In 1968, international jet travel was still a glamorous adventure, and Joan Policastro signed on as a Pan American World Airways flight attendant to get her taste of it. She soon got adventure in a risky, historic form — four years of flying “rest and recuperation” flights with U.S. troops in and out of the Vietnam War, sometimes with bombs going off outside the base.
“I liked it. I liked them,” said Policastro on a recent afternoon as she sat at her kitchen counter in Sandy Springs, reminiscing over a photo of her serving young soldiers on one of those wartime R&R flights. Today, she’s preparing to retire exactly 50 years into a career that took her around the world, meeting celebrities and partying at embassies.
Those early Vietnam flights remain especially memorable. Policastro says that seeing how young the draftees were —and reading the words of fear and longing they sometimes left behind for her in notes — eventually turned her private opinion against the war. “Everybody on the airplane was a baby,” she says. “I was 22. They looked 12.”
But with her adventurous spirit, her own safety was never a concern—not in the war, not during the “take me to Cuba!” skyjacking craze of the 1970s, not in the post-Sept. 11 terrorism era.
“I never worried about that,” she said. “It’s the luck of the draw.”
Bruce Cusmano, Policastro’s neighbor and friend, served in Vietnam and took four such R&R flights, which Pan Am exclusively operated. He remembers the passenger jets made big targets that the North Vietnamese tried to shoot down when they got a chance, and admires Policastro’s willingness to serve aboard them.
“She did something I think was really extraordinary as a young woman, flying into a war zone,” he says.
Cusmano will never know whether his future neighbor was among the attendants on his flights, but he remembers well how much that civilian service meant to him and his fellows during the war.
“The girls were super to us,” he said. “They were just so kind, because they knew we were starving to see American girls.”
For Policastro, the life of international adventure began more or less on a whim. A New York native, she graduated from the University of Miami and wanted to attend law school, but money was an issue. Billboards and radio ads from Pan Am lured her into considering the job of a flight attendant, or “stewardess,” as they were called in the era, a term that Policastro still prefers.
“It just brings back the older days when [the job] was glamorous and it was real. … It brings up the Pan Am elegance and sophistication,” she said.
Pan Am was a pioneer of international flights and jumbo-jet travel, especially across the Pacific, and one of the world’s most famous companies. In the 1960s, it had high standards for flight attendants, Policastro says — a four-year degree and the ability to speak at least one language besides English were requirements.
She signed up, figuring she’d try it for a year. She ended up getting an unusually plum posting in San Francisco. Her first flight: a trip to Hong Kong and Sydney, Australia, with a five-day layover offering sightseeing. She was hooked.
The posting also came with the assignment of those wartime R&R flights, taking troops from Vietnam to such locales as Hawaii, Tokyo and Sydney, and back again. She worked such flights from 1968 to 1972, when she transferred to the New York City hub.
Pan Am offered the chartered flights to the U.S. military at cost plus $1, she said. In return, all crew got Department of Defense ID cards giving them an honorary lieutenant’s rank — possibly ensuring better treatment if they were shot down and captured. “Back in those days, when you had any connection with the U.S. military, you felt safe,” she said.
The risks were real, as Policastro saw on one midnight landing at Cam Rahn Bay, where she says they could see and hear “bombs in the distance,” directed at the base. An officer came on board and told the troops, “When you get 50 feet off the airplane, hit the ground.”
For the troops on the flights, Pan Am tried to offer meals with a taste of home: steak, potatoes, ice cream, milk. In return, Policastro said, troops sometimes left notes behind for her. On one flight, a young solider handed her a note that said not to read it until he left; it offered thanks. “At the end of the letter, he said, ‘I know I’m not coming home alive,’” she recalled.
She shared another note that she has kept all these years, folded in thirds and written on Pan Am stationery. Signed without a last name by one “Rick,” it offers his apologies for staring at her, wishes her well and offers hopes their paths might cross again. “I must say you look better than anything I’ve seen in 15 months in the Nam,” he wrote.
Those types of notes, and seeing young draftees “scared to death,” led her to change her initial belief about Vietnam that she describes as, “Well, if the government is in this war, it must be OK.”
“It was an eye-opening experience to me. … It changed my attitude, and I was totally against the war,” she said, though she never actively protested it.
The flights brought lighter moments as well. Policastro recalls her naïve instinct to intervene when two large Marines grabbed one of her passengers out of his seat — they were MPs and he was headed to the brig in Da Nang — and a time she and four other attendants were stranded on a Saigon airbase in a barracks with walls coated in “gooey slime.”
Policastro continued to fly with Pan Am until the company’s dissolution in 1991. She then joined Delta, where she planned to retire in mid-November with a final flight to Rome. Along the way, she considered becoming a pilot herself after her former husband, a Marines fighter pilot, taught her to fly, but the career change didn’t work out.
But it is her time at Pan Am she looks back on the most fondly, as a special company in a special time. She is active in World Wings International, a philanthropic organization of former Pan Am flight attendants.
“It was an adventure every single day,” she said. “Working for Pan Am was caviar and Champagne.”
Being a Pan Am flight attendant meant invitations to U.S. embassy parties, an easy welcome onto any U.S. military base, and plenty of celebrity encounters.
One “really cute” passenger she served was the Dalai Lama, who ended up unsatisfied with airplane food: he ordered a medium-rare steak, but got a vegetarian meal on a mistaken assumption about his religious diet. “The Dalai Lama says to me, ‘Joan, I think this order is wrong.’”
Another famous passenger was rock ’n’ roll icon Chuck Berry, of whom Policastro was a big fan. She got a snapshot with him that she still has in a silver frame. “He never said a word on the flight. He smiled like a fiend and followed me around like a little puppy dog,” she recalls.
She says Pan Am was special as an international company that worked hard to learn local customs in countries it served and hired flight attendants from around the world. “We had just an openness to the world. … We accepted people’s cultures and differences,” she said.
Something else special about Pan Am was its relationship with the U.S. government and reputation for taking on relatively risky charters like those R&R flights. Policastro said Pan Am was often called upon to evacuate civilians from war zones. When the Vietnam War ended in 1975 with the fall of Saigon, Pan Am jets participated in some of the dramatic rescue flights from the city, including “Operation Babylift,” where hundreds of orphaned South Vietnamese children were flown to the U.S.
Policastro was out of Vietnam service by then, but said without a blink that she would have volunteered immediately for those flights.
“Nothing,” she says, “was ever too scary for us.”