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Operation HOMECOMING: Fifty years later

American returnees celebrate their departure from Hanoi. Photo credit: Courtesy photo

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JOINT BASE LEWIS-MCCHORD - Fifty years ago, the United States signed the Paris Peace Accords effectively ending the U.S. military involvement in Vietnam. The country breathed a sigh of relief and eagerly awaited the return of their men and women in uniform.

Throughout 1973, the 62d Military Airlift Wing, alongside other wings within Military Airlift Command, transported military personnel from South Vietnam back to the U.S.

While the country was certainly happy their men and women were returning from one of the longest wars in U.S. history; they also anxiously awaited the return of the United States prisoners of war. As a condition of the Paris Peace Accords, the Democratic Republic of Vietnam agreed to hand over American prisoners they took captive during the conflict, but the U.S. would have to come get them.

Even before the accords were signed in late January 1973, U.S. military planners began hashing out plans to retrieve American POWs. By January 1973, planners agreed C-141 Starlifters from MAC would retrieve the POWs from Hanoi and transport them to Clark Air Base, Philippines, where they could receive immediate medical care before their return to the U.S.

On Feb. 12, 1973, a 63d Military Airlift Wing C-141 Starlifter touched down in Hanoi, North Vietnam, to transport American POWs from Hanoi to Clark AB. A crew of both 63d and 62d airmen welcomed the quiet men on board and helped them with their seats while Air Force nurses did what they could to make the men comfortable. Oddly, the released prisoners did not say much. They did not shout for joy or otherwise express themselves in celebration; but they remained stoic and tried to hide the fear they had lived with for years while in captivity. Were they really going home?

After years of torture, starvation, and nightmares, was the Democratic Republic of Vietnam simply going to let them go or was this yet another trick to break their resolve?

The crew of the C-141, now known as the Hanoi Taxi, had the same thoughts. After years of fighting each other, was this a trick? Were the North Vietnamese going to let the C-141 fly off or were the Communist forces going to shoot them down?

With bated breath, the C-141 taxied down the runway in Hanoi and climbed in altitude. When the aircraft reached what was thought to be a safe distance, a great roar thundered through the cabin as the American POWs erupted in cheers, dances, and tears of joy.

Yes, they were going home. America had not forgotten.

Moments after the Hanoi Taxi took off, a 62d MAW C-141 (50243) touched down at the small airstrip in Vietnam and loaded 116 more American POWs. Several returnees paused at the bottom of the loading ramp to salute the U.S. flag on the tail of the aircraft. They stood at their seats until the last man came aboard before they all sat down.

As before, the returnees were stoic, but as soon as the aircraft lifted off, the mood changed and the men broke out in a cheer. The first thing the men asked for was coffee and cigarettes and it did not take long before the crew was caught up in their spirit of joy.

Before landing in Clark AB, one of the crewmembers discovered a stowaway one of the returnees had smuggled aboard - a puppy. Like the returnees, the puppy received medical attention at Clark AB before it was returned to the returnee.

On Feb. 12, a total of three aircraft from the 63d, 62d, and 60th Military Airlift Wings airlifted American POWs from Hanoi to Clark AB, where approximately a thousand people gathered to welcome the returnees. Even more turned out a various Air Force bases stateside, including McChord Air Force Base, to welcome the men home.

From February to April 1973, mobility forces repatriated 591 American POWs from Hanoi back to the United States including U.S. Army Col. Floyd James Thompson and U.S. Naval aviator John McCain.

America celebrated the return of their heroes and, for a moment, the pain and controversy of the conflict in Vietnam was washed away and replaced by welcome home banners and balloons. This operation would become better known as Operation HOMECOMING.

Today, the 62d Airlift Wing continues to bring home American heroes who fought in WWII, the Korean War and in Vietnam. While these homecomings are more somber, it is a testament to the belief that no one is left behind.

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