Forty Years Ago: Vietnam War POWs Come Home

I do not remember the exact date — I believe that it was late February or early March — but I do remember that it was a pleasant, sunny spring-like day on the Mississippi Gulf Coast.

It may have even been a weekend because my wife and I had both our children with us, one of school-going age. But then again, the occasion was so joyous that we may have kept our 10-year-old-son home that day.

We were part of a rather large crowd assembled on the tarmac — the “flight line” — at Keesler Air Force Base in Biloxi, Mississippi. I had just returned from a two-year tour of duty in Germany. I had recently become the proud father of a brand-new baby girl. The long, cruel Vietnam War was finally over. Life was good.

Just a few weeks before that day, on Feb. 12, 1973, North Vietnam had started releasing the American prisoners of war (POWs) — 591 of them. Heroes who had endured months and years of captivity, torture, torment and depravities in the notorious North Vietnamese prisons, some held in cages — all in sheer hellholes.

Among the waiting crowd a short distance from the rest of us was a group of mostly women and children with flowers in their hands and tears in their eyes.

For them, the war wasn’t quite over yet. For them life wasn’t quite good, yet.

They were the wives, sons, daughters, parents, brothers and sisters of some of the bravest men one could imagine, American POWs.

Their war wouldn’t be over, life wouldn’t be good again until the doors of the C-9A “Nightingale” that had just touched down and that was now slowly taxiing into position, were opened and until those brave men were once again safely in their loving arms.

The Nightingale’s arrival that day was part of Operation Homecoming, an operation, no, a mission, that would bring home almost 600 POWs.

Newly freed prisoners of war celebrate as their C-141A aircraft lifts off from Hanoi, North Vietnam, on Feb. 12, 1973, during Operation Homecoming. The mission included 54 C-141 flights between Feb. 12 and April 4, 1973, returning 591 POWs to American soil. U.S. Air Force photo

While large C-141 Starlifters first brought back the POWs from North Vietnam to American soil, the smaller Nightingales would fly nearly 400 returning Vietnam POWs to medical facilities near their homes.

Finally, the rear door of this Nightingale opened and the ramp was lowered.

The first POW, the ranking member, walked down the ramp and briskly saluted the welcoming officer and the American flag.

Others started walking down the ramp, some on crutches, some with a limp in their gait, many gaunt and languid, but all tall and proud — all military men.

Some kissed the ground.

The cheers grew louder, the tears flowed more freely. But the families would have to wait a little while longer.

The salutes had to be rendered, the welcome home words had to be spoken, and the speeches had to be made.

And there they stood. These strong men who had not seen their loved ones for an eternity but who now could see them standing 40, 50 yards from them. It must have been sheer torture for them. But what a different and welcome kind of torture after what they had experienced.

Then, finally, finally, the long wait was over. Suddenly these men ran, hopped as fast as their injuries and crutches would let them, towards their loved ones. Their loved ones could not run fast enough towards them. It was a scene of sheer, delightful, unforgettable maelstrom.

For these men, it was finally time to hold their children once again in their arms — some for the first time — to touch their wives’ lips, to hug their loved ones after such a long, long time — after such an almost unbearable ordeal.

For their loved ones, the nightmare, the uncertainty, the suffering was finally over.

For all of them, the war was finally over. It was time to try to make life good again.

It has been forty years since those unforgettable scenes. I may have forgotten some of the details, the images of that day may have gotten grainier, as the photo on top, but I will never forget the courage and stoicism of those men, the joy and tears of those who could not run to them fast enough, the emotions of that morning and the tears of all of us.

CODA:

There has not been much media coverage of the 40th anniversary of the return home of American POWs from the Vietnam War.

There is one notable exception: “Operation Homecoming for Vietnam POWs Marks 40 Years” by Donna Miles at the American Forces Press Service, does a very good job.

Lead Image: The first prisoner of war to walk off the Nightingale is greeted by a member of the welcoming committee at Keesler Air Force Base in Mississippi. (Photograph by the author)

         

Author: DORIAN DE WIND, Military Affairs Columnist

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8 Comments

  1. Dorian, I didn’t make it through the fifth paragraph before I had a lump in my throat and misty eyes. That is a powerful and emotional piece of writing. Not at all grainy; it is crystal clear. Phew!

  2. As always, thank you for your kind words, KP.

    Yes, this was probably one of the more emotional experiences in my life.

    Looking for those “grainy photos” this morning, my wife choked up when we found them.

    p.s. I did, too

  3. I was born on March, 29, 1973. That day my dad ran out and bought papers from both the Houston Chronicle and Houston Post. I still have them both to this day. The headline for the Chronicle is really seared in my memory even after having it packed away in storage most of the time throughout my life, “Last American Soldiers Leave Vietnam.” It’s disappointing even after all these years how easily we have brushed aside the veterans of that particular conflict.

    One of the stories that always makes me cringe as well as angry is hearing the non-welcomes and sometimes outright hostility our soldiers would receive upon coming home, especially from the left. As an American, liberal and grandson of a WWII and Korean conflict veteran, I guarantee it’s something that I will never condone and will always defend those who fight under our flag, even when I may disagree with my country for ever sending them to battle.

  4. Thanks for your comments, “young” brcarthey. :) (I was already in my early 30s when you were born)

    As a member of “the left,” who shares the vast majority of Democratic (or “liberal”) ideals and goals, I am still sad an feel somewhat guilty about what happened after the Vietnam War. Sometimes I have the feeling, up to this day and in blogs such as this one, that the “anti-war” feeling — that I share — occasionally has an anti-military tinge to it. I could and hope to be wrong.

