Leslie Pfeifer was in Sacramento recently, visiting the California Vietnam Veterans Memorial, where more than 5,000 Californians killed or missing in action are memorialized. The connection is deeper for her than most. She used to accompany soldiers to and from the Vietnam War.
Pfeifer, a Moraga resident, was a wide-eyed 21-year-old when she dropped out of the College of San Mateo in 1967 to become a flight attendant on military transport charters operated by Flying Tiger Line. It was the allure of world travel that caught her fancy. Only later did she grasp the magnitude of what was witness to.
"When I signed on," she said, "I just saw it as a big adventure. I had no idea where Vietnam was. My parents said, 'You're going where? You're doing what?'"
Reality arrived like a thunderbolt with the first flight assignment, as a parade of somber faces slowly climbed on board, the fear of the unknown reflected in their eyes.
"The majority of them were drafted, enlisted 18-year-old GIs," she said. "You could tell they didn't want to be there. They were afraid. After I talked to one of them for a while he said, 'Here, I want you to have this.' He gave me his rosary beads.
"I wasn't a Catholic, and I told him I couldn't accept them. He said, 'No, I want you to have them. I want to leave something.' He was going to the front lines, and he just knew he wasn't coming back."
The rhythm of the transport operation never skipped a beat, Pfeifer said. The first leg of the trip was to Anchorage, Alaska; then to Japan, Okinawa or the Philippines; and finally on to Vietnam, where soldiers who'd completed their 13-month hitches would board for the return trip.
Pfeifer worked one week on, one week off for three years. She made more than 70 trips to Vietnam -- usually landing in Da Nang -- but never stayed on the ground for more than a couple of hours.
"We couldn't stay there because it was too dangerous," she said. "Da Nang is next to the demilitarized zone. When we landed during red alerts, the returning soldiers would muster on the airstrip to board. There were bullet holes in the belly of our aircraft."
The mood of soldiers going home?
"It was 100 percent different," Pfeifer said. "They were so happy and relieved. They always said they missed the same two things -- cold milk and American girls. They cheered when the flight landed in the U.S."
Pfeifer developed a deep respect for those who served. She saw some return in casts and bandages, others who had lost limbs. She saw men whose suffering was not just physical, coming back to a nation that was largely oblivious.
"I lived in Berkeley during those years," she said. "I'd come home to armbands and protests and people not even knowing the numbers of casualties. Our boys were dying by the thousands. It was such a dichotomy to come home to an ungrateful nation."
Pfeifer ended her three-year career after meeting the man who was to become her husband -- she and Dave have been married 42 years -- because flight attendants were not allowed to be married.
After the war, Flying Tiger found new challenges -- it surpassed Pan Am as the No. 1 air cargo carrier in 1980 -- and eventually was purchased by FedEx. But the pilots and crew who transported military personnel share a bond that re-emerges every time they reunite. Pfeifer said the experience profoundly impacted their lives.
She has the rosary beads to prove it.
Contact Tom Barnidge at email@example.com.