April 4th: Operation Homecoming Ends
It was a joyous occasion when, on February 12th, 1973, the first of Operation Homecoming’s flights touched down on American soil and its passengers disembarked. It was no less joyous when the 54th and final flight of the operation did the same a few weeks later. There were probably few aircraft landings throughout the entirety of the Vietnam War as happy as those made by various C-141 Starlifters (and one C-9A Nightingale) during this operation. Because the men they were bringing home had not been in-country for a single deployment, nor even an extended one. They were POWs released at last from hellish confinement in North Vietnam,
POWs in Vietnam
The situation of Americans captured in Vietnam was far from ideal, even compared to the typically undesirable conditions of being a prisoner of war. Particularly in the early years of the war, up until 1969. Beatings, waterboarding, shoulder dislocation via hanging, and the use of irons were commonplace. Some, like then-Commander James Stockdale, were kept in solitary confinement for years at a time. Army Green Beret Floyd Thompson, the first American captured (on March 26th, 1964) and the longest one held during the war, spent five of his nine years as a prisoner completely isolated from any other Americans. It’s generally accepted that most torture was not conducted to extract information, but to break the captured Americans for propaganda purposes. All of this occurred despite the fact that North Vietnam signed the Third Geneva Convention which barred such barbaric practices.
The Paris Peace Accords
American and North Vietnamese delegations began meeting for talks in Paris on May 10th, 1968. At first to little avail. As bombing and military campaigns waxed and waned over the following years and the President of the United States changed from Lyndon Johnson to Richard Nixon, the talks went on without success. It wasn’t until the fall of 1972, when Nixon agreed to a US ceasefire, that negotiations began making headway. By the following January Nixon announced an end to US offensive operations. On the 23rd, US National Security Advisor Henry Kissinger and North Vietnamese official Lê Đức Thọ signed the tentative draft of the Paris Peace Accords. The final one was signed four days later. America’s official involvement in the Vietnam War ended.
Operation Homecoming Begins
One of the key parts of the agreement was the immediate release of the nearly 600 remaining American POWs held by the North Vietnamese and their allies. Dubbed Operation Homecoming, the plan to move the men home consisted of three phases starting with their initial release to one of three locations depending on where they were imprisoned. Those held in VietCong guerrilla camps went to Saigon, those held in the North were consolidated in Hanoi, and those held in China went to Hong Kong. All the men then went to Clark Air Base in the Philippines for initial checkout and debriefing. Then the freed Soldiers, Sailors, Airmen, and Marines went to military hospitals in the states for their final release. On February 12th, 1973 an Air Force C-141A, later dubbed the Hanoi Taxi, took off its namesake city with the first 40 men who came home in Operation Homecoming.
The Kissinger Twenty
Despite the unquestionably joyous nature of Operation Homecoming it, like pretty much every part of the Vietnam War, wasn’t without its controversy. It was a long-agreed upon rule (based on the Code of the United States Fighting Force) among American POWs that they would only allow themselves to be released in the order they’d been captured. It’s why many high-profile prisoners refused release when offered it during the war, perhaps most famously by then-Lieutenant Commander and future Senator John McCain after his father was made overall commander of US forces in Vietnam in 1968.
So when the second round of men picked to go home in Operation Homecoming included men captured more recently than others, things became complicated. Those selected initially refused release, believing their selection was somehow related to Northern propaganda. They wouldn’t follow directions and some refused to even put on clothes. But the issue was shortly cleared up. The North Vietnamese asked Henry Kissinger to pick the next 20 men released from a list of 112 and he picked names at random. Simple as that. The chosen men went home safe and the others followed shortly.
The flights of February 12th were the first of 54 missions that flew troops out of Hanoi alone. By April 4th, all 591 remaining American POWs were back in the United States. 325 Airmen, 138 Sailors, 77 Soldiers, 26 Marines, and 25 US government civilians. Among them: Floyd Thompson, freed at last. McCain, whose permanent injuries due to torture forced him to leave the Navy and pursue a political career. And Stockdale, who received the Medal of Honor for his heroic conduct and leadership of fellow prisoners in the infamous Hanoi Hilton prison, who would retire from the Navy as a vice-admiral.
America widely celebrated the return of the POWs was widely celebrated across America. The deep political divide surrounding the Vietnam War had in no way dissipated. But the earlier anger and spiteful behavior towards returning troops expressed by the more vehement anti-war activists and groups had dwindled. Plus, those who opposed the Nixon administration soon had a much bigger political fish to fry: the Watergate Scandal. So Operation Homecoming didn’t dominate the headlines for long. But the headlines hardly mattered to the brave men who finally came.
Read more great stories, facts, and editions of This Week in Military History in our military history section.