Welcoming the POWs Home 1973

46 years ago, in 1973, the American POWs that were held captive in North Vietnam were repatriated to the United States. 

On January 27, 1973, the United States and North Vietnam agreed to the release  American prisoners of war. Operation Homecoming, as it came to be known had three phases: 1) POWs held by the Viet Cong were flown to Saigon; 2) POWs held by the North Vietnamese Army were released in Hanoi; and 3) POWs held in China freed in Hong Kong.   On Feb. 12, 1973, three C-141 transports flew to Hanoi, North Vietnam, and one C-9A aircraft was sent to Saigon, South Vietnam to pick up released prisoners of war. A C-141 flight of 40 U.S. prisoners of war left Hanoi and over the next two months, there were 54 C-141 missions bringing the former POWs home. A total of 325 POWs served in the United States Air Force; there were also 138 Navy personnel, 77 Army, 26 Marines, and 25 civilians.

At this time I was at Luke AFB in Arizona, completing my upgrade into the back seat of the F4 with an assignment to Udorn RTAFB in May 1973.  As the POWS were returned home we learned that one of the men held would be arriving at Sky Harbor airport in Phoenix one evening in April.  From 46 years away from the event, I am not sure of the exact date, but we decided to go to the airport that evening and welcome him home.   This was a time when most Americans did not think highly of those of us who were serving.  It was common to hear people ask men in uniform “Have you killed any babies this week.”   Given the hostile attitude to those who served, we felt it was important to be there and give that man a proper welcome home.

We drove out to the airport and joined a small crowd at the gate.  Today it would be huge, but those were different times.

Some folks had flags and signs and while we weren’t exactly sure who the POW was, once he left the arrival area his family greeted him and a cheer went up from the crowd.  Many folks had tears in their eyes and it was so moving I will never forget it.  This was not my first encounter with POWs, being assigned to a fighter unit in SEA and later in Alaska, I often served with many of them.    These were men who kept the faith, they did their duty, they were heroes.   It was so sad that at the time, few Americans were proud of them.   They were heroes and no one can ever take that away from them.

We who were at Sky Harbor that night will never forget this event.

About jenorv

John E. Norvell is a retired Air Force Lt Colonel, decorated air combat veteran of the Vietnam War, and former Assistant Professor of American and Military History at the U.S. Air Force Academy. He has written freelance for the Washington Post, the Middle Tennessee Journal of Genealogy and History, and for several newspapers around the country.
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2 Responses to Welcoming the POWs Home 1973

  1. JL Mutolo says:


    Would I be wrong in believing that the POW returning that day was John McCain?

    32 year old Capt. Dave is now at Columbus AFB looking forward to being a “Senior Student” amidst a bunch of 20-somethings fresh out of the Academy, OTS or ROTC, and all chomping at the bit to start UPT.

    I had a chance last week to see how much Columbus (both the Base and the town) has changed in the 48+ years since I dropped 2dLT Frank there at his first AF posting.

    Columbus is now a lot like many other small towns with their McDonalds, Lowes, Applebees, etc.,dominating Rt 45, but back in June 1970 there was seemingly nothing between the old downtown and the Base except clusters of Trailers (AKA Mobile Homes).

    The Base is small compared to the others I’ve seen, but it’s been updated quite a bit in the last half-century with few if any buildings from that era. T-1’s T-6A’s, and T-38’s. No more (37’s)

    Dave’s Strike Eagle experience gives him a tremendous advantage in UPT of course. Having just finished his Leadership training at Maxwell, he’ll be sharing his insights and experience with his young, fellow students. I know they will do well.

    I’m just bragging…

    Hope things are well in the Frozen North!



    • jenorv says:

      Hi John
      Wow I never thought about the possibility it might have been him, if I knew the name then its long gone. It doesn’t matter, they all were heroes.

      Good luck to your senior student. I was an old man at 27 back in the day.



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