Sound Off: Operation Homecoming remembered

By Christine Picchi

Vietnam ... 35 years ago. The peace that seemed so promising in October of 1972 never materialized and the Paris peace talks broke down (again) on Dec. 13. On De. 14, a thoroughly exasperated President Nixon sent an ultimatum to Hanoi: return to the negotiating table within 72 hours. Hanoi refused. To bring the Vietnamese back to the table, the U.S. used one of the most destructive tools in its aerial arsenal: the B-52 Stratofortress. In addition to the “BUFs,” other Navy, Air Force, and Marine units were called upon for supporting aircraft. Linebacker II, also known as the Christmas Bombings, brought Hanoi to its knees. Eleven days of air strikes in the Hanoi/Haiphong areas achieved its goal of “maximum destruction of selected military targets.” (JCS directive of Dec. 15, 1972.)

On Jan. 27, 1973, U.S. Secretary of State Henry Kissinger and North Vietnam’s Le Duc Tho finally negotiated a peace treaty that resulted in the release of all POWs in exchange for the complete withdrawal of U.S. forces from South Vietnam. By the following month, our POWs started to return, and a nation that had been violently divided about the war came together to welcome them home

Thirty-five years ago this month, on Feb. 12, 1973, the first wave of POWs was released and boarded a C-141 of the Air Force’s 445th Wing at Gia Lam in Hanoi, North Vietnam. Dubbed the “Hanoi Taxi,” it headed to Clark AFB in the Philippines. The DoD repatriation program was called Operation Homecoming.

POWs on the first Freedom Flight were those who had been there the longest and those who were most seriously injured. Then Navy Captain, later Senator, Jeremiah Denton who had been a POW for seven and a half years spoke for all of them as the first man off that aircraft. “We are proud to have had the opportunity to have served our country under difficult circumstances. We are profoundly grateful to our Commander in Chief and our Nation for this day. God bless America.”

The images we saw during the landing of that flight and the ones that followed will remain engraved on our minds forever: The pale saluting officers, the ecstatic wives and mothers, the exuberant sons and daughters, all running toward each other with tears of joy streaming down their faces as they finally embraced.

The 35th Anniversary of the start of Operation Homecoming will be celebrated at the Officers’ Club on NAS Whidbey Island on Tuesday, Feb. 12. Capt. Bill Metzger, a former NAMPOW, will be the guest speaker at a luncheon at 11.30 a.m.. It is sponsored by the Military Officers’ Association of America, the Association of Naval Aviation, and the PBY Memorial Association. Guests are welcome but you must have a reservation. There are security issues, too, so if you do not have a valid military sticker on your car further information is required. Contact Capt. Chris Picchi at 360.679.6578 or

zipper@galaxynet.com by Feb. 9 to ensure base access and a seat and meal at the luncheon.

Christine Picchi, Capt., USN (Ret.), is the widow of a former NAMPOW. She lives in Oak Harbor.

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