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America's final act in the Vietnam War produced an iconic image - a helicopter perched on a rooftop as a long line of Vietnamese desperately tried to climb aboard. For some U.S. pilots involved in that April 1975 mission, the saga still isn't over. NPR's Greg Myre has their story.
GREG MYRE, BYLINE: To this day, misconceptions surround the chaotic U.S. evacuation from South Vietnam as the North Vietnamese surged in, bringing the long war to an end. Many mistakenly believe that the helicopter in the famous photo is sitting atop the U.S. embassy in what was then Saigon, South Vietnam's capital.
LARRY STADULIS: No, no. No, that was not...
MYRE: Larry Stadulis, one of the American pilots landing on rooftops that day, says that particular chopper was on an apartment building that housed CIA officers. And many assumed the aircraft and the pilots were part of the U.S. military.
STADULIS: No, no, that was strictly an Air America aircraft.
MYRE: Air America, that's an airline that was owned by the U.S. government. It worked mostly for the CIA, and its pilots were civilians. Stadulis spent a nerve-racking day picking up both Americans and South Vietnamese the day before the North Vietnamese captured Saigon. And here's why the details still matter for Stadulis and 500 other former employees of Air America - they've never been recognized as government workers and, therefore, have never received government pensions.
TONY COALSON: It was deserved, and it should have been something that we would have received. And normally, we would have received it.
MYRE: Tony Coalson is another Air America pilot who was part of the Saigon evacuation. Air America was always supposed to look like a private airline, not a CIA operation. As part of this deception, Air America workers could not enroll in government retirement programs.
COALSON: We couldn't tell you people actually who you were working for because it was all classified. So if nobody knew it, how can you have any retirement benefits? I said, well, that's a Catch-22.
MYRE: Coalson, now age 76, and Stadulis, 82, both flew Army helicopters. They were then recruited by Air America. Coalson spent five more years in Vietnam and Stadulis spent nine. Stadulis recalls his last harrowing flight from a Saigon rooftop to a U.S. aircraft carrier in the South China Sea.
STADULIS: We could see nothing. I mean, and we were flying on instruments because it was pitch black out, and it was raining.
MYRE: With just 10 minutes of fuel left, he still couldn't find the carrier.
STADULIS: So we declared an (unintelligible) - he told me we might have to ditch at sea. And they turned all the lights on the carrier, and it lit it up like a Christmas tree. So we touched down, and that was the last time I touched the controls of a Air America aircraft.
MYRE: Congress would have to pass a law to grant Air America pensions. Last year, a measure was narrowly defeated in the Senate Intelligence Committee. The CIA has opposed the pensions, though it recognizes Air America's contributions. At CIA headquarters, there's a museum-style display that tells the airline's story. And on the CIA's memorial wall, five stars honor Air America members killed while on missions. Maureen Bevans Ebersole, whose late father worked for Air America, puts it this way.
MAUREEN BEVANS EBERSOLE: Why on Earth does that pilot in the helicopter on that Saigon rooftop not have federal retirement credit?
MYRE: The CIA declined to comment.
Greg Myre, NPR News, Washington.
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