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Air Force Reserve Maj. Gen. Edward Mechenbier, left, and Col. Gregg Sanders, 13th Air Force vice commander, lay a wreath on one of two caskets containing the remains of military members killed in Vietnam during a repatriation ceremony Saturday. Mechenbier, a Vietnam POW, decided to end his 40-year military career by returning to Hanoi, Vietnam, and retrieving remains of fallen comrades.
Air Force Reserve Maj. Gen. Edward Mechenbier, left, and Col. Gregg Sanders, 13th Air Force vice commander, lay a wreath on one of two caskets containing the remains of military members killed in Vietnam during a repatriation ceremony Saturday. Mechenbier, a Vietnam POW, decided to end his 40-year military career by returning to Hanoi, Vietnam, and retrieving remains of fallen comrades. (Rasheen Douglas / USAF)

A former Vietnam POW is ending his 40-year military career by helping bring closure to families of loved ones who never came home from the war.

Air Force Reserve Maj. Gen. Edward J. Mechenbier returned to Hanoi, Vietnam, last week to pick up two sets of remains believed to be those of his fallen comrades. He piloted the same plane that rescued him 31 years ago, an Air Force C-141 Starlifter — dubbed the “Hanoi Taxi” by the freed prisoners it carried home on Feb. 12, 1973.

“This is the most professionally and personally gratifying mission that I’ve ever had,” Mechenbier said this week by phone from Hawaii. “If you look at my own personal experience, I spent almost six years in jail. To a lot of people, that sounds like a pretty tough duty assignment.”

But Mechenbier, 61, considers himself lucky: He came home and 31 years later has the chance to help families close a painful chapter in their lives, he said.

The remains were to be turned over to the Joint POW/MIA Accounting Command after a repatriation ceremony Wednesday morning at Hickam Air Force Base, Hawaii. Forensic scientists then will attempt to identify the bones. A repatriation ceremony also was held during a pit stop Saturday at Andersen Air Force Base, Guam.

Assigned to the 445th Airlift Wing at Wright-Patterson Air Force Base near Dayton, Ohio, Mechenbier is the last Vietnam-era POW in the U.S. military and the oldest pilot still flying.

Two co-workers, pilots, Lt. Col. Brian Dominguez and Maj. Rick Webster, proposed that Mechenbier make the repatriation flight his final mission, he said.

A C-141 flight crew of 25 departed Wright-Patterson on May 22, stopping in California, Hawaii, Guam and Thailand before landing in Hanoi on Friday to pick up two aluminum cases draped in American flags.

The Starlifter — tail number 66-0177 — was the first of three to land in Hanoi on Feb. 12, 1973, for Operation Homecoming.

“I was released a week later, but yes, I flew on that airplane,” Mechenbier said.

On returning to Vietnam for the first time since his release, Mechenbier said, he wasn’t looking for closure. “I didn’t have any psychological hang-ups,” he said. “There are those who might argue that, quite frankly, but for my part I didn’t have any open mental wounds.”

Mechenbier was shot down June 1967 in his F-4C Phantom II fighter while on his 80th mission. The then-24-year-old first lieutenant was bombing Vu Chu railroad marshaling yards about 30 miles northeast of Hanoi. He was held captive for six years inside Hoa Lo prison, nicknamed the “Hanoi Hilton” by POWs.

Though Hanoi’s city landscape of modern buildings and motorbikes looks vastly different now, the general recognized a few landmarks from the air, such as Old Thud Ridge and prominent bends in the Red River.

“The route of the flight when we departed was not too far from where I was shot down,” he said.

Nostalgic? Maybe, he said. But the task at hand elicited more emotions than memories of his Vietnam days, he said.

“To see the two governments cooperating to bring closure to the status of these missing Americans, I found that to be really awesome,” he said.

Mechenbier said he has friends who never came home from the war. He’s a strong proponent of continuing the mission of searching for soldiers still unaccounted for from any conflict.

“It tells the world we care about our people; it tells our people that our Air Force and our government care about them, and it tells the family members who offered their husbands, wives and children that they’re not forgotten,” he said.

About 1,800 servicemembers remain missing from the Vietnam War, which ended in 1975.

After Wednesday’s ceremony, Mechenbier has one more take-off and one more landing, “then I’m done, after 40 years,” he said.

“This is a fantastic way to end a career,” he said, “a very good way to go.”

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Jennifer reports on the U.S. military from Kaiserslautern, Germany, where she writes about the Air Force, Army and DODEA schools. She’s had previous assignments for Stars and Stripes in Japan, reporting from Yokota and Misawa air bases. Before Stripes, she worked for daily newspapers in Wyoming and Colorado. She’s a graduate of the College of William and Mary in Virginia.
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