The Vietnam War – Getting One Thing Right, POWs Coming Home

As I watch this train wreck, not the documentary, but our Vietnam nightmare, I was reminded last night of one thing I took part in that the military and specifically the Air Force, got absolutely right. That was Operation Homecoming when the POWs came home. I know because I was there in the Philippines as an escort officer for one of the POWs. So let me tell you the story of my experience in all of this.

As the negotiations dragged on in Paris, it was clear that we were going to repatriate the POWs so the Air Force kicked into action. One day in my squadron at Kadena AFB, Okinawa, I was told to report to specialized training for those selected to be POW escorts. I was “selected” by line of sight management. I wasn’t flying that day and I was available. There were two of us from my squadron, a pilot named Don Jones, and myself, a Weapons Systems Operator (if you consider navigating and operating the cameras weapons) (back seater). Nobody really believed this was going to happen and I am sure if my squadron commander had thought it through, he would have picked someone else, but that is how the chips fell. Escort Officers were to be the first contact with the POW after the medical teams to access their health (mental and physical). Basically you were going to run interference for him and stay between him and the outside world until he was comfortably reunited with his family and was comfortable with you getting out of the way.

The training was well thought out. As a combat aircrew member we were trained and refreshed with the POW experience in case that was our fate. But this was something extra. My small group met with ex-POWs who had been released early and they had gathered their experiences and lessons learned to guide us on how do this. They noted that POWs will be inundated with family friends comrades and it could be too much. A really important thing was to give them space to get acquainted with their family again. They were a tight knit group that through all the torture and mistreatment and fared fairly well. Try to keep that support group in tact and step in only when necessary.

So I went back to my squadron and continued my flying until January of 1973, when all of a sudden it happened. They were going to be released. I was immediately sent to Clark AFB, Philippines to await their arrival with my other fellow escorts. Now the North Vietnamese would only release 40 at a time and the POWs demanded that it be by earliest shootdown date forward. We would not get the names of who was to be released until 24 hours prior to their release. The POWs were to spend 3 days at Clark under going Medical assessments and any necessary urgent care, sequestered out of the public eye at the Clark AFB Hospital, and then be flown to the United States to be reunited with their families and be assigned to the hospital there for follow-up care. All these guys were emaciated, had not had a toothbrush in many years, and been beaten severely, so this was not an unreasonable plan.

Watching the first group arrive at Clark Air Base in Burns’ and Novick’s documentary brought it all back. I was there in the crowd welcoming them home and crying my eyes out. There were all of us escort officers awaiting our assignment, steely eyed aircrew members all wearing sunglasses to hide the tears of joy and emotion in our eyes. That general they showed greeting Everett Alvarez, the first guy shot down, was the guy who headed up the POW program and he was one hell of a fine man. I remember him telling us that every Tom, Dick, and Harry of every rank was going to try to get into the action, meet with the POWs, whether ex-commanders, or high-ranking officials and we were to block them. They only wanted trained experts (so to speak) meeting with these guys in the early going. These guys (POWs) needed their space to decompress. If we needed anything just call him, and he would take care of it. And he did.

The waiting was interminable. My guy was released on March 4th. I was called as soon as the list was released and given his complete file, including his Air Force record, current grade level, status of his marriage, children, finances, sensitive information, everything. We escort officers were there to give them back their lives. There were red flagged files that indicated there was potentially troubling information (your wife divorced you, took all your money, child died, parents status, etc.) and special procedures for handling that because in most cases they did not know. But I was fortunate and my guy, an RF4-C pilot was not one of them. I am not going to name him, because well, that’s for him to do. While this is about him and what I learned, he still deserves his privacy.

I studied that file and knew it backwards and forwards. When the POWs arrived they were formally greeted at the ramp where they landed then off to the hospital for an initial check, then they were cleared to meet with their escorts. I was nervous. I had a man’s life in my hands. He had been shot down in January 1967, so you do the math. He had children he barely knew. I was also concerned about his mental condition. Ha! These guys were amazingly resilient. As I was soon going to learn, in some ways they were mentally more ready for their challenges than I was. Then I got the call. Your guy is waiting for you.

There was an amazing air of comradely within the group as I met my guy in his room at the hospital. Here is the thing, and I don’t think I can adequately describe or explain our connection. These guys were connected. They had depended on each other to get through their captivity and deal with the torture and forced confessions. They were open books. They had developed an amazing openness to their fellow human being and I was immediately accepted into that group. It was the best of humanness we rarely ever see and I have never experienced that level of acceptance and openness again. All those defenses that we have and don’t even think about were all down.

My guy was anxious to call his wife, which was my job to set up as soon as they were ready. We had private booths set up and I just knew this going to be tough. There were stories of that first call going awry, even in several cases an announcement of a pending divorce that the wife wanted to tell them personally. That was not the way to do it, but they thought they were doing the right thing. I was fairly certain I did not have any of those issues (and I did not). His wife was wonderful woman who had stayed out of the political limelight, saved his money, and kept the family together, so I was on easy street*. So I placed the call and got her on the line and then handed him the phone and left the room, an emotional wreck. He was fine. He had practice this call for six years.

The rest of the stay at Clark was hectic. Remember the press and the public were being kept at arm’s length. We made a trip to an elementary school where the POWs meet with the kids. The kids were climbing all over them and there was such a moment of joy and love that I wore my dark glasses throughout the visit. One navy commander dressed in his navy uniform was wearing sandals because after all those years without shoes, he could not wear them yet. The kids loved that. We made a trip the Base Exchange, me with his finances and cash, to buy cloths and other things they needed. My guy and most of the others wanted to look normal and they had no idea what normal was. I personally thought some escorts advice on clothing was questionable. I think we also bought a very expensive Nikon camera because he had been dreaming about this in captivity and a UPI reporter had told him what the best was. He could afford it. He had earned it.

