Looking back at Operation Homecoming on POW/MIA Day

  • Published
  • By Dr. Paul Hibbeln
  • 388th Fighter Wing Historian

In an AAFES parking lot at Hickam AFB, Hawaii, rests a plaque dedicated to former POWs from the Vietnam war, including some from the 388th Fighter Wing. It’s easy to walk past plaques, but this one is worth stopping to consider.

For nearly a decade before it moved to Hill Air Force Base, the 388th Tactical Fighter Wing waged its share of the Vietnam War from its home at Korat Royal Thai Air Force Base. From that base, located 135 miles northeast of Bangkok, the wing flew over 93,000 combat hours over Laos and North Vietnam.

Its size and composition varied between 1965-1972, but during that period it comprised up to six flying squadrons, including the 13th Tactical Fighter Squadron (now at Misawa AB, Japan), the 17th Wild Weasel Squadron (now at Nellis AFB), the 34th TFS (with the wing at Hill today), the 42nd Tactical Electronic Warfare Squadron (now at Davis-Monthan AFB), the 44th TFS (now at Kadena AB), the 421st TFS (also part of the wing today), the 469th TFS (now at Sheppard AFB), and the 553rd Recon Squadron (now inactive). Toward the end of American involvement in Vietnam in the late summer of 1973, the wing drew down gradually before arriving at Hill in late 1975.

For most of its combat history over Vietnam, the wing flew the F-105 Thunderchief, the famous and problematic “Thud.”

At the time, it was the U.S. Air Force’s most advanced fighter-bomber, capable of nearly 1,400 miles per hour at top speed and holding 12,000 pounds of ordnance. Beginning in 1968 the wing was also equipped with the F-4 Phantom II, another very capable fighter-bomber carrying 16,000 pounds of ordnance.

These jets flew missions that ranged from the interdiction of North Vietnamese units crossing Laos on their way to South Vietnam to the bombing of infrastructure and industrial centers near the North Vietnamese capital of Hanoi. Even fully loaded, neither was a sitting duck, and both possessed a remarkable ability to take punishment.

However, both typically made low- and mid-level approaches to well-defended targets. These were frequently ringed by Soviet-built SA-2 radar-guided surface-to-air missiles (SAM) and any number of old and newer French and Soviet anti-aircraft guns. Flights of F-105s might suffer attacks before, during, and after their bombing runs from SAMs (fired both with and without radar guidance), anti-aircraft artillery, and enemy pilots, who flew Soviet-built MiG 17s, 19s, and 21s, all capable interceptors. As a result, the wing lost over 180 “Thuds” and 17 Phantoms during its eight years based at Korat.

The rescue of pilots who went down in combat was itself dangerous.

Search and rescue flights often came under attack themselves, and pilots who ejected during missions over Laos and North Vietnam simply had a much higher chance of landing near enemy positions and populated areas. It was fairly common that American pilots were captured within minutes of ejecting, long before recovery operations could launch. Yet despite the difficulty of search and rescue operations inside hostile territory, U.S. forces rescued many pilots from the jungles and hills of Southeast Asia.

Even with search and rescue active, many fliers who ejected in combat could not be traced, despite being with beepers attached to their gear and having their routes known to search teams. Sometimes even the position of their aircraft remained a mystery. The Air Force alone recorded 840 Missing in Action, of which 507 were determined later to have died in combat or in captivity.

Across all services and including civilians and allies, the United States recorded 2,646 personnel unaccounted for during the war. Of these, some 765 were confirmed captured and classified as Prisoners of War. The records of the 388 TFW identified 58 pilots from the wing as POWs, and a further 77 as MIA.

Many of the wing’s POWs remained prisoners for years. But in 1973, beginning on Feb. 12 and ending on April 4, U.S. forces in the Pacific, led by Pacific Air Forces’ 13th Air Force executed Operation HOMECOMING, returned 598 personnel, including 332 Air Force pilots, to the United States from POW camps and prisons, the majority of which were located in North Vietnam. The 58 men of the 388th TFW were part of this group.

At the end of 1972, the return of POWs from Southeast Asia had appeared imminent for close to a year, but remained maddeningly out of reach. The negotiations in Paris that led to the end of U.S. involvement in the war and provided a framework for an orderly American withdrawal began in 1968, but stalled repeatedly.

After the failure of its 1972 summer offensive, North Vietnam appeared willing to bargain seriously for a lasting ceasefire and the return of American POWs — so much so that 13th AF set up and repeatedly activated a Quick Reaction Team (later termed a Reception Support Team, or RST) at Clark Air Base in the Philippines. It deployed its crews and recovery aircraft to Thailand and South Vietnam several times when rumors spread about pre-ceasefire POW releases.

