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Flying into a War Zone: Pan Am Stewardesses in Vietnam

Part of the Smithsonian American Women’s History Initiative

Evening Lecture/Seminar

Thursday, October 28, 2021 - 6:45 p.m. to 8:00 p.m. ET
Code: 1L0430
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Smithsonian Associates Streaming series.
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Julia Cooke (Photo: Patrick Proctor)

At the height of the Jet Age, Pan American World Airways recruited its flight service crews, then called stewardesses, from the ranks of ambitious college-educated American women eager to see the world in an era of limited professional options. Fluency in two languages, a keen sense of adventure, and steady nerves—plus youth and a slim figure—earned them access to a dizzying array of experiences in the global capitals to which the airline flew. Yet not all of those adventures matched the jet-set ideal.

During the Vietnam War, when American troops in the region numbered over a half-million, women also signed on to fly servicemen in and out of combat on a dizzying schedule of new draft arrivals and R&R trips. At one point, Vietnam flights represented the airline’s single largest global operation.

Stewardesses became nurses and counselors to injured and traumatized soldiers and witnesses to events that contradicted the U.S. government’s narrative about the war, while earning the official designation of second lieutenant in the U.S. Air Force. At the end of the war, they took the reins of evacuation and refugee flights amid chaos.

Drawing on her new book Come Fly the World, Julia Cooke discusses the story of stewardesses serving Pan Am between 1966 and 1975 and reveals the integral, yet often-overlooked role these women played in the Vietnam War. She also examines why the role of Jet Age stewardess carried more professional weight and historical resonance than its popular image as a flying waitress.

Copies of Come Fly the World are available for purchase.

Book Sale Information

  • Purchase your copy of Come Fly the World by Julia Cooke here.
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American Women's History Initiative