By Marc Phillip Yablonka

Renée Chenette, who lives in Laguna Beach, California, was a young Pan Am stewardess the first time she landed at Tan Son Nhut Air Base in 1972. She shares her past memories with the author during a scheduled interview.

The flight attendant, who grew up just outside of Paris, flew for the airline for 17 years between 1970 and 1987—but it’s the flights into and out of Vietnam while the war raged that are uppermost in her mind today.

However, she’s the first to admit that at the time, she didn’t give it much thought.

“I had just arrived from France, and at 24, I was too young to really know what was going on,” she said.

As such, Chenette treated those on board the flights no different than she would any passenger.

Yet the reality was that the “Pax,” as passengers have always been referred to by personnel in the aviation business, were far from the usual.

“They were all exhausted and many had injuries,” Chenette remembered.

“I just wish I would have been more aware,” she said. “Today, I would have a million questions.”

Epoch Times Photo
North Vietnamese troops run on the tarmac of the U.S. military airport in Tan Son Nhut, South Vietnam, on May 12, 1975. (AFP via Getty Images)

According to the U.S. Air Force Police Alumni Association: “Tan Son Nhut Air Base served as the focal point for the initial United States Air Force deployment and buildup in South Vietnam in the early 1960s. … Between 1968 and 1974, Tan Son Nhut Airport was one of the busiest military airbases in the world.”

In March 1973, the last U.S. Airman left South Vietnam from the base.

Now it’s been 50 years, and Chenette is hard-pressed to remember individual conversations she had with the soldiers aboard what were called the “freedom birds.” However, she does remember one thing.

“They were all so very happy to be going home.”

Chenette wishes today that she’d been able to see more of Saigon, since she was relegated to staying within the perimeter of Tan Son Nhut.

Epoch Times Photo
Renée Chenette (left) with two fellow Pan Am flight attendants. (Courtesy of Renée Chenette)

Nonetheless, she still carries with her vivid images of the war from within the airbase’s boundaries as the tide began to turn against the South Vietnamese forces.

“I mainly remember at the end, Vietnamese leaving their country only with pots and pans and money worth nothing,” she said.

She also has a memory of a Vietnamese stewardess who dressed her family in Pan Am uniforms so that they could escape the country.

As with many who were touched in one way or another by Vietnam, the war didn’t stay in Vietnam for Chenette.

Epoch Times Photo
Boatswain’s Mate 2nd Class Truman Elsbree of Bremerton, New York, cares for two small Vietnamese children who have been separated from their mother during the evacuation to the amphibious cargo ship USS Durham in the South China Sea, Vietnam, April 1975. The Durham evacuated more than 3,000 refugees from the Phan Rang area of Vietnam during operations on April 3 and 4, 1975. (Pictorial Parade/Getty Images)

“I remember flying into Guam with Vietnamese orphans aboard. I helped on the layover because there was often only one person bringing 10 children to be adopted,” she said.

For Chenette, the best part of those missions was seeing the orphans being met by their new parents.

“I’m just glad I was part of bringing them home, and also so glad I experienced the children meeting their adoptive families in Hawaii,” she said.

When told that Pan Am President and CEO Harold Gray had contracted with the U.S. government to fly the soldiers home for cost plus one dollar, Chenette responded, “I didn’t know that, but it was the right thing to do.”

When asked if she ever looks back on landing and taking off from Tan Son Nhut Airbase during the Vietnam War 50 years ago, she said, “Only years later, talking about it with people like you, I realize, ‘Oh my god! I was part of history!’”

Marc Phillip Yablonka is a Burbank-based author and military journalist. His work has been published in the U.S. Military’s Stars and Stripes, Army Times, and other publications. He is the author of four books on Vietnam. His latest book, “Hot Mics and TV Lights: The Story of the American Forces Vietnam Network” will be published in 2023 by Double Dagger Books.


This article originally appeared in the Epoch Times on 12/5/22. Here is the direct link:

If interested, I have a second article on my website with Tiger Airlines stews remembering their flights during the war. Here’s the link:

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