Heritage feature: Operation Homecoming

  • Published
  • By Maj. Cliff Bayne
  • 81st Logistics Readiness Squadron commander
Welcoming home our returning military members from Afghanistan as the war there draws to a close provides us a good opportunity to appreciate the significance of these occurrences.
Keesler has welcomed back our men and women from various conflicts throughout its history. Of special significance, just 39 years ago Keesler welcomed home returning members from Vietnam. Some of these members were welcomed back from years of captivity as Prisoners of War in North Vietnam.

As the war in Vietnam drew to a close, an agreement was reached with the North Vietnamese government at the Paris Peace Accords to return the 591 American POWs held in captivity there; more than half of these POWs were Air Force personnel. Prisoners were to be returned to U.S. control between February and March 1973, with the longest held returning first. This effort was called Operation Homecoming.

To prepare for this homecoming, extensive preparations were made to ensure the returning POWs would arrive home with dignity and have all available reintegration support needed. POWs were first brought through Clark AFB in the Philippines to receive an initial physical exam to ensure the 12-hour flight to the U.S. would not have any ill effect on their health and also to receive new uniforms. They then flew to Travis AFB, California, where they embarked to their respective bases. For some, their destination was the base to which they were assigned; for others, it was simply the base closest to where their family resided during their time in captivity.

True to form, Keesler went all out to welcome these returning members.

The mental health clinic rooms, where the returning members would reside during initial reintegration, were freshly painted and apportioned with televisions, telephones and nurse call boxes. Furniture and equipment were moved from the internal medicine clinic to the mental health clinic to support the operation. In addition, Keesler's newest BOQ was vacated by its regular residents to make room for family members of the returning members.

Although intended to be low-key, the event turned into an enthusiastic display of welcome by members of their families and the community. The event also generated a significant amount of media attention, with a total of 100 reporters from various newspaper, magazine, radio and television entities on hand.

Keesler's first Operation Homecomingflight arrived on Feb. 15, 1973, aboard a C-9. Two Airmen, Col. George Hall and Lt. Col. Thomas Curtis, disembarked the C-9 Nightingale at 8:30 p.m. and were welcomed by their wives and children.

As could be expected, the arrivals proved to be moving events.

The official History of Keesler describes the arrival of three more members, Col. Thomas Sterling, Maj. Douglas Peterson, and Maj. Lawrence Barbay as, "Keesler's new commander, Maj. Gen. Bryan Shotts was on hand...As they stepped off the aircraft, each rendered a salute which was promptly returned by the general who then in an unprecedented emotional moment hugged each of the returnees--adding to the tears of joy which accompanied the occasion, and bolstering the humility and awe of spectators who responded with cheerful approval."

A total of 12 returned POWs arrived to Keesler as part of Operation Homecoming. Among these members was the senior most officer of all U.S. men interned in North Vietnam--Col. John Flynn. Flynn was shot down in October 1967 when his aircraft was hit by a surface-to-air missile, previous to which he had flown 18 combat missions in WW II and 133 combat missions in Korea. Flynn was later promoted to the rank of lieutenant general and served as the Air Force Inspector General.

The other POWs returned to Keesler were Maj. Keith Hall, Capt. Jeffrey Ellis and Capt. Robert Hinckley.

After the POWs arrived at Keesler, they underwent extensive debriefings and medical exams. In addition, returnees were provided chronological synopses on national and world news during their time in captivity to make them aware of what they had missed. Each POW received a personal letter from President Nixon and a telegram from the Governor of Mississippi welcoming them home.

Operation Homecoming concluded at Keesler the first week of April 1973. All 12 POWs were successfully reintegrated. As usual, this success was largely due to the superior performance of the men and women of Keesler Air Force Base. Today, we continue in this tradition, the tradition embodied in Operation Homecoming, through our efforts to provide warm welcomes to our returned comrades in arms in appreciation for their service.