Operation Homecoming: The return of American
POW's from Vietnam.
By Andrew H. Lipps
Imagine your imprisoned
in a cage, imagine the cage surrounded by the smell of feces, imagine the rotted
food you eat is so infested with insects that to eat only a few is a blessing,
imagine knowing your life could be taken by one of your captors on a whim at any
moment, imagine you are subjected to mental and physical torture designed to
break not bones but instead spirit on a daily basis. That was being a prisoner of
North Vietnam. Then imagine one day, after seemingly endless
disappointment you are given a change of clothes and lined up to watch an
American plane land to return you home. That was Operation Homecoming.
Operation Homecoming began Feb, 12, 1973 when three C-141A aircraft headed to Hanoi, North Vietnam, and a C-9A aircraft headed to Saigon, South Vietnam from Clark AFB in the Philippines. All aircraft had an aeromedical team of two flight nurses and three aeromedical evacuation technicians with a couple of flight surgeons. Along with the medical and flight crews were two escorts for each POW and an AF News media team. Each aircraft was especially painted white and marked with a red cross on their tail to clearly mark its peaceful intention to all. The mission was for the three C-141 to fly towards the North Vietnam border as a group, then enter North Vietnam, one at a time. This was a precaution before proceeding across ‘enemy territory’ to minimize potential loss. POW's were released based on their length of time in prison with the first group having spent 6-8 years as prisoners of war.
At Hanoi’s Gia Lam airfield the POW's marched with their military bearing intact to the waiting American officers. They were each dressed in identical new gray 'uniforms' provided by the North Vietnamese and each carried a ditty bag. Expressionless they parted from their N. Vietnamese captors and boarded the first C-141. POW Larry Chesley commented: “We were met at the door by pretty young ladies, the first American women we had seen in years. We sat down in the seats and looked around. Everything seemed like heaven. Just like heaven. When the doors of that C-141 closed, there were tears in the eyes of every man aboard.” In South Vietnam the prisoners of the Viet Cong, and only a handful of these survived, prepared for freedom dressed in the ragged pajama style uniforms they had worn in prison.
The former POW's were greeted at Clark AFB by a reception committee that included Admiral Gayler, Commander U.S. Forces Pacific, Roger Shields, President Nixon’s top assistant for POW issues, and General Moore, the senior Air Force officer in theater.
In all 591 American POWs returned from captivity in Operation Homecoming between February 12 and April 1, 1973; 457 returned from North Vietnam, 122 from South Vietnam, nine from Laos, and, following additional diplomatic negotiations, three returned from China. 566 of these were servicemen -- 325 were from the Air Force, 138 belonged to the Navy, 77 were Army, and 26 were Marines. The 25 civilians were members of various U.S. Government agencies. The prisoners ranged in age from the early 20's to the late 40's, from PFC to Colonel. There were men such as Everette Alvarez who had spent 8 1/2 years a prisoner to men who had been shot down in the Christmas bombing of 1972.
After settling into Clark Air Force Base the men were met by the Joint Debriefing and Casualty Reporting Center (JDCRC), under the direction of CINCPAC. JDCRC had representatives from each military service and each former POW was debriefed by the Service with which they were associated or in the case of the civilian captives, by members of the U.S. Embassy, Manila. Each Service handled it's POW's differently. The two escorts noted earlier were a like service assistant for each former POW and the second man a debriefer. The former POW's were processed in groups of 20-150 men each in 8-10 day intervals with most if not all headed for hospital's in the continental United States. Most of the escorts remained with the former POW's in the return to the U.S. their role was to multi-task as companion, military debriefer, and a source of information for the POW who was returning to what in many cases was a vastly different world.
POW was issued by the N. Vietnamese a specially
tailored jacket, pants, white shirt, black shoes and a toiletry bag that had
been manufactured for the N. Vietnamese in France. When they got to Clark AFB in the Philippines
each POW and his assigned companion were given locally
made Operation Homecoming
Here is the Operation Homecoming patch. This patch belonged to an Air Force Colonel assigned as escort to an Air Force Colonel repatriated POW in Operation Homecoming.
This image shows Everett Alvarez, Jr upon arrival at Clark AFB. Lt. J.G. Alvarez spent an incredible 8 1/2 years in captivity. He and his companions clearly wear the 'uniforms' given them by the North Vietnamese prior to departure.
A C141 in Operation Homecoming.
This flight suit patch from an Operation Homecoming returnee
pokes fun at the incomplete mission that made him a POW.