The USA commits to bringing home every single one of its serving personnel it can locate, no matter when the conflict or how difficult the process, upon request by the family. In this, the USA is recognized as being among the most diligent and caring of nations.
The following story is an extraordinary one and is told by someone who took part in little-known operations to bring home from Vietnam those PoWs who had died in captitivity. This is Jack O'Connor's first-person account.
'They had touched our Heroes for the last time'
Major John 'Jack' O'Connor USAF (Retired) 48th Air Transport Command Squadron
I've been toying for years about writing the full story, but just haven't done it. May still do it some day. I'll give you a down and dirty version so I don't waste too much of your time. A little background first: I had flown in and out of Hanoi twice before - flying out of U-Tapao AB, Thailand - with the peace negotiating team. Both times, we were ordered to wear civilian clothes and be nice to them. They took our pictures as we sat around a table for a briefing. The infamous 'Rabbit' was in charge. At least that's who we thought it was. Big ears. They then took us to a hotel and fed us in a banquet room.
The food was delicious and we were ordered to drink their beer when offered. It didn't taste too bad and was only about 2-3% so the brass weren't concerned about us being able to fly afterwards. Then they took us to museums - their War Museum on the first mission. They had parts of our warplanes that had been shot down and also showed us the gun where Hanoi Jane Fonda sat for that infamous picture. I don't know if it was the real gun or not - didn't matter - I think they just wanted a reaction. They got none from any of us. We were allowed to take photos of certain areas. They wouldn't let us take pix of their rail marshalling yard which was full of bomb craters and wrecked engines - I got some anyway with my little Minox spy camera.
On the next trip they took us to their Peace Museum. Absolutely stunning!!! Lots of HUGE White Jade figures. A beautiful museum. Our bombs never got close to it. Strangely enough - they told us that the wrecked train yard was where they were fixing their engines. If you didn't know better, it could have looked true. There was not a single bomb crater outside of the yard. All buildings were intact!! A lot more happened there, but don't want to bore you with all the details. They were very proud of their many manhole covers in the sidewalks which they used to hide from our bombing raids. All three trips were interesting!!
Anyway, that is was why I was chosen to lead a two ship formation of C-130s, to retrieve our Fallen Heroes. I just happened to be TDY at U-Tapao from Clark AB where I was stationed. That should set the stage. A little too wordy, but it should help you to understand my involvement.
C-141 Starlifter used for onward flights to Hickam AFB
I was one of only a few crew members on either plane to have been there before. Our Mission Commander was Col Novas and we had a One Star on board, with an open line, to President Nixon. It was a fairly high priority mission.
After stopping in Saigon for a final briefing in Saigon, our two C-130Es (with augmented crews) left Tan son Nhut AB and went 'feet wet' up the coast of Vietnam. We stayed about 30 miles off the coast so as not to bother anyone. We hit the mouth of the Red River and turned upstream toward our destination - Gia Lam Airport just east of Hanoi.
We were encountering broken clouds which were getting worse. After going over Thuan Nghiep, the river straightens out considerably so I requested we drop to about 1500 ft so I could better make out the landmarks - both on radar but mainly visual - when I could see the ground. I wasn't about to trust the radio aids from Gia Lam nor Hanoi. Before we descended, we could easily make out Hai Phong harbour on our radar about 40 miles to the Northeast so we were on track.
We made contact with Hanoi and advised them of our impending approach into their territory. This had all been pre-arranged, so no problem there. It was on up-river that they started screwing around with us and trying to subtly get us confused.
They were trying to get us lost and force us to abort the mission so they could say we caused an international incident by not picking up those who died in captivity when everything had been arranged. That's another reason I had been picked to lead. They tried to spoof us on earlier missions by moving the ADF and VORTAC ever so slightly to locations which would cause us to fly into restricted airspace. In fact, a crew a few weeks earlier bought the spoof and was threatened with a 'shoot down' if they didn't abort the mission, so that made this mission even more critical. If you were watching closely enough, you could see the needles quiver a little each time they changed location. They were good at it though, so I had the other navigator continually watch for that in case we lost visual or radar contact. I had my head out the front searching for ground fixes.
