May 7th, 2006 05:10 EST
Former POWs relive freedom flights
More than 120 former prisoners of war continued a 33-year layover of freedom by reliving the flights that carried them home from North Vietnam.
The Hanoi Taxi -- the last C-141 Starlifter still serving in the Air Force -- made two of its final three flights May 5. Former POWs gathered in Fairborn, Ohio, for a reunion and to take part in a weekend of activities created by the Air Force Reserve`s 445th Airlift Wing here that includes the retirement of the famed aircraft.
The Hanoi Taxi was the first of 18 C-141s into Hanoi that airlifted former POWs out of the country during Operation Homecoming in 1973. The aircraft has served as a flying legacy of those historical airlifts since 1993. The Hanoi Taxi is lined with photos of Homecoming events and 86 rubbings " from the Vietnam Memorial of Ohio service members still missing in action.
The POWs were divided into two groups for the flights. The first flight included Secretary of the Air Force Michael W. Wynne and retired Col. George Bud " Day, Medal of Honor recipient.
When the first flight lifted off, the men cheered, reenacting the moments as they left Hanoi. Once airborne, the retired officers and enlisted troops from all services immediately began to mingle -- and remember.
Retired Lt. Col. Ben Pollard flew home March 4, 1973. As the C-141 soared over the Ohio landscape, he remembered those final moments in Vietnam and what reliving the flight meant to him.
There are no words, " he said. Most of the time -- as we flew away -- we wondered what was ahead. "
Retired Tech. Sgt. James Clark found a photo of himself in the plane. Sergeant Clark, a former B-52 tailgunner, was one of the first 40 people on the first aircraft out of North Vietnam. He said he loved every moment reliving those moments when he regained his freedom.
It`s wonderful to be here, " Sergeant Clark said. They`ve kept everything the way it was, except (the aircraft) is longer. "
Each flight was aloft for almost 90 minutes. When the Hanoi Taxi touched down, both groups were received by a large crowd of well-wishers, a military band, the media, friends and wives. The latter had lined up to meet their husbands, some as they had 33 years ago. When the former POWs stepped out the door, the crowd roared to life and spouses rushed forward to hug and kiss their husbands.
Lynn Smith has been married to her husband, retired Lt. Col. Gary Smith, for about two years. She said she`s been embraced by the POW family and continues to gain understanding of the POWs struggle.
I have an inkling now of what that felt like, " Mrs. Smith said. They (the POWs and their families) have a camaraderie you can`t believe. It`s very welcoming. "
In its final flight, the aircraft will touchdown at the National Museum