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Operation HOMECOMING: Bringing our heroes home

Released American POWs cheer once the reach safe airspace. (Courtesy photo)

Released American POWs cheer once the reach safe airspace. (Courtesy photo)

A C-141 Starlifter from the 62 Military Airlift Wing lands at Hanoi to pick up American POWs.

A C-141 Starlifter from the 62 Military Airlift Wing lands at Hanoi to pick up American POWs.

JOINT BASE LEWIS-MCCHORD, Wash. --

As we pause this week to reflect on those who were held prisoners of war or remain missing in action, it is important to remember our resolve to bring home all our heroes. For decades, the 62nd and 446th Airlift Wings have fulfilled this solemn promise and conducted multiple airlifts to reunite POWs with their families and to return the remains of our heroes to their homes.

          In February 1973, a 60th Military Airlift Wing C-141 Starlifter touched down in Hanoi, North Vietnam, to transport American POWs from Hanoi back to the United States. A crew of both 60th MAW and 62nd AW Airmen welcomed the quiet men on board and helped them with their seats, while Air Force nurses did what they could to make the men comfortable. Oddly, the released prisoners did not say much. They did not shout for joy or otherwise express themselves in celebration; they remained stoic and tried to hide the fear they had lived with for years while in captivity. Were they really going home? After years of torture, starvation and nightmares, was the North Vietnamese simply going to let them go or was this yet another trick to break their resolve?

          The crew of the C-141, now known as the Hanoi Taxi, had the same thoughts. After years of fighting each other, was this a trick? Were the North Vietnamese going to let the C-141 fly off or were the Communist forces going to shoot them down?

          With abated breath, the C-141 taxied down the runway in Hanoi and climbed in altitude. When the aircraft reached what was thought to be a safe distance, a great roar thundered through the cabin as the American POWs erupted in cheers, dances, and tears of joy. Yes, they were going home. America had not forgotten.

          From February to April 1973, mobility forces including those from the 62nd AW repatriated 591 American POWs from Hanoi back to the United States, including then Army Maj. Floyd James Thompson and then U.S. Navy Lt. Cmdr. John McCain. America celebrated the return of their heroes and, for a moment, the pain and controversy of the Vietnam War was washed away and replaced by welcome home banners and balloons. This operation would become better known as Operation HOMECOMING.

          While some American families rejoiced in the homecoming of their beloved sons and husbands, many other families continued to wait and wonder if their heroes would ever come home from North Korea or Vietnam. Decades would go by as families struggled to find out what happened to their missing loved ones while the U.S. engaged in diplomatic talks with both North Korea and Vietnam to repatriate U.S. service members’ remains. Finally by the end of the 1990s, all three countries made headway and both North Korea and Vietnam agreed to hand over the remains of some of those killed during the Korean and Vietnam wars and, as was the case in 1973, Team McChord helped bring these heroes home.

          Late in November 1999, a McChord C-17 Globemaster III, crewed by members from the 446th AW, began its journey from Washington to the isolated and surreptitious North Korea. As their predecessors had before during the first Operation HOMECOMING, the 446th AW crew wondered what awaited them in Pyongyang, North Korea. After all, the C-17 crew would be the first group of uniformed U.S. military personnel in Pyongyang to claim the remains of Americans killed in the Korean War. Would the North Koreans welcome them or was there a more sinister motive behind North Korea’s invitation? Fortunately, the McChord C-17 landed in Pyongyang and the transfer of three set of remains occurred peacefully.

          The 446th AW crew took off from Pyongyang and landed in Thailand to claim the remains of two Americans killed during the Vietnam War in Laos and then recovered six sets of American remains in Hanoi, Vietnam. On November 20, 1999, the C-17 arrived at Andersen Air Force Base, Guam, and transferred the 11 sets of remains to mortuary services so they could be identified and returned to family.

Again the next year, Team McChord once again transported the remains of fallen heroes back home. From Nov. 14-21, 2000, 62nd AW personnel deployed to Hanoi, Vietnam; Yokota, Japan; and Hickam Air Base, Hawaii, in support of Operation HOMECOMING. This particular mission represented two historic firsts, with the repatriation of 21 human remains signifying the largest extraction to that date and the President of the United States presiding over the ceremony while visiting Vietnam. President Bill Clinton’s historic trip of healing to Vietnam, the first visit by a U.S. President since Richard Nixon, represented an opportunity to establish a friendly relationship between the two countries.

Using the C-17, nine aircrew personnel from the 7th Airlift Squadron and two members of the 62nd Security Forces Squadron helped President Clinton maintain his promise to bring home America’s fallen heroes. The McChord C-17 carried equipment, vehicles and other cargo needed on the presidential visit, but its use had a more significant purpose—to bring home fallen soldiers.

To this day, more than 5,300 American military personnel remain missing in North Korea and over 1,600 remain missing in Vietnam while their families still await their return. In 2005, North Korea ceased the repatriating process due to a breakdown in diplomatic talks, but in July 2018 released 55 American remains in a good faith gesture. Once again the Air Force carried these fallen soldiers home on a C-17 Globemaster III.

As units of Air Mobility Command, the 62nd and 446th AWs are tasked with transporting essential cargo and personnel in contingency operations, airdropping troops into hostile areas, and providing humanitarian airlift, but also fulfill one of the most important missions—maintain the solemn promise of bringing our heroes home.

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