Then, they really tried to get us fouled up. The second plane was following closely, mainly by keeping us on their radar - depending on us to lead them in. Hanoi Approach Control called us and told us to take up a heading to final. The pilot started to turn and I virtually screamed into the mike 'Negative, Negative--Maintain Heading'. That was the first of three times they tried to get us to turn too soon. After the second time, Col. Novis told the pilot to ignore the tower and go by my direction only. I knew we were still about 30-45 miles out and they were doing their best to get us off course and lost in that bad weather with low ceilings and get us to an area with which we were not familiar. The weather was really bad - the cloud cover was closer to full than 'broken'. We would get a break in the undercast every mile or so. We descended to about 1000 ft, which helped some.
Now - remember that bridge that they tried so hard to take down during the war?? We lost a lot of F-105 Thuds and F-4s there. That bridge and a huge sand bar about 3 miles downstream were my aiming points. I was getting a little concerned when they weren't coming in view as fast as I thought they should. Guess I was just overly anxious. I checked the radar and found both about 15 miles ahead. I alerted the pilot to be ready to turn and he relayed to #2 that we would turn in a couple of minutes. Ground Approach had given up trying to get us to turn early after a few scoldings from them that we were ignoring their instructions. We did not answer. We descended a little farther, so I could get a visual on both the sand bar and the bridge. I remembered where we had turned, on my earlier approaches. We flew about 30 seconds past the sand bar, and with the bridge in sight, I told the pilot to turn to the appropriate heading - I seem to recall it was 335 degrees - but not sure now. Descent was begun and both planes broke out at about 750 feet.
There it was - right in front of us. I strapped myself in. The other aircraft radioed a 'Talley Ho' so we knew everything was fine - or so we thought. After we landed, Ground Control took over and marshalled us to the proper area to pick up the remains of our guys. There were two green tents and they were having us come in and turn so that our prop wash would flow directly on the tents - probably blowing them away. Our Aircraft Commander called for neutral props and warned the second aircraft to do likewise. Both planes coasted in to a nice easy stop in the right place - I'm sure to the disappointment of the marshalling crews.
Col Novas made the decision on the spot to set up an Honour Guard in front of each tent. This time, we were in our Class As and were not under ANY orders to associate with the enemy. We all felt better about that!! He sent us out two at a time at 15 minute intervals, Each pair did facing movements to relieve the previous pair as time dictated. The first pair at our tent was Col Novas and our pilot.
The tent flaps were tied wide open. What the first set of Honour Guards - and ultimately all of us - saw, was several stacks of green boxes, with a rock on them, with white painted names and dates. The sight was shocking and really ticked us off. Unfortunately, I do not remember any of the names. The boxes - which in reality were coffins - -were about 30 inches by 18 inches by 18 inches. It tore us up to think that our guys who had suffered so much, were in those tiny green boxes. We all decided individually and as a team, that the Vietnamese would never touch our fallen comrades again.
The Honour Guard rotation was maintained for well over two hours, while the final release papers were being signed at their government offices, in downtown Hanoi. Obviously, the North Vietnamese didn't know what to think of the Honour Guard. We saw the guys who had been our escorts, on earlier trips. They smiled and waved at us. We glared back at them. Some civilians tried to get close to watch - they were chased back over the dikes by armed guards.
We were finally given the OK to load our precious cargo onto the waiting C-130s - their cargo ramps open, as they sat waiting. As the word came that we could begin returning our Guys to American Soil - in this case - our C-130s, the North Vietnamese moved in, to begin loading. We immediately formed a cordon around the tents, though unarmed, we motioned for the NVA guards to stop, and basically dared the armed NVA, to try us. They stopped with a puzzled look on their faces - but never tried to cross the line. They had touched our Heroes for the last time.