One official duty I had was to debrief him about who else he had seen alive in captivity. A first hand experience. There were many that just disappeared and so the Air Force was trying to build a database of last seens to challenge the North Vietnamese with. Did not work out so well. I explained to my guy what the purpose of the debriefing was and started the recorder, but he wanted to talk about his torture. Every one at some point broke and living with that was very hard for them. The command structure within the POWs came up with a new code of conduct which said resist to your utmost ability and then when they do break you, and they will, give them the minimal. That would be a win, not a failure. It allowed them to survive and not succumb to deep depression, but there was still a sense they somehow failed their country and wanted to get it off their chest. It was not pretty (the torture) and I had spent much of my earlier career wondering just how I would hold up in the same circumstances, whether I would measure up. It was gut wrenching. As for the list of names, well these guys had passed around (knock code) everyone they had seen or heard of and they could list off 200 names in a flash. It kind of defeated the purpose because we were looking for eye witness sightings.

Then it was time to fly to the U.S. I will never forget the night before. We were to depart at 0800 hours the next morning on a C-141, stopping in Honolulu for refueling, and then on to the Air Force Hospital in San Antonio Texas, where he was going to be reunited with his family. So about 0200 I get a call from my guy and he wants me to pick up two cases of Johnny Walker Black and get it on the airplane. Don’t ask. He had been talking with some of the other POWs and it occurred to them that they could get it duty free and, well it had been almost 6 years since he had had a drink. Now this was the thing about being an escort officer, you could call anyone and you could get things done very quickly. Colonels would jump for captains. It was loaded on the plane.

The flight back was uneventful except for the stop over in Hawaii. A friend of my guy and his wife requested to see him as we stopped over gassing up. I asked him what he thought and he was okay with it. They had a teary reunion, which I stayed out of, but they brought him a dozen roses to give his wife when he got off the plane in San Antonio. That was a very nice touch. As we approached San Antonio he got a little nervous (wouldn’t you). “How do I look?. What is the first think I should say?” kind of questions. Then we landed. Families, media, and the general public where all at the flight line. Escorts were to get out of the way and way out of the lime light. Like all the rest of the program, this was not about us.** I hurried out a rear exit away from the light of the press so I could photograph a record of his meeting with his wife. It was beautiful. Again, not a dry eye in the house.

The rest of it went fairly well. My guy and his wife were put up in the VIP quarters. After sometime with his kids getting to know them, they went with their grandparents so my guy and his wife could spend some time together. I was there to run errands and blocking as required. I did have a long discussion with his parents, which I am sure broke their hearts, about giving him some space. That was a biggy we learned from our training. But they did it. We had one tough session together one night as he, I, and his wife were sipping some of that Johnny Walker Black and he broke down wondering why he survived and so many others did not. Survivor’s guilt. Remember my job was to listen not to be an amateur psychologist. After about a week there I broached the subject of going home. His was a little resistant at first, but he and I worked out a time table.

These were tough, tough guys, but they got through it as we get through life, depending on each other, only more so than most. They were losing that support group as they reintegrated into normal life. We knew this day would come and we had trained and prepared for it. The day I said goodbye to him, my parents, (my dad was a retired General in the Air Force) picked me up. I introduced them to my guy and then we said goodbye, hugged, and we were both crying. I think my parents were a little shocked. Grown men crying and hugging. Then after a short visit with my parents it was back to Kadena and my family. And guess what. I was then headed to Thailand to fly combat, 89 missions over Cambodia, Laos, and South Vietnam as the war, now Vietnamized, progressed and Cambodia fell apart. I got three Air Medals (merit badges) for participation in hazardous aerial combat. Yeah, the war was over for some, but not us in reconnaissance, and all I think about on all those missions was, what if I become a POW now? Crazy right?

It was an amazing experience. I saw my guy the following summer when I was down in Florida for counter insurgency school and I thought he looked fat. He wasn’t, just had put on normal weight. After that, we both kind of moved on. It was one of the amazing experiences of my life, wondering how if I was shot down, would I perform, and then to be in the midst of repatriating the POWs, guys I was in awe of. I learned one thing for sure. There is no black and white, and the human being is an amazingly adaptive creature. The Air Force did this as right as it could be done and I was extremely grateful and proud to be part of it.***

*This is not to imply that divorce or political action were bad. Shit happens in life and they all did what they needed to survive. It was just hard, but life is hard. Wives were in a horrible bind and getting politically active was a two-edged sword. The North Vietnamese were going to use it to try to break you in captivity, yet they wanted to do something to get their husbands home.

I will make one comment here about Jane Fonda and war protestors who flew the North Vietnamese flag.  They knew we were wrong, but that did not make the other side right.  It is one thing to protest the war, it is another to put our POWs at jeoporady as Jane Fonda did when she call them war criminals.  We were not war criminals, we were fighting a war that our Constitution required us to fight and she aided and abetted the North Vietnamese.  POWs suffered for her visit. There were a lot of Fuck You Jane Fonda patches being worn on our informal flight suits (party suits) back then.  She was young and stupid, but then weren’t we all.  And if I have learned anything, it is to forgive.  The Vietnamese have certainly forgiven us and I don’t know why.

**There were several escort officers removed when it was preceived that their behavior put themselves before the POWs.  And rightly so.

***This is not the whole story and if you really want to learn about their experience, their conflicts, their feelings, I suggest you read one of their accounts. There were war protestors among the POWs, there were deaths that some things other POWs were responsible for, and there accusations of collaboration.  There is also the amazing story of how they learned to communicate, to depend on each other when they thought they were done, and survive in impossible conditions. This just my experience as a minor player in this amazing story.

Comments are closed.