It was disappointing when these did not materialize. In fact, only renewed American bombing and the resulting intense negotiations produced the Jan. 27 agreement that allowed Operation HOMECOMING to move forward for real.

POWs’ hardships

By any standard, it was high time for the American prisoners held by the enemy to return. In January 1973, 11 of the 388th’s POWs had been in captivity since 1965. A few, like Maj Carlyle Harris, had been imprisoned for nearly eight years. During 1966, these men were joined in captivity by nine additional POWs, 22 in 1967, four in 1968, and 12 in 1972. Some were young and on their first tour, but more than one counted Vietnam as their second or third war, coming to air combat in World War II or Korea.

One of those captured in 1956, Lt. Col. Lawrence Guarino, of the 44th TFS, had been a combat pilot since 1943. Another, Lt. Col. Robinson Risner, of the 67 TFS, had been an ace in Korea and was shot down twice in Vietnam before being captured.

At one extreme, some MIA and POW pilots from the 388th flew a hundred missions or more before capture. At the other, Col. John Flynn, in 1967 the new vice commander of the wing, who had joined the Army Air Corps in 1944 and flown the P-51, P-80, F-4, and the F-105, was shot down over Hanoi only three months after arriving at Korat.

Once captured, POWs suffered brutal conditions. Although their treatment and living conditions varied from prisoner to prisoner, all suffered greatly during confinement. Several were marched through local streets to be beaten by mobs. Some were refused medical treatment for injuries they had suffered during combat or upon parachuting to safety. Treatment, when granted, was usually basic and perfunctory.

Lt Col Gordon Larson, 469th TFS, and Capt Thomas Collins, and others, suffered broken backs upon ejecting, injuries exacerbated by poor treatment. Another Airman was still suffering seven years later from gunshot wounds taken during his capture. Nearly all spent time in solitary confinement (some up to 20 months), and their photographs were published for propaganda purposes for years.

Most reported that they were tortured at least once, and some were tortured repeatedly, or were forced to witness the torture of their fellow prisoners.

No Airman from the 388 TFW escaped successfully, although not for lack of trying. For instance, 13th TFS member Maj John Dramesi attempted escape twice, each time while injured. After each recapture, he was beaten nearly to death.

Yet few POWs broke, and fewer still lost hope. Faith sustained all of the POWs to a great extent. So did a belief that they were not forgotten, and would return home.

Maj. James Clements, who had flown for the 469th, was a prisoner for 5 1/2 years, but said later that “I don’t remember ever talking to another POW who doubted his country or the American people.”

Lt Col Raymond Merritt wrote later that, “I was imprisoned nearly seven and a half years. I never had any doubt that someday I would return home again.”

Lt. Col. Risner wrote that “I never lost hope . . . I believe, as do all of the other men who were imprisoned in North Vietnam, that we came back stronger, better men.”

Capt James Ray, 469 TFS, told the story of prisoners hastily copying Bible verses to memorize and pass along. “(These0, whispered back and forth by the American prisoners, were vital to our daily existence.”

They also drew great strength from their training and their temperament as fighter pilots. Capt. Charles Boyd, of the 421st TFS, asserted that the strength of the POWs was in their “fiercely individualistic” spirit, which made them able to cope with isolation.

Many found the duration of their imprisonment provided an opportunity to reflect on America’s worth in a troubled age. Even after their experience, it was not uncommon for the former prisoners to say, as did Maj Donald Waltman, of the 13th TFS, “I love this great country of ours and would fight for her again tomorrow.”

The POWs certainly knew that they had the support of the American people, although they knew nothing of the public’s efforts to improve their living conditions by increasing awareness of their situation. They could neither see, nor hear, news broadcasts on the war from the United States, nor did they know of the bracelet-wearing or letter-writing campaigns designed to influence American and enemy government officials.

However, many described their indistinct, but very real, impressions that public pressure caused conditions to improve in the later years of their imprisonment. With nothing else to do, the POWs endlessly guessed at the smallest changes in their routine — meal frequency, the arrival of letters, permission to write, the availability of cigarettes — and most considered that after 1968, the North Vietnamese were interested in making life more bearable.

The consolidation of the prisoner community at the Hoa Lo prison, the “Hanoi Hilton,” in 1970 was also a great booster for morale.

Nevertheless, the treatment of the prisoners by their captors was never gentle. When American bombing of North Vietnam was renewed in earnest in 1971, torture, interrogations designed to supply the North with propaganda, and other brutal treatments increased markedly in frequency.

The men who were captured late in the war also provided enormous support and comfort to those who had been in captivity since the 1960s, although some of the pilots shot down in 1972 were never permitted to see those taken prisoner earlier. Yet some were, and the comfort flowed in both directions.

