H/T Larry Mortland
By Donna Miles
American Forces Press Service
Newly freed prisoners of war celebrate as their C-141A aircraft lifts off from Hanoi, North Vietnam, on 12 February 1973, during Operation Homecoming. The mission included 54 C-141 flights between 12 Feb. and 4 April 1973, returning 591 POWs to American soil.
U.S. Air Force photo — at Gia Lâm.
WASHINGTON, Feb. 12, 2013 – Forty years ago today, a C-141A Starlifter transport jet with a distinctive red cross on its tail lifted off from Hanoi, North Vietnam, and the first flight of 40 U.S. prisoners of war began their journey home through Operation Homecoming.
By the day’s end, three C-141A aircraft would lift off from Hanoi, as well as a C-9A aircraft from Saigon, South Vietnam. In a steady flow of flights through late March 1973 under terms set through the Paris Peace Accords, 591 POWs returned to American soil.
Americans were spellbound as they watched news clips of the POWs being carried in stretchers or walking tentatively toward U.S. officers at the awaiting aircraft for the first flight from Hanoi’s Gia Lam Airport.
The POWs ranged from privates first class to colonels, all wearing new gray uniforms issued by the North Vietnamese just before their release.
Air Force Tech. Sgt. James R. Cook, who suffered severe wounds when he bailed out of his stricken aircraft over North Vietnam in December 1972, saluted the U.S. colors from his stretcher as he was carried aboard the aircraft. Also on the first flight was Navy Cmdr. Everett Alvarez Jr., the first American pilot to be shot down in North Vietnam and, by the war’s end, the longest-held POW there. He spent eight-and-a-half years in captivity.
Celebration broke out aboard the first aircraft -- nicknamed the “Hanoi Taxi” -- as it lifted skyward and the POWs experienced their first taste of freedom.
Historian Andrew H. Lipps captured the magnitude of the moment in his account, “Operation Homecoming: The Return of American POWs from Vietnam.”
“Imagine you’re imprisoned in a cage; imagine the cage surrounded by the smell of feces; imagine the rotted food you eat is so infested with insects that to eat only a few is a blessing; imagine knowing your life could be taken by one of your captors on a whim at any moment; imagine you are subjected to mental and physical torture designed to break not bones but instead spirit on a daily basis. That was being a prisoner of North Vietnam,” Lipps wrote.
“Then imagine one day, after seemingly endless disappointment, you are given a change of clothes and lined up to watch an American plane land to return you home. That was Operation Homecoming.”
Aeromedical teams assigned to each aircraft tended to the former POWs during the two-and-a-half hour flight to Clark Air Base in the Philippines, the first stop on their trip home. Meanwhile, many of the POWs joked and smoked American cigarettes as they caught up on all they’d missed while in captivity: fashion trends and the women’s liberation movement, among them.
“Everything seemed like heaven,” recalled Air Force Capt. Larry Chesley, who, after being shot down over North Vietnam, spent seven years in the notorious “Hanoi Hilton” and other POW prisons. “When the doors of that C-141 closed, there were tears in the eyes of every man aboard,” he said.
Air Force Maj. Gen. Ed Mechenbier, the last Vietnam POW to serve in the Air Force, recalled the emotion of his own journey out of North Vietnam on Feb. 18, 1973. "When we got airborne and the frailty of being a POW turned into the reality of freedom, we yelled, cried and cheered,” he said.
The POWs arrived to a hero’s welcome at Clark Air Base, where Navy Adm. Noel Gayler, commander of U.S. Forces Pacific, led their greeting party. Joining him were Air Force Lt. Gen. William G. Moore Jr., who commanded 13th Air Force and the homecoming operation at Clark, and Roger Shields, deputy assistant secretary of defense for POW/MIA affairs.
Speaking to the crowd that lined the tarmac to welcome the aircraft, returning POW Navy Capt. Jeremiah Denton -- who would go on to earn the rank of rear admiral and later was elected to the U.S. Senate, representing Alabama -- elicited cheers as he thanked all who had worked for their release and proclaimed, “God bless America.”
Air Force Lt. Col. Carlyle “Smitty” Harris, who spent almost eight years as a POW after being shot down over North Vietnam, joined the many other POWs who echoed that sentiment. “My only message is, ‘God bless America,’” he said, dismissing assertions in the media that the POWs had been directed to say it.
“With six, seven or eight years to think about the really important things in life, a belief in God and country was strengthened in every POW with whom I had contact,” he said. “Firsthand exposure to a system which made a mockery of religion and where men are unable to know truth made us all appreciate some of the most basic values in ‘God bless America.’”
Air Force Col. Robinson Risner, the senior Air Force officer at the infamous "Hanoi Hilton" honored today by a statue in his likeness at the U.S. Air Force Academy, choked back emotion as he arrived on the second C-141 flight from Hanoi.
“Thank you all for bringing us home to freedom again,” he told the crowd.
After receiving medical exams and feasting on steak, ice cream and other American food, the former POWs received new uniforms for their follow-on flights home. Their aircraft made stops in Hawaii and California. The first group of 20 former POWs arrived at Travis Air Force Base, Calif., on Feb. 14, 1973.
News clips of the arrival reveal the deep emotion of the freed POWs as they arrived on the U.S. mainland. Navy Capt. James Stockdale, who went on to become a vice admiral and vice presidential candidate, was the first man to limp off the aircraft.
Stockdale paused to thank his countrymen for the loyalty they had showed him and his fellow POWs. “The men who follow me down that ramp know what loyalty means because they have been living with loyalty, living on loyalty, the past several years -- loyalty to each other, loyalty to the military, loyalty to our commander-in-chief,” he said.
