On April 18th, 2009, a symposium for pilots and veterans of Air America, along with some of the people they rescued or otherwise impacted upon during Air America’s lifetime, was held at The University of Texas at Dallas Conference Center Auditorium. Its purpose was to acknowledge and commemorate Air America rescue efforts during the Vietnam War. The symposium was presented by the Central Intelligence Agency (CIA) and The University of Texas at Dallas.
An Air America rescue effort that most Americans are familiar with is, of course, the evacuation of Americans and Vietnamese from the US Embassy in Saigon in 1975, and it’s the cover photo on the symposium’s program, showing an Air America helicopter landing on the embassy’s roof.
During the Vietnam War, Air America (AAM), a secretly owned air proprietary of the CIA, was the Agency’s indispensable instrument for clandestine missions. While some of its work may never be publicly acknowledged, much of AAM’s critical role in wartime rescue missions can now be told, since thousands of pages of CIA’s formerly highly classified documents have been recently released. This symposium provided the venue for the release of these documents. It also brought together AAM veterans with some of the men they rescued, and the CIA’s other ‘customers’ who often placed their lives and missions in the hands of this formerly secret organization.
The over-arching bond of aviators is the Airmen’s Bond, that they look out for one another, and go to the aid of one another regardless of circumstances, whenever possible. The AAM aircrews weren’t required to monitor military emergency radio calls, nor fly to the location of military personnel in distress, nor place their lives at risk of enemy ground fire and possible capture. But they did. Not only were they not paid to do these things, they were done even when they lost wages to effect or assist in these rescues.
In conjunction with the symposium, the UT-Dallas’ McDermott Library received copies of approximately 10,000 recently declassified CIA documents on Air America. These copies will remain at the Library, and will be completely accessible.
The symposium included a number of speakers and panelists including former pilots, UT officials, CIA members, a member of Congress, and rescued pilots. One of the more hair-raising rescues accomplished was that of former US Navy aviator Don Boecker. While on a bombing mission, one of the bombs intended to be dropped exploded prematurely, forcing him to eject. After a tense 18-hours evading capture, Boecker was rescued by an Air America helicopter, and was whisked away while dangling by one arm, while on the ground, enemy soldiers laid heavy fire in his direction.
In addition to the Vietnam War, AAM’s predecessor, Civil Air Transport (CAT), flew thousands of regular cargo and passenger flights, including flights during the battle of Dien Bien Phu, the final major battle of the French occupation of Vietnam, as well as humanitarian missions and the above-mentioned evacuation of over 40,000 from the US Embassy in Saigon in 1975.
All attendees were presented with a program, a 64-page commemorative booklet with copies of documents and photos from the era, and a DVD containing electronic copies of the entire collection of newly declassified and heretofore unavailable documents. The DVD also contains video interviews of Air America pilots, rare footage of Lima Site 85, and photos from the CIA and McDermott Library collections.