POWs regained their freedom and displayed proud military bearing, arriving at Gia Lam Airport in formation. Here, USAF Capt. Robert Parsels salutes as he is returned to U.S. military control. (U.S. Air Force photo)
Twenty-seven Americans, most of whom had been held in South Vietnam by the Viet Cong, were released at Loc Ninh and left Vietnam from Saigon. Here, USAF Capt. David Baker, an injured POW, awaits release. (U.S. Air Force photo)
This C-141A, serial number 66-177, was the first to carry POWs home from Hanoi. The aircraft came to the National Museum of the U.S. Air Force in May 2006. The red cross was applied for OPERATION HOMECOMING to denote a peaceful mission. (U.S. Air Force photo)
Lt. Col. Warren lighting a cigarette for an "old friend" who was one of the first group of Americans released from POW camp by the North Vietnamese. The items worn by Lt. Col. Warren in this photo are those on display. (U.S. Air Force photo)
DAYTON, Ohio - New clothes issued by the North Vietnamese just before release to POWs to make the ex-prisoners look well-cared for. Many prisoners had not worn buttons, zippers, or lace-up shoes for years. (U.S. Air Force photo)
DAYTON, Ohio - Protocol document issued to POWs on Jan. 30, 1973, to advise them of the details of release procedures. Capt. Ed Mechenbier used it to draw plans for his "dream house.” Playing cards issued by the Red Cross for use on the flight from Vietnam to Clark Air Base in the Philippines. The flight took about four hours. Returning POWs were given updates on a world from which they had been absent for years. These books and tapes helped them catch up. Among the events most of them missed were the first moon landings and other important events of the late 1960s. POWs even received a pamphlet explaining the latest slang expressions. (U.S. Air Force photo)
DAYTON, Ohio - Flying suit, jacket, and cap worn by Lt. Col. James C. Warren, USAF, who was the navigator on the first USAF aircraft, the C-141 Hanoi Taxi, to fly into Hanoi to pick up returning POWs, Feb. 12, 1973. These items are on display in the Southeast Asia War Gallery at the National Museum of the U.S. Air Force. (U.S. Air Force photo)
The Paris Peace Accords of 1973 included provisions for exchanging prisoners of war. The plan to bring American prisoners home was called OPERATION HOMECOMING. Prisoners were to be returned to U.S. control during February and March 1973, with the longest-held generally returning first.
The North Vietnamese assembled the POWs and told them the war was over. As the POWs prepared to leave, the North Vietnamese tried to issue them brightly-colored sweaters and suits with ties--another of their endless propaganda attempts. The POWs did not want to look well-treated or like civilians, but they compromised to keep from jeopardizing their release. They accepted low-key outfits of dark pants, shirts, and windbreakers. Many of the items in this exhibit were carried home in tote bags issued to POWs.
At Hanoi's Gia Lam Airport, the men were thrilled to see USAF C-141A Starlifter aircraft landing to pick them up. The happiest moment came when the aircraft left the ground--and POWs knew for certain that they were free.
Ex-POWs first stopped at Clark Air Base in the Philippines for medical exams, good meals and new uniforms. After stops in Hawaii and California, they finally returned to their families and their lives as free Americans.
OPERATION HOMECOMING returned 591 POWs: 325 Air Force personnel, 77 Army, 138 Navy, 26 Marines and 25 civilians. Those who were not freed at Hanoi--POWs held in South Vietnam by the Viet Cong, mostly Army and civilians--left from Loc Ninh, the scene of the North Vietnam-South Vietnam prisoner exchange. A total of 660 American military POWs survived the war.
About eighty percent of the military POWs who survived the war continued their military careers. Most of the 500 returning airmen retrained and resumed their aviation careers. These ex-POW airmen adopted the motto "Three's in," signifying an aircraft, number three in a four-ship group, rejoining a "missing man" formation.
A Flying Memorial
The first group of POWs to leave Hanoi on Feb. 12, 1973, flew on a C-141 later dubbed the Hanoi Taxi. This historic aircraft is part of the National Museum of the USAF's collection. The Hanoi Taxi, though modified over the years, was also maintained as a flying memorial to Vietnam-era POWs and MIAs. In 2002, during the aircraft's last PDM (Periodic Depot Maintenance), it was repainted in its 1970s gray and white scheme, and it ended its flying career with the USAF Reserve's 445th Airlift Wing at Wright-Patterson AFB in 2006.
Recalling his own journey out of North Vietnam on Feb. 18, 1973, Maj. Gen. Ed Mechenbier, the last Vietnam POW to serve in the USAF, said, "When we got airborne and the frailty of being a POW turned into the reality of freedom, we yelled, cried and cheered."