Of the 591 POWs liberated during Operation Homecoming, 325 served in the Air Force, 138 in the Navy; 77 in the Army and 26 in the Marine Corps. Twenty-five of the POWs were civilian employees of U.S. government agencies.
In addition, 69 POWs the Viet Cong had held in South Vietnam left aboard flights from Loc Ninh. Nine other POWs were released from Laos, and three from China.
Forty years after their release, two of the former POWs serve in Congress: Sen. John McCain of Arizona and Rep. Sam Johnson of Texas.
A dinner and ceremony being planned for late May at the Richard Nixon Presidential Library in California will honor the POWs, recreating the dinner the president hosted for them at the White House in 1973.
In God We Trust!
DEFINITION OF A VETERAN
A veteran - whether active duty, retired, national guard, or reserve - is someone who, at one point in his or her life, wrote a blank check made payable to The 'United States of America', for an amount of 'up to and including my life.'
The democracy will cease to exist when you take away from those who are willing to work and give to those who would not.
I'll keep my freedom, my religion, my guns, and my money.....You can keep THE CHANGE.
"Peace is that brief glorious moment in history when everybody stands around reloading".
As we remember those that did come home, least we forget those who did not........
Yes...God Bless America!! And God Bless our Troops!! My dad served in the USAF and was in Nam. Not a POW, THANK GOD!!! A few years ago he left this earth.....and is now home.
This is a great article!! And the picture! WOW!! Made me cry. Thank you for the article Twana!!
I will never forget the juibilation of the boys in my senior class in high school at the news that the war had ended....or the faces of those returning from their hell on earth on the televised coverage of these men returning home To think of the excruciating pain and suffering that they endured and the true courage, fortitude and sheer strength of will to endure brings tears to my eyes. May God keep them all safe and close to HIs heart! Thanks for reminding us all of this miraculous day, Twana.
I still have my signed paperback copy of "When Hell Was In Session" by Senator Denton. It's a tough read, so I mostly keep it on my bookshelf for respectful remembrance.
Although his Oklahoma family had voted Democratic, McIntire eventually became a conservative Republican. Before and during World War II, McIntire opposed Nazi totalitarianism and anti-semitism, and afterwards he became a champion of anti-Communism and especially one who attacked Communist control of religion in the Soviet Union. McIntire argued that although America had once honored God and freedom, it was in danger of losing its heritage. On his radio program, McIntire often repeated the slogan, "Freedom is everybody's business, your business, my business, the church's business, and a man who will not use his freedom to defend his freedom, does not deserve his freedom."
McIntire attracted considerable public attention through his public demonstrations, early gaining a feel for gestures that attracted popular notice. For instance, in 1947, he unsuccessfully opposed a revised New Jersey state constitution in a radio address entitled, "The Governor's Kittens," while he (more-or-less) held a cat and kittens before the microphone. McIntire attended virtually every important meeting of the World Council of Churches wherever its meetings were held and usually mounted demonstrations with placards outside the meeting hall, calling attention to what he regarded as the WCC's religious apostasy or its collaboration with Russian clergy who he believed were KGB operatives.
Beginning in 1967, McIntire engaged in a running battle with the Federal Communications Commission over the then-applicable “Fairness Doctrine,” by which radio stations had to provide varied political views to retain their licenses. WXUR was "incompetently run and flagrantly disrespectful of FCC requirements," but there was also "no doubt that the station was targeted because many members of the local Philadelphia community found speech expressed on WXUR offensive and therefore wanted it censored." When the FCC refused to renew the WXUR license (rejecting the recommendation of its own examiner) and the station was forced off the air in 1973, McIntire demonstrated his theatrical flair by holding a "funeral" for the station (complete with coffin) while dressed as John Witherspoon, a Presbyterian pastor and signer of the Declaration of Independence.
After a supporter purchased for McIntire a World War II vintage wooden-hulled Navy minesweeper named Oceanic (which McIntire renamed Columbus), he tried to broadcast outside the three-mile limit near Cape May, calling the floating station "Radio Free America." The station began broadcasting at 12:22 PM Eastern Time on September 19, 1973, but was only on the air for ten hours—the ship began to smoke from the heat of the antenna feeder line, and the signal interfered with that of radio station WHLW in Lakewood, New Jersey which broadcast on a neighboring frequency of 1170 kHz. Nevertheless, the notion of a Christian pirate radio station off the United States caught the attention of the media. "I became a very famous man out of that," McIntire later recalled, "People stood along the coast to see me. It was a crazy thing to do, but it was dramatic." 
McIntire also gained the public eye in the early 1970s when he organized a half dozen pro-Vietnam War “Victory Marches” in Washington, D.C. The march of October 3, 1970 was supposed to have featured South Vietnamese vice-president Nguyen Cao Ky, but the Nixon administration ensured that Ky would not be present.
More than once McIntire's sense of the dramatic passed over into the risible, as for instance, when he urged in 1971 that a full-scale version of the Temple of Jerusalem be constructed in Florida or two decades later when he suggested that Noah's ark be rebuilt and perhaps refloated off his conference center in Cape May. "It would be a tourist attraction," said McIntire of the latter, "and it would forever down these liberals."  In 1970, when gay activists proposed "Stonewall Nation," the takeover of sparsely populated Alpine County, California, McIntire announced that he would counteract the plan by having his followers move to the area in trailers. Neither the activists nor McIntire did anything of the sort.
I am a Vietnam veteran and was fortunate to not have been taken prisoner, although I was in several battles. I do appreciate and thank these men for the sacrifices they made for our Country.