Operation Homecoming honors Vietnam POWs on 40th anniversary

Chief Warrant Officer 4 William Thomas (left) and U.S. Navy (ret.) Capt. Jerry Coffee (right) place their hands over their hearts during the singing of the National Anthem at the commemorative ceremony marking the 40th anniversary of Operation Homecoming held April 4, 2013 at Joint Base Pearl Harbor-Hickam. In 1973, the last Vietnam conflict prisoner of war landed on what was then Hickam Air Force Base. Department of Defense photo by U.S. Air Force Tech. Sgt. Michael R. Holzworth

Chief Warrant Officer 4 William Thomas (left) and U.S. Navy (ret.) Capt. Jerry Coffee (right) place their hands over their hearts during the singing of the National Anthem at the commemorative ceremony marking the 40th anniversary of Operation Homecoming held April 4, 2013 at Joint Base Pearl Harbor-Hickam. In 1973, the last Vietnam conflict prisoner of war landed on what was then Hickam Air Force Base. Department of Defense photo by U.S. Air Force Tech. Sgt. Michael R. Holzworth

Staff Sgt. Mike Meares

Joint Base Pearl Harbor-Hickam Public Affairs

Using tap code to communicate with other prisoners at the Hanoi Hilton in Vietnam, Navy Capt. Jerry Coffee sent messages each night for seven years to the other captives in the camp. Those messages frequently included tapping out the letters of their motto, “R-E-TU-R-N W (with) H-O-N-OR.”

Coffee demonstrated those “taps” during a speech at a commemorative ceremony marking the 40th anniversary of Operation Home-coming, held April 4 at Joint Base Pearl Harbor-Hickam (JBPHH).

On that day in 1973, the last Vietnam conflict prisoner of war was indeed “returned with honor” and landed at what was then Hickam Air Force Base, Hawaii.

“Indeed it was 40 years ago that I stepped off one of those big, beautiful Air Force C-141 Starlifters on this very spot,” Coffee said.

More than 300 service members of the 15th Wing, Pacific Air Forces Headquarters and Joint Prisoner of War/Missing in Action Accounting Command at joint base gathered to honor the returnees from the historic operation. Era video of the disembarkation showed the younger Coffee walking down a red carpet with hundreds gathered around. He stopped, knelt down on his hands and knees, and kissed the ground. This was the moment when he returned to United States soil, a place he thought he would never see again.

“I was so glad to be home,” he said.

Last week’s commemoration paid tribute to those veterans who endured, in some cases many years of torture and sacrifice in prisoner of war camps during the Vietnam conflict.

“America’s former prisoners of war are among the nation’s most venerated heroes, having served with dignity and courage through the worst of human circumstances,” said Maj. Gen. Kelly K. McKeague, JPAC commander.

“These men persevered.

They persevered through the most unconscionable conditions-starvation, isolation, torture and the ever present threat of death. Yet even during their darkest hours, they virtuously demonstrated extraordinary personal courage and steadfast devotion to their values, their family and their country,” Kelly said.

The United States and the democratic Republic of Vietnam signed the treaty ending the Vietnam War in Paris on Jan. 27, 1973. As part of the agreement, North Vietnam provided the U.S. with the names of POWs held by their forces.

By the end of that month, North Vietnam provided 617 names, including 55 who died in captivity. Eventually, 591 POWs, including U.S. and allied servicemen and civilians, were released by North Vietnam and returned. Forty years ago, returning POWs landed at Hickam’s Military Airlift Command terminal, located on the northeast end of the main ramp. There, they stepped from the planes and onto U.S. soil for the first time.

“Whether I was the first or last, it didn’t make any difference,” said Army Maj. (ret.) Bob White, who was one of the three to be the last to leave Vietnam. “I was just tickled to death to be out.”

Coffee, who spent seven years and nine days in the Hanoi Hilton, was the pilot of a RA5-C Vigilante reconnaissance aircraft. On Feb. 3, 1966, he was on an intelligence gathering mission against a heavily defended portion of North Vietnam when his aircraft was hit by enemy fire near the coast. He was held prisoner until Feb. 12, 1973.

Navy Capt. Jim Hickerson, who also attended the commemoration, spent one week shy of five years and three months in captivity.. The then lieutenant commander was about 10 miles south of Hai Phong when his aircraft was hit by a surface-to-air missile and he was forced to eject. He was captured on Dec. 22, 1967 and remained a prisoner of war until March 14, 1973.

Marine Corps Chief Warrant Officer 4 William Thomas spent 11 months in captivity. Thomas was captured May 19, 1972 when, during a combat mission over South Vietnam, his aircraft was shot down a few miles from Quang Tri City, South Vietnam. Thomas was released March 28, 1973.

The last American to be repatriated during Operation Homecoming was Army Maj. Bob White, who was captured Nov. 15, 1969 when his aircraft was hit while on a visual reconnaissance mission. He ejected over South Vietnam after the aircraft caught fire.

During his time in captivity he spent approximately 19 months in a cage that was 4-feet-by 6-1/2-feet and only 4-feet high. He estimated that he spent 23.5 hours a day in those cages. He was not reported on the Paris POW lists and was later revealed as being held in a remote South Vietnamese village.

White was released in the delta,and evacuated by helicopter to Saigon where he was received by a C-9 aircraft. Finally, White arrived at Hickam in the early morning hours of April 4, 40 years ago. Although his journey was long, members of the Hickam and Oahu community turned out in hundreds to welcome him home.

“It was pretty special then,” White said. “I have some really fond memories of that day.”

In 1973, U.S. Air Force C-141 Starlifter aircraft flew 36 sorties in support of Operation Homecoming, with the final sortie arriving in Hawaii on April 4, 1973. The prisoners of war in attendance had collectively given more than 16 years of their lives in captivity.

“Every night we would sign off by tapping,” Coffee said during the commemoration event as he continued to demonstrate on the podium, making the microphones amplify each rap on the wood.

“We had calluses on our knuckles because it was our primary means of communication. Every night you would tap to your neighbor in the next cell, or he would tap to you. We would always exchange (tap, tap, tap…) God Bless or G-B. (tap, tap, tap…), G-N, for good night, (tap, tap, tap…) , G-B-A, God bless America.”

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