Remembering The POWs That Came Home, And Those Who Didn’t, 45 Years Later

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While serving as a Corpsman with a Marine Recon unit in Vietnam (Bravo, 3rd Recon, 3rd Mar. Div.), there was nothing, not being wounded, nor even the threat of a violent death on the battlefield, that scared me more than being captured and becoming a POW in the hands of the North Vietnamese.

I did my year in hell in 1968 and was home by February of 1969. When I came home there were POWs still suffering in captivity, who had been held since as far back as 1964, in a hell far worse than I had experienced.

There would be more pilots and others who would find themselves falling into that horror of captivity for yet another three years after I came home.

Those of us who lived through that period of time in our history, both as veterans and as civilians, college students, etc. have our own unique memories about the war. The differences of opinions about the war were wide apart and often bitter and angry, but when we saw the first video reports of our POWs coming home in February of 1973, we all held our collective breath.

Source: Wikimedia Commons
John McCain after being released as a prisoner of war.


 

We could not know what they had been through until they would reveal the real horrors of it in the succeeding months and years, but we knew instinctively that what they had endured would, more than likely, have physically or emotionally crushed us. We were glad to see them finally coming home. We waited to see what they would look like, how they would handle their newfound freedom.

We wondered what had kept them going against the terrible loneliness, and the sorrows, and the gnawing daily tensions of not knowing if they would have to endure another session of questioning, threats, and meaningless and merciless torture?

As POWs, they could not know if or when an end would come to their captivity and its tortures. But the worst fear of all must have been that they might never leave that place alive, never see their families and friends, or experience the fresh air of freedom ever again.

Source: Wikimedia Commons
Prisoners of war lined up for release on at an airport in Vietnam, in 1973.


This video is the actual coverage by ABC News of the first flights of returning POWs on February 12, 1973. It shows them being turned over by the North Vietnamese in Hanoi, then we see them on their flights to Clark Air Force Base in the Philippines. Many of them expressed that they couldn’t believe that they were free. But they also exhibited the jubilation of freedom. But to a man, they conducted themselves with quiet dignity and shy reserve. We all breathed a collective sigh of relief for them, but they had so much healing to do ahead of them.

In terms of our involvement in the long Vietnam War, this homecoming of our POWs marked the long-awaited end of the war as far as our participation in it. We had brought the last of our warriors home. They could now begin the long process of reorienting to the simple things like being able to open their front door and go for a walk without fear of reprisal of having to ask for permission. They would have difficult memories and wounds to recover from.

Source: U.S. Air Force
Newly freed prisoners of war celebrate as their C-141A aircraft lifts off from Hanoi, North Vietnam, on Feb. 12, 1973, during Operation Homecoming.

Their bodies would have to heal from the illnesses that had plagued them over the months and years in captivity. But they were home and they were free. That was everything. The South would struggle on, abandoned to fate by our Congress, for another two years and would finally fall to the North Vietnamese in April of 1975.

The rest is history.

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This February 12, 2018 marks the 45th anniversary of the homecoming of our first groups of POWs. The Veterans Site wishes to remember, to honor and to thank those who came home 45 years ago now, and those who gave their last full measure while being held by the enemy as prisoners of war. We want to say to them again, “Welcome Home.”

You are heroes of the highest order.  

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Dan Doyle is a husband, father, grandfather, Vietnam veteran, and retired professor of Humanities at Seattle University. He taught 13 years at the high school level and 22 years at the university level. He spends his time now babysitting his granddaughter. He is a poet and a blogger as well. Dan holds an AA degree in English Literature, a BA in Comparative Literature, and an MA in Theology, and writes regularly for The Veterans Site Blog.
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