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Never forgotten

They were dark days for the Americans who fought in the Vietnam War and were captured by the enemy.

Former Navy pilot Jerry Coffee, who lives in Aiea Heights, was held for seven years at the infamous “Hanoi Hilton” prison in North Vietnam, using a “tap code” on the cell walls to communicate with fellow Americans.

U.S. Sen. John McCain, who became a cellmate of Coffee’s, broke his left arm, his right arm in three places and his right knee when his jet was shot down.

The Arizona resident was then smashed with a rifle butt and stabbed with a bayonet in his ankle and groin by his captors.

Kailua resident William Thomas Jr., a Marine who was a naval gunfire spotter in an OV-10 Bronco airplane, spent 87 days toiling as a slave laborer in the jungle under the watch of armed guards.

At night, Thomas and other prisoners of war were kept in leg irons.

That all changed 40 years ago at Hickam Air Force Base.

Coffee, McCain and Thomas — and 588 other POWs — returned to American soil in Hawaii on a series of flights between February and April 1973, during what was known as “Operation Homecoming.”

For some, it was a fuel and rest stop on the route home that took the POWs from Hanoi to Clark Air Base in the Philippines, Hickam, and Travis Air Force Base in California. For others, it was home.

For all, it was America.

“I got down on my knees and kissed the ground. It was a very emotional time,” said Coffee, now 78. Others did, too.

Hundreds were there at Hickam with signs, applause and lei welcoming the service members home.

“The people were just lining the fence line and shouting at us,” Coffee said.

McCain also was touched by the show of support.

“We were all astonished at the reception we received first at Clark and later when we stopped at Hickam Air Force Base in Hawaii en route to our homes,” McCain said in his book, “Faith of My Fathers.” “Thousands of people turned out, many of them wearing bracelets that bore our names, to cheer us as we disembarked the plane.”

A friend who Coffee knew from Sanford, Fla., where he had been stationed before he deployed and then was living in Makaha, was among the well-wishers when he arrived in Hawaii.

“She was calling out my name, and she’d say, ‘It’s Maggie! It’s Maggie!’ and I asked one of the military guys on duty if I could get (her) back into the same place where we were taken, and it was, ‘No problem.’ I mean, I could have asked for the moon and they’d have given it to me,” Coffee said.  

Thomas arrived back on Oahu, his home station, to hugs from his wife, Emelia, and two boys, then 12 and 9. And to a beer. The now 76-year-old figures it was the sweetest day of his life.

“It was overwhelming to see them,” he said of his family.

On Feb. 12, 1973, Coffee was among the first groups of POWs to take off from Hanoi in C-141 Starlifter transport jets to make the journey home.

The Paris Peace Accords of 1973 included the exchange of prisoners of war.

According to the Air Force, Operation Homecoming returned 591 POWs: 325 Air Force personnel, 77 Army, 138 Navy, 26 Marines and 25 civilians.

In addition, 69 POWs held in South Vietnam by the Viet Cong, mostly Army and civilians, left from Loc Ninh as part of a North Vietnam-South Vietnam prisoner exchange, the Pentagon said.

Nine other POWs were released from Laos and three from China, officials said.

On May 19, 1972, Thomas, a chief warrant officer, was on his third tour in Vietnam and calling in naval gunfire from the passenger seat of an OV-10 Bronco in Quang Tri province, about six to seven miles inland.

A shoulder-fired SA-7 missile took out the aircraft’s left engine at an altitude of about 5,000 feet.

“We attempted to fly to the ocean, but we were too far inland, and the airplane said no, we’re not going to make this,” Thomas said.

He and the pilot ejected, parachuted into a field of elephant grass, and found themselves surrounded by about 35 North Vietnamese Army soldiers.

“When the war ended

is when they notified my family that they had me,” Thomas said. “They never notified my family before that.”

He was released on March 27, 1973, and arrived in Hawaii on April 1.

Even though his wife and boys lived in the same house in Kailua that they live in now, Thomas said he had to continue on to California, where the nearest naval hospital was located.

The rest of the family flew to California on a commercial airliner to be with him.

In February 1966, while on a photo reconnaissance mission near Cap Bouton, North Vietnam, Coffee’s RA-5C reconnaissance jet was shot down by anti-aircraft fire and he was captured.

He was held for the next seven years at Hoa Lo Prison, nicknamed the “Hanoi Hilton,” which had plenty of low moments but also showed the resiliency of the human spirit.

The retired Navy captain said there came a turning point during his incarceration where he realized, “I’ve got to make this time count for something positive. Show me, God. My prayers went from, ‘Why me?’ to, ‘Show me God, show me what I’m supposed to do with this.’”

From that time on, his goal was to “maximize the positive benefits” that could be drawn from his imprisonment, he said.

Using the tap code for the alphabet, Coffee said the POWs taught each other anything they had to share, including engineering, art history and other languages.

“I learned so much French through the walls that when I went to (the University of California, Berkeley), they gave me two years (of credits) for the French that I had learned through the walls in Hanoi,” he said.

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