COLUMBUS, Ohio, COLUMBUS, Ohio –
As we pause on this National POW/MIA Recognition Day to reflect on those who were held as prisoners of war or remain missing in action, it is important to remember the ongoing mission to bring home all who served in America’s conflicts from World War II to the present.
On Feb. 12, 1973, a C-141A Starlifter later known as the Hanoi Taxi Tail No. 66-0177, ferried the first 40 POWs out of Hanoi, North Vietnam back to the United States in an initiative which would later be known as Operation Homecoming
. A total of 18 C-141s airlifted 591 former POWs out of the country during the operation from February 1973 to April 1973.
The first flight included Former Secretary of the Air Force Michael W. Wynne, retired Air Force Maj. Gen. Edward Mechenbier, and retired Air Force Col. George “Bud” Day, a Medal of Honor recipient.
After years in captivity, the former POWs reacted with great joy after moments of tension as the aircraft reached cruising altitude.
Mechenbier, of Dayton, Ohio was stationed at Da Nang Air Base, South Vietnam, when on his 80th mission over North Vietnam, his F-4C Phantom II fighter was shot down. He was captured by the North Vietnamese and remained a POW from June 1967 until that flight in February 1973. Mechenbier was a Command Pilot with over 3,700 flying hours and has flown the F-4 and RF-4 Phantom II, F-100 Super Sabre, A-7 Corsair II, T-39 Sabreliner, and the C-141 Starlifter. He was the last surviving Vietnam POW still serving in the Air Force until his retirement in 2004.
Listen to an episode of the Springfield, Ohio based 178th Wing’s Beyond the Horizon podcast from April 5, 2021 of Mechenbier recounting his experiences as a POW in the Hanoi Hilton in North Vietnam.
After Operation Homecoming, Tail No. 66-0177 remained in service for more than 40 years logging more than 40,000 flying hours in missions around the world. It was last flown by the 445 Airlift Wing, an Air Force Reserve unit based at Wright-Patterson Air Force Base, Ohio for several decades until its retirement in 2006. During this time, it was upgraded to a C141C and repainted to its original Vietnam-era paint scheme minus the Red Cross it originally bore.
The aircraft was known as a flying museum as it carried photos of the POWs returning to their families mounted up and down the cargo cabin on both sides and signatures of former POWs adorned the oxygen panel and latrine door.
In May of 2004, Mechenbier piloted the aircraft back to Vietnam to repatriate the remains of two of the missing back to the United States.
“We were the lucky ones, those who survived, and [we] have the obligation to remember those who were not,” said Mechenbier during the 2004 repatriation ceremony at Anderson Air Force Base in Guam.
Prior to its retirement to the National Museum of the United States Air Force on May 6, 2006, more than 100 former POWs participated in a special reenactment flight above Wright Patterson AFB. During the flight the men cheered just as loudly as they did originally after the Hanoi Taxi left the confines of the base. One former POW even brought his current dog along to honor the dog he took home with him on the original flight.
The search and recovery of the missing and unaccounted for continues to this day with activities being carried out by the Defense POW/MIA Accounting Agency
. The agency ensures that no one who served in America’s conflicts since World War II is forgotten.
The agency’s website has a searchable database of those still missing and unaccounted for. People can search by name or by state on a geographical interface. The site also has a section for those recently accounted for with an archive that goes back to 2016. The site also has a section for family members, called FamWeb whose purpose is to provide ongoing support for the families of the missing and unaccounted for.
The C141C known as the Hanoi Taxi can be seen in the Global Reach Gallery at the National Museum of the United States Air Force near Wright-Patterson AFB, Ohio.