    Thank you for your support of and respect for our military.

  5. To follow-up a little more on your comment, brcarthey, I just received an e-mail from a friend who also read the article on the POWs — and perhaps your comment, too.

    This friend, Michael Beggs, a decorated, retired Marine Corps officer served in Vietnam and was seriously wounded when he stepped on a landmine in the process of trying to rescue one of his men from the minefield. You can read more about Beggs and about the other Marine helicopter pilot who, in turn, risked his life to save Beggs, here.

    But to the issue at hand, in his e-mail Michael discusses the phenomenon you pointed to — one which I tried to address — much better than I ever could.

    This is what Mike had to say:

    Today’s younger folks tend, I believe, to see the Viet Nam War generation in much the same way that my generation looked at World War I veterans: in general, we had a vague appreciation for what they did (some of us had a much deeper appreciation), but “it was all a long time ago”. When my own daughter was a teenager, she had to ask me if the US had fought on the side of South Viet Nam or North Viet Nam—it just wasn’t on her radar, and that was in the early 1980s.

    I’ve often thought that the accord given the former POWs was, in some measure, a reaction to the realization of how shabbily the average Viet Nam veteran was treated upon returning home. By the time the POWs came home, the war was essentially over as far as the US was concerned, and with the possibility of being drafted and sent to Viet Nam becoming ever more remote, I suppose some of the people felt as if they could give POWs a better welcome than they did people like me. In short, perhaps a bit of guilt came into play, but who knows. In any case, we all become yesterday’s news at some point in time, I guess. Perhaps my cynicism is showing, but I’d be willing to bet that there are folks of college student age today who, when asked what they think of this being the anniversary of the return of POWs, will have no clue as to what you’re talking about.

    Be all that as it may, I want to thank you for writing the article, Dorian, and for remembering. For those former POWs still alive, I’d guess that their time in captivity will remain a seminal event in their lives until they die, and it’s good that someone else remembers them.

    Semper Fi,

    Mike Beggs

    I’d be interested in getting some feedback from some of our younger readers.

  6. As a young man, I disagreed that the US had a right to wage war in a country which had already signaled that it would elect Ho Chi Minh if given the chance for a completely free election. I also had many liberal friends, and even some who had been billy clubbed during protests at the 1968 Democratic Convention in Chicago. We all opposed the War to varying degrees, and in our young lives we were required to await the official lottery which would determine which of us would have to fight a War which seemed so unnecessary and so far away. With incredible luck, not one of my friends or myself was required to serve—either by having a high number, or by some other kind of exemption. But, I have always believed that blaming the soldiers who bravely fought the war, as being “baby killers” is one of the most obscenely unfair raps to lay on anyone.

    There were questions about the Gulf of Tonkin incident, and about the legitimacy of the War, but, those who fought it, were only obeying the call of their country, and came forward when it came time to do a job. And, like surviving POWs from any conflict, there is no way we can adequately repay them for the Literal Hell they had to endured at the request of the Government!

    I guess I must of had some skill at picking good friends,because although some were veterans of the Korean War, and others were just committed to political change—and a few of them even fit the stereotype of Radical groups like the “The Weathermen,” they still had the intelligence and compassion not to engage in petty finger pointing at those whose burdens they had never even come close to bearing.

    After seeing the Ken Burns documentary, “The Greatest Generation,” I think I have some small grasp of the utter hell endured by men on the ground, air and sea, who must engage in lethal combat. The Omaha Beach landing alone costs the lives of thousands of American in one day—something veterans of more recent wars, although also bloody and horrendous—cannot completely understand. Often times, unlike the soldiers in old war films, they did not prevail because of any strength of will or particularly clever tactics—rather they survived by running like hell and being somewhere a bullet wasn’t at one particular Mili-second in time. Basically, they had to kill the enemy before he killed them, and, in the heat of battle it was often the lives of their buddies that they fought for, as flag and country faded into the background of hazy memory. Many of them made the ultimate sacrifice, and laid down their lives for their friends.

    It doesn’t matter what political climate prevails at any given time—when fighting one foe or another—it is soldiers who sustain the brunt of suffering and pain. Knowing this, it is so wonderful to picture the return of so many soldiers who must have felt abandon, and in the bowels of Hell when forced to endure persistent torture and abuse!

    The old saying that, “Wars are made by old men who send young men out to die,” is very appropriate. And, yes, sometimes the fight is just, and sometimes not so virtuous, but don’t the “old men of every political persuasion and time, owe it to young soldiers everywhere to know DAMN well what they are doing when they use real human beings as the weapons to fight ANY war!

  7. As a man who has “been there,” in the context of supporting an unnecessary war — the Vietnam War — before having second thoughts, all I can say, petew, is Amen! and Thank You!

    And, once again, the saying “if you don’t support ‘the war’ — whichever war our politicians decide to get us into — you don’t support the troops” is a bunch of neocon crap.

    And,once again, the reality of those who condemn and insult and demean our troops because they don’t support the war those brave men and women are fighting in is a tragic shame.

    I just found out yesterday that one of my OCS upper-classmen had been shot down over North Vietnam in his B-52 and became a prisoner of war. While many of my OCS classmates vehemently disagree with me about my views on the Vietnam War, Iraq War, etc., — even resent such — I will always respect them for their service and sacrifices.

    Once again, petew. Thank You.

  8. Came across a web site with some very poignant photographs on the Vietnam War:

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