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The Suburbanite
  • Hanoi Taxi tells a 40-year story

  • In January 1973, this jet, called Hanoi Taxi, became the focus of Operation Homecoming. The plan was to repatriate U.S. prisoners of war (POWs) held in North Vietnam.

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  • You need to go to the National Museum of the U.S. Air Force in Dayton. You need to walk around a corner and see the most stirring sight in the vast museum.
    There she stands, a massive C-141 Starlifter cargo hauler, Tail No. 60177. She was a breath from the scrap heap when somebody, probably a Vietnam vet, realized her treasure.
    In January 1973, this jet, called Hanoi Taxi, became the focus of Operation Homecoming. The plan was to repatriate U.S. prisoners of war (POWs) held in North Vietnam. Negotiations seemed to be progressing. One of the planning sites, in Norfolk, Va., where I was serving the last of my Army career, was intense.
    I put my name on a list and wound up making scrapbooks of major news events for the POWs to read on the plane coming home. Later I would write stories on some for their hometown newspapers and the service papers, including Stars and Stripes.
    Everything was destined to go wrong, as nobody had any idea what these men needed. The scrapbooks were ignored on the planes, as they just wanted to talk. These were people who hadn’t talked to anybody for years.
    It seemed obvious the families needed some protection from the press when the jet landed. Special security zones were established for them. When the door of the Hanoi Taxi opened, years of grief broke into the most unbridled joy any of us had ever seen.
    They broke through the lines and rushed the plane as the first men, now officially ex-POWs, climbed off and saluted Old Glory.
    A rigorous debriefing was planned, but it kept them from their families. There was a lot of quiet complaining.
    There was nearly a riot when the military’s “special diet,” a sort of rice and vegetable gruel,was served to gradually bring them back to American eating habits.
    The only thing the POWs wanted was McDonald’s fries, cheeseburgers and milkshakes. The food team wisely went out and bought every cheeseburger combo in the area and delivered them in an ambulance.
    These were the early days of Operation Homecoming. The military had learned a lot about welcome parties by the operation’s end in April, 1973. By then, psychiatrists and psychologists replaced the amateurs. But, a fight had begun, charging the North Vietnamese with hiding hostages and their names, mostly to avoid Geneva Convention war crimes. It took another 10 years to settle this, and some Americans believe they still hold some of our men.
    The military did not forecast the most obvious need: Many POWs were having problems re-joining their families. Divorces became common. It was difficult rebuilding marriages after years of captivity.
    One anecdote I often heard was that a POW in solitary confinement for years built a complete house — every board and nail — in his mind. After things settled, he did build his house, every board and nail, from memory.
    Page 2 of 2 - Years later, I was having drinks on the patio when the talk turned to the POWs. Mimi Cramer went inside and came out with a POW bracelet with Navy Lieutenant Commander John Fellowes’ name. The bracelets were a fund-riser to support our captives during the war.
    “I’ve often wondered if he made it home,” she said.
    “I can tell you he certainly did,” I said. “I shook his hand.”