Maj. William Elander, who flew for the 469th TFS, was shot down on July 5, 1972, and found inspiration that October when he and 19 others were moved into a compound at the Hanoi Hilton with “the Old Guys, men who had suffered as many as eight years of foul food, no medicine, no news. These were the men who defeated the Vietnamese in all their efforts to turn them against their country. I was proud just to associate with these great Americans.”

Men and their renewal

When the first rumors of a ceasefire began to circulate in the prisons, it was hard for most POWs to believe that they were going home.

Yet far from Vietnam, at Clark AB, Hickam AFB in Hawaii, Travis AFB in California, and at other Air Force bases farther east, thousands of military service members, State Department and Department of Defense civilians, and the families of those MIA and POW had been preparing for the release since before the final phase of negotiations in Paris.

The mood was anxious and impatient. At Clark, C-141 Starlifters and C-130s had been gathered and tasked and the Joint Homecoming Reception Center, a complex for POW reception had been organized and staffed. The RSTs were well-practiced. Plans were made for security debriefings, dental and eye exams, minor surgeries and medical evacuation.

Far more important, the JHRC stocked favorite foods, instructed cashiers to issue money to the returnees, and kept tailors on standby to provide new uniforms for each returning POW. By the end of January, it was running on a 24-hour day. At Hickam, anticipation ran high in the base community, because Hawaii was where most returnees would first set foot on American soil again.

For the POWs, it was similarly difficult to endure the final days of captivity calmly. Many slated to be freed in the first increment and evacuated on the first flights experienced a tremendous amount of apprehension before they were taken to Hanoi’s Gia Lam airport.

However, the official After Action Report of the operation noted prominently that upon seeing the American aircraft on the ramp, the flight surgeons and nurses, and their escorts from each branch of the service, the returnees experienced a euphoria at takeoff that diminished only after a few days at Clark.

Television reports showed stern escorts in tears as they guided “ebullient” POWs into their seats on the planes. As the first C-141, tail No. 60177, nicknamed the “Hanoi Taxi,” took off on the afternoon of Feb. 12, its passengers cheered, as did those of the C-141s that followed it in a small formation, carrying a precious cargo of over 100 former POWs.

At Clark, the first returnees arrived to a red-carpet welcome fit for heroes, greeted by cheering crowds and a gaggle of dignitaries. These celebrations were repeated for each increment, every two weeks, and ended only with the arrival of the 26th and final flight on April 1. The final returnee, Army Capt Robert White, left for Hawaii on April 3.

Capt. Jerry Driscoll, 469th TFS, was on the first flight out of Hanoi on Feb. 12. Like all of the 388th TFW POWs, he wrote that captivity made him appreciate all the more how wonderful was the feeling when he stepped off the plane to the welcome he received.

Capt. Jeffrey Ellis, also of the 469th, said that returning was “magnificent . . . the most wonderful thing that can happen to people.”

Maj Donald Heiliger, of the 13th TFS agreed: “You can never truly feel how great this country is until you have missed it.”

And 1st Lt. Brian Seek was simply overwhelmed: “It was beyond my belief. It was truly awesome and quite humbling.”

At Hickam, the returnees stopped only briefly, for fuel, meals and medical care, but as they disembarked at the Military Air Command terminal, they were greeted once again by thousands of cheering people. For many of the former POWs, this first taste of the United States proved overwhelming. Exhausted by the journey, impatiently counting each hour until they arrived at home, and often still amazed at their freedom and the reception, many wept or burst into song in Hawaii before they took off again toward California and home.

It was an Army officer who proved most poetic during his stop in Hawaii. Maj. Floyd Kushner led a group of returnees in a tearful rendition of “America the Beautiful,” and told the crowd, “I am standing in the United States of America ... proudly dressed in my country’s uniform ... having rendered honor to our flag tonight.  ... I would like for each and every one of you to be acutely aware that you are standing on American ground . . . by god, I’ll never take it for granted again.”

It is spring 2016, and the wartime era that ended in 1973 has now receded 43 years into the past. The Air Force now operates in a thoroughly modern stance; the POW has been virtually unknown since the First Gulf War of 1991 and technology has made the combat pilot much more secure than those who flew in the Vietnam generation.

The POWs from the 388th, and the hundreds of prisoners from other Air Force units and the other services, are long retired or passed on. Former Capt. Jerry Driscoll, then so grateful to recover his freedom, died this year in February.

The plaque marking the spot at Hickam where the POWs returned to the United States rests today in an AAFES parking lot that replaced the MAC terminal many years ago. But the 15th Wing at Hickam cares for it regularly, just as we remember these men and their sacrifice.

Their war is over, yet their words, their memories and the legacy they impart is one of the pillars of our Air Force heritage, even in the 21st century.

(Editor’s Note: This article was originally published in April 2016 on the anniversary of Operation Homecoming)