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."
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