In the 1960s, as her counterparts protested the Vietnam War and celebrated the Summer of Love, a then 20-something Andee Wright set-off in search of travel and adventure.
She landed a job as a flight attendant aboard a fledging airline drawing its name from the elite Flying Tigers of World War II fame. The new Flying Tiger airline had its own military role; carrying cargo and troops back and forth to the war in Vietnam.
“We packed our bags we never knew when we were coming home,” Wright said. “And we’d take off and go.”
She was among several hundred flight attendants, all between the ages of 21 and 30, who worked aboard the planes – serving as the last civilian faces many troops saw before heading into war.
“You’d see them walk off and you’d kind of go ‘oh, will we take them home?’” Wright said.
The flight attendants made three trips to Vietnam a week, departing from Travis Air Force Base in Fairfield – before heading to Japan and then on to bases in Da Nang and Saigon.
The mood on the planes was a mixture of fear and bravado. The attendants tried to joke with their military passengers, while concealing the reality of what was ahead.
“If they tried to engage us in any kind of emotional conversation we just changed the subject,” said former attendant Marilyn Breen. “And said 'oh there’s more of you guys coming home than you can imagine.'”
Wright said the attendants would decorate the planes with Christmas trees during the holidays.
There was always a guitar among the passengers, and friendships were formed in the day-long journey.
But in reality, the journey to Vietnam for many was a one-way trip.
Wright recalled the men filling out last postcards to loved ones, just before departing for the jungles of Vietnam.
“It was really tear-jerking stuff,” Wright said. “I’d sit there in the back jump seat reading these things, crying my eyes out.”
Following the war, many of the flight attendants stayed in touch – occasionally gathering in the Bay Area for small reunions. Several, including Wright, returned to Vietnam to visit places they saw only briefly during the war.
On Tuesday, 25 of the former Flying Tiger flight attendants gathered at the Vietnam Memorial in Capitol Park in Sacramento. The women walked among the giant granite slabs, searching the memorial wall for familiar names – laying flowers at the foot of a bronze statue of a young Marine.
“We all wanted to get together,” said former flight attendant Martha Minter, “and memorialize the guys we couldn’t bring home.“
Some of the attendants wore their old uniforms – others clutched P.O.W. tags and flight wings given to them by the troops they brought home.
Though the war was more than four decades in the rear view mirror, the women quickly eased into old routines – turning to reverence and laughter for one last service.
Wright said the rewarding part of the job was picking up troops who had completed their tour of duty, and bringing them back to Travis.
“It’s like they slept the whole way,” Wright said. “It was an emotional relief - my god they made it out of there.”