets. Their aircraft routinely took ground fire. The pilots, all male, received hazardous-duty pay for flights into the combat zone. The women aboard did not.
The U.S. Air Force gave the flight attendants a rank of second lieutenants; from the point of view of the Geneva Conventions, if they were captured they could claim protections of prisoners of war. But they were civilians. They wore uniforms but not jungle fatigues: wrist-length white gloves and a baby blue “overseas cap.” In addition to serving as first aid and safety officers in flight, the women had to undergo girdle and weight checks.
During the Vietnam War, Pan Am had an exclusive contract with the Department of Defense to run R&R (rest and recreation) flights for soldiers on leave throughout the Pacific. Rented to the nation for only $1, it was effectively a military airline within the airline, starting with a fleet of six DC-6 propeller aircraft and, ultimately, 707 jets, calling daily at three air bases in the theater of combat. “We staff it with our best and most beautiful stewardesses, and the food and service are the finest,” said the Pan Am vice president in 1966 to the Associated Press. Over the course of the war, some of the women would fly as many as 200 times into the combat zone.
The Vietnam airlift crews got no medals or congressional citations for their work, though they were a necessary part of national security. There were no parades, nor much movement to celebrate their role or their place as accidental pioneers in military history. Where airlift crews for the 1991 Gulf War were celebrated with service medals from the Air Force, the pilots and flight attendants of the Vietnam War have not been similarly recognized. For more than 50 years, the stewardesses’ war stories have mostly not been told. They are important battlefield stories, war narratives that just happen to belong to women.