Operation Homecoming at 40 Years

Note: Beginning with the stories on the PWH FORUM related to flying, I have started a new Blog RememberedSky.com focused on my experiences and those of my friends.

What follows is the announcement set about a recently completed series on the return of the Viet Nam POWs. Asked below is the question, cannot a Katrina like diaster be considered a “captive environment?” Does not response, decision making and leadership in this severe crisis require unconventional leadership?  My answer is yes, and there is much to be learned from the “isolated yet unifed” response by our Viet Nam POWs.

Forty years ago this first weekend in April 1973, the last of the POWs from NAS Lemoore California returned home. Included were my squadron mates Mike Penn and Al Nichols.  The VA-56 Champs had lost LTJG Gary Shank, LCDR Smokey Tolbert, LT John Lindahl, and AO2 Clay Blankenship. USS Midway and Air Wing Five had four other POWs and eighteen others MIA, KIA or lost at sea.

The first POWs had flown out of Hanoi to Clark AFB in the Philippines on 12 Feb. Midway had just completed its final line period of the war , resulting in setting the record for most days on the line for a carrier in the Viet Nam War. Champ Commanding Officer, Lew Chatham and a significant number of others went up to Clark for the arrival of the first Hanoi Taxi. Skipper Lew’s best friend Paul Galanti was on that first flight. For its eleven month deployment in the face of the North Vietnamese Easter Offensive invasion of South Viet Nam, USS Midway, Air Wing Five, and squadrons would receive the Presidential Unit Citation – equivalent to the highest award the Navy can give at the individual level – the Navy Cross.

For those of us in theatre at the time, we had long known of the situation at home.  Bringing the POWs –our “buds” – home was our primary personal mission.  As I have noted previously, winning and losing wars occurs at another level. For me this April weekend celebration indicated “mission accomplished.”  I was there and part of the process that had gotten the POWs home.

I started Remembered Sky as a vehicle for me to write – or publish the writing of others – focused on love of flying, with particular interest and focus on the stories from USS Midway/Airwing Five and the Vietnam War in 1972-73.  Maybe even more important than the flying were the connections-developed with “these good men.”  There are lots of good books and websites on aviation, so  Remembered Sky is offered on a personal level – friends of “Boris” or “friends of friends of Boris.” It’s a “one – three degrees of connection” kind of thing, you might say.  I started with just love of flying stuff, then added pieces on the Midway ’72 cruise as a result of the Easter Offensive, and then moved into Linebacker II.

The various elements - the 100th Anniversary of Naval Aviation in 2011, the 40th anniversary of the Midway war cruise, my own wedding and immediate departure to a rapidly heating up war, and the 40th anniversary of the end of the war and the Paris Peace Accords with the resultant release of our Prisoners of War – all began to merge in my memory as a story of stories in which I and my airwing/squadron mates/friends all played a part, certainly not at a national level, but in terms of degree of commitment and impact to family – a significantly non-trivial role. I am doing this for myself, my family, and with hope that all “these good men” can recall what they accomplished.

But, I do not believe this line of thought would be complete without stories out of the Prisoner of War battlefront and of their coming home – Operation Homecoming.  Forty years later, I still believe the POW story worth recalling and retelling every so often.  The POW mantra was “Return with Honor” and that they most certainly did.  But below that top level is a process developed in the crucible of the Hanoi Hilton relevant today and worth more than just a little scrutiny to my thinking -the idea of “isolated yet unified.”

One hears/reads about the war in Viet Nam today only when some news person wants to draw similarities to current U.S. undertaking and the “quagmire” that became Viet Nam.  For education, history is long, the school year is short.  Twenty years ago when Jim Hickerson and I talked to high school juniors in American history, there was very little in the California American History book. The issue of the POW’s treatment, the actions of the League of Families, and the resultant impact on the press, the NVN world view and even the formalized treaty itself, of bringing to light by those wives, the horrible tortured treatment of their husbands, was not even worthy of a single word.

Your guess as good as mine what is being taught today.  Their story of value today? Obviously, I think there is much that can be learned.

That said, my thinking is that since there are a lot of good books already out there, I wanted to come at the period from a different perspective.  This is not intended as history or as analysis.  It is intended to get the story back on the table, not only as “war and remembrance of friends” but as food for thought.  Here are eight new posts on Remembered Sky:

Sometime later, maybe in May before the POWs re-unite at the Nixon Library to celebrate their 1973 dinner at the White House, I’ll provide an Epilogue with recommended reading. My intent now is to look more closely at the leadership element in context of “isolated yet unified.”

Special thanks to Mary Ripley at US Naval Institute.

Boris sends

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