It was early evening by then and the General was back by then and became part of our new makeshift Honour Guard - set up on both sides of the C-130 ramps. I was part of three pairs who tenderly picked up a 'coffin,' with its' 'headstone,' and proceeded up the ramp. Two more were inside the plane to place an American Flag over each Fallen Hero, as he came on board. We exited thru the crew door to go retrieve another Hero. The General led the others on either side of the ramps, in a military 'Hand Salute,' as each box of remains passed on board. I don't remember exactly how many bodies we recovered - seems like 36 - but each was treated with ultimate respect. We took our time to make sure all were properly honoured. It took a considerable amount of time, but we didn't care. We did it right.
We all finally boarded both C-130s and buttoned them up. As we were getting all four engines turning, I noticed the pilot had a wicked smile on his face. I listened on a discreet channel, while he suggested to the other pilot, to change prop pitch, after they began moving and turn the planes, so that the prop wash would now hit the two green tents and the Vietnam officials and NVA soldiers, gathered around them.
The turn was smooth, slow and graceful, until the aircraft Loadmaster gave the word. The suddenly, eight turboprops from 2 stopped C-130Es, at full military power, at full forward pitch, for about 3-5 seconds, with brakes on, were on full display. They then changed the pitch back to the taxi setting, but we got turned around in time to see the tents flying and some of the folks we had just left, were rolling on the ground. We received departure instructions from the tower and began an uneventful trip back to Saigon and on to U-Tapao, to the Identification folks, from Hawaii, stationed there. The General informed President Nixon that extraction had been completed successfully.
Further ID would be performed at Hickam AFB as necessary. Our Heroes were taken to Hickam AFB by C-141s. I have talked to many people about this extraction of our Fallen Comrades - and to a man - they thought that the C-141s did the entire mission. I hope someone will set the story straight someday. In fact, I have never seen anything about C-130s, being involved with the extraction of the first of those American Heroes, who died in captivity. Believe me - -I know C-130s were used!! I may have missed some story about it, because I had to get busy for my PCS stateside, the next month. I have never heard anything about that mission since. Well, Bill, that's about it. As I said a lot more little things happened on all three trips - even some funny things on the first two, but that third mission was the best thing I ever did in my 24 year USAF career.
Sorry to be so wordy, and focused on 'I' and 'me', but I'm not sure how else I could tell it with any conviction.
PS: Somehow, I forgot to turn in my log and charts from the mission, and no one else thought about it. I had them for a long time, but they disappeared - probably on my move to CO from AL. I sure wish I could find them again!! They are really historical documents.
I did meet a woman at one of our OCS reunions, whose husband was on board that day. I was completely speechless as she thanked me.
Jack O'Connor, 48th Air Transport Squadron USAF Retired
Source: Thanks to Barry Spink, Archivist Air Force Historical Research Agency via Thailand-Laos-Cambodia Brotherhood.
The following was prepared by Michael Murphy and was forwarded to us by Barry Spink. Our thanks to both gentlemen.
These are extracts taken from the official USAF unit history of the 374th Tactical Airlift Wing in regards to their missions into North Vietnam after the cease fire. John O'Connor can be rest assured that the C-130 missions have not been forgotten.
Extract, 374th Tactical Airlift Wing, 16 November 1973 through 31 March 1974, Volume 2, Quarterly Historical Report of the 21st Tactical Airlift Squadron, 15 November 1973-31 March 1974 (AFHRA Call Number K-WG-374-HI, 16 Nov 1973-31 Mar 1974, V. 2, IRIS Number 1000481):
Page 15, Operations:
During the past quarter the 21st TAS supplied aircrews which flew foreign diplomats of the International Commission for Control and Supervision (ICCS) between Saigon, South Vietnam and Hanoi, North Vietnam.
Three of the 21st aircrews were involved in two special missions to North Vietnam. Capt John E. Zellner’s crew was involved in the first flight that brought back the remains of 12 American POWs. The remains of those 12 Americans were the first to be repatriated from Communist held territory, since the Vietnam cease fire agreement. This agreement provided for recovering the remains of our POWs. Two 21st crews participated in the second release of American remains. The remains of 11 American prisoners, whom Hanoi said died in captivity, were flown from Hanoi to U-Tapao AB.
