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.