What Operation Homecoming teaches us … 50 years later
Special to Stars and Stripes April 12, 2023
There are moments seared in people’s collective memory, including the joy and relief felt by Americans a half-century ago when 591 U.S. prisoners of war held captive in North Vietnam returned home. Recently, two days of celebration and remembrance at Travis Air Force Base in California connected hundreds of airmen, community members and families with some of the brave former POWs who served with incredible honor and dignity under the most trying of conditions.
We were proud to recognize these men’s service and the legacy of Operation Homecoming, the airlift operation spanning nearly two months in early 1973 that fulfilled our nation’s enduring commitment to always bring our men and women in uniform back home.
Our observance also included a poignant, commemorative C-17 flight to Hanoi’s Gia Lam Airport, which underscored how much our two countries have moved from a history of conflict to a comprehensive partnership that contributes to peace and stability in the Indo-Pacific region.
Most of all, the anniversary and the activities at Travis provided memorable human faces to qualities that resonate to this day across the U.S. Air Force — resilience, bravery, dedication to service and making sure promises are kept.
Men like Bob Stirm, a retired Air Force colonel who took part in the ceremony wearing the same Class A dress coat he had been repatriated in. He was there with his daughter Lorrie, both of whom were immortalized in Sal Veder’s Pulitzer Prize winning photo “Burst of Joy.”
Also on Travis’ flight line where the POWs who first stepped off the plane and back into freedom in the United States, I watched John Gonge, a retired Air Force lieutenant general and the overall commander of Operation Homecoming, now 101 years old, shake hands with Charlie Plumb, retired Navy captain, just as he had 50 years earlier when welcoming home every returning POW to Travis. It was a priceless moment.
These brushes with history — and the people behind them — reminded me of the fleeting time we have remaining with this generation of Vietnam heroes and the three enduring lessons Operation Homecoming still teaches a half century later.
The first lesson concerns the tremendous leadership displayed by senior ranking POW officers who set standards for all to emulate — accountability, purposeful service, humility, resiliency, teamwork, adherence to a code — and modeled these tenets daily through their actions. The leadership’s unyielding focus on returning with honor provided the firm foundation that guided the POWs’ actions under the most challenging of conditions. Across thousands of decisions and actions, both large and small, the POWs and those dedicated to their return home shined when the stakes were the highest. As a result, a study conducted by the Robert E. Mitchell Center for Prisoner of War Studies in Pensacola, Fla., shows that former Vietnam POWs have an average lifetime post-traumatic stress disorder rate of only 4%, a remarkable figure when compared to the greater than 30% rate for other Vietnam service members. Leadership matters.
The impact of hope and humor
Across the Operation Homecoming celebrations, the power and impact of hope and humor was a constant theme.
Several POWs, including Plumb, noted that hope came in more tangible forms, such as the sight of San Francisco’s iconic Golden Gate Bridge. “So many guys had dreamed of the bridge while they were gone,” James Sehorn, a retired Air Force colonel, added. “As we neared Travis, we asked the aircraft commander for a good look … [and] the guys crowded into the cockpit and around every window to get a glimpse. The Golden Gate was a symbol of being home.”
Humor punctuated otherwise poignant tales of suffering and loss. Plumb noted how, following his shootdown and subsequent descent under parachute, he prayed for a small wind to blow him from his captors. “Just a small one,” he added. “Ten or 12 knots … gusting up to 40.” He also laughingly recounted what it was like in the days before his eventual release to be issued a pair of pants with a zipper — the first in his more than 2,300 days in captivity.
Plumb emphasized as a key takeaway for all of us, the idea of “serving when you expect nothing in return,” and that the strength of both hope and humor can guide such service in otherwise dark times.
The power of promises kept
Perhaps the most powerful lesson from Operation Homecoming, both then and now, is the lesson of promises kept; those kept between the prisoners themselves and those from the U.S. to those who had served so faithfully.
In an emotional telling of his release after 1,953 days in captivity, Richard “Dog” Brenneman, a retired Air Force lieutenant colonel, relived seeing a C-141 on the ramp at Gia Lam Airport with the U.S. flag on its tail and the reception committee of U.S. officers standing before it, and how he and his fellow POWs each approached and saluted in turn stating, “Reporting for duty, sir.” A promise kept.
Richard Stratton, a retired Navy lieutenant commander, recounted his experience at Travis when as the senior officer, he first stepped onto the ramp and address the gathered crowd: “We stand here today as we have stood for so long — shoulder to shoulder. We are American fighting men and we have never forgotten it. … [W]e have kept the faith; we have never wavered in our trust in our country, and our trust in our fellow Americans.” Following his remarks, the large crowd burst into applause with many spontaneously breaking into song with “God Bless America.” A promise kept.
Fifty years later, Operation Homecoming was — and remains — truly a time to celebrate heroes, the POWs who served so honorably, those who worked so tirelessly to bring them home, and the families who sacrificed so selflessly through many long, anxious years of waiting. Their experiences offer powerful validation to Winston Churchill’s famous observation: “A nation that fails to honor its heroes soon will have no heroes to honor.”
Col. Derek Salmi is commander of 60th Air Mobility Wing at Travis Air Force Base, Calif.