Extract, 374th Tactical Airlift Wing, 16 November 1973 through 31 March 1974, Volume 2, Quarterly Historical Report of the 776th Tactical Airlift Squadron, 15 November 1973-31 March 1974 (AFHRA Call Number K-WG-374-HI, 16 Nov 1973-31 Mar 1974, V. 2, IRIS Number 1000481):
They [aircrews of the 776th TAS] also flew a weekly mission between Saigon, South Vietnam, and Hanoi, North Vietnam.
The Wing Crew of the Quarter, Crew 144, consisted of the following individuals:
Capt William H. Lamb Aircraft Commander
1Lt Norman C. McCaslin Co-Pilot
Capt Ronald E. Williams Navigator
SSgt Larry F. Maas Flight Engineer
SSgt Pedro B. Domingo Flight Engineer
Sgt Richard Cucura Loadmaster
On 6 and 13 March the [above] crew flew to Hanoi, North Vietnam in support of the repatriation of U.S. Prisoners of War who died in captivity. Because of their superior actions and appearance on the first mission, the crew was specifically requested to return for the second mission by Brigadier General Joseph R. Ulatowski, Commander, Joint Casualty Resolution Center, NKP AB, Thailand.
[776th TAS] crews flew a variety of missions, including…weekly liaison missions between Saigon, South Vietnam, and Hanoi, North Vietnam, and regularly scheduled, daily airlift missions around American bases in Thailand. In addition, 776th TAS crews participated in the Hanoi operation bringing home PoW DICs (Died in Captivity).
Hanoi Mission for DICs: On 6 and 13 March 1974, several crewmembers from the 776th TAS along with other 374th TAW and 61st TAS personnel participated in the return of 23 U.S. soldiers who died in captivity while interned in Hanoi, NVN. The first mission consisting of two aircraft, departed U-Tapao RTNAB, Thailand early in the morning of 6 March. After refueling in Saigon, the two aircraft flew to Hanoi via a predominantly overwater corridor only five miles in width that had been negotiated in accordance with the Paris peace agreements. Weather at Hanoi was very poor with a 500 foot ceiling and only five miles visibility. The first aircraft to land was a reception aircraft while the second aircraft or 'evacuation' aircraft was slated to actually carry the DIC remains to U-Tapao. Upon arrival at Hanoi the two aircraft were parked in remote areas of Gi Lam Airport. Each crewmember on the evacuation aircraft served as Honor Watch at the entrance to the tent containing the remains of the 12 DICs from 1200 to 1400 hours. At 1400 the transfer of the remains from DRV jurisdiction to the Commander of the Joint Casualty Resolution Center (JCRC), Brigadier General Joseph Ulatowski, began. After a ten minutes ceremony, crewmembers loaded the remains from the tent onto a truck and proceeded to the aircraft. The loading was done with professionalism and dignity by the crewmembers under the watchful eyes of ranking members of both the free and communist worlds. After loading, the evacuation aircraft departed Gia-Lam followed minutes later by the reception aircraft. The evacuation aircraft containing the DICs returned to U-Tapao. After a short, formal military ceremony, the remains were off-loaded into an ambulance bus for transport to Camp Samesan. At Samsan, Central Identification Laboratory personnel would make positive identification of the 12 DICs. The mission on 13 March went basically the same except that 11 DICs were returned to U-Tapao. The high point of both missions was the dignity and professionalism displayed by all the personnel involved.
776th TAS personnel involved in the missions were:
Colonel Albert M. Navas Capt William H. Lamb
Major John E. O’Connor MSgt Bruce R. Fallon
Lt Daniel S. Kiddon SSgt Arne Suvatne
MSgt Kenneth R. Mineer SSgt Richard M. Cucura
SSgt Pedro B. Domingo Major Ernest S. Solomon
SSgt Ronald Mantzey Capt Ronald E. Williams
Major Paul M. Ulshafer Capt Charles W. Wiegreffe
Capt Richard Schrecengost Lt Glen A. Hardwick
Lt Mark B. Macomber
Lt Norman C. McCaslin
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