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A Solemn Promise

United Nations Command returned 55 cases of remains from the Democratic People's Republic of Korea to Osan Air Base, Republic of Korea, Friday. Members of the command and the Osan community were on hand at the arrival ceremony. (Photo by US Army Sergeant Quince Lanford.)

United Nations Command returned 55 cases of remains from the Democratic People's Republic of Korea to Osan Air Base, Republic of Korea, Friday. Members of the command and the Osan community were on hand at the arrival ceremony. (Photo by US Army Sergeant Quince Lanford.)

JOINT BASE LEWIS-MCCHORD, Wash. --

Forty-six years ago a C-141 with McChord crew members touched down at Travis Air Force Base (AFB) in February 1973. On board were American prisoners of war (POWs), finally freed from their Vietnamese captors and eager to see their families. A McChord loadmaster opened the door and then quickly stepped aside so Navy pilot Lt. Everett Alvarez, Jr., who spent eight years in captivity, could exit the plane and step foot on American soil once again. Over the next two months, U.S. Airmen and aircraft, including those from the 62 Airlift Wing (AW), would help repatriate 591 American POWs including Army Col. Floyd James Thompson, the war’s longest held POW, and Navy aviator John McCain. America celebrated the return of their heroes and, for a moment, the pain and controversy of the Vietnam War was washed away and replaced by welcome home banners and balloons. This operation would become known as Operation Homecoming. While some American families rejoiced in the homecoming of their beloved sons and husbands, many families continued to wait and wonder if their heroes would ever come home from North Korea or Vietnam.

Decades would go by as families struggled to find out what happened to their missing loved ones while the U.S. engaged in diplomatic talks with both North Korea and Vietnam to repatriate U.S. service members’ remains. By the end of the 1990s, all three countries made headway and both North Korea and Vietnam agreed to hand over the remains of some of those killed during the Korean and Vietnam wars. As was the case in 1973, Team McChord Airmen would bring these heroes home.

Late in November 1999, a McChord C-17, crewed by 446 AW Airmen, began its journey from Washington to North Korea. As their predecessors had during the first Operation Homecoming, the 446 AW crew wondered what awaited for them in Pyongyang, North Korea. After all, the C-17 crew would be the first group of uniformed US military personnel to go to Pyongyang to claim the remains of Americans killed in the Korean War. Would the North Koreans welcome them or was there a more sinister motive behind North Korea’s invitation? With bated breath, the crew landed in Pyongyang and the transfer of three set of remains occurred peacefully.

The 446 AW crew took off from Pyongyang, but instead of returning home, they landed in Thailand to claim the remains of two Americans killed during the Vietnam War in Laos and then recovered six sets of American remains in Hanoi, Vietnam. On November 20, the C-17 arrived at Andersen AFB, Guam, and transferred the 11 sets of remains to mortuary services to be identified and returned to their families.

The next year, Team McChord would again transport the remains of fallen heroes back home. From November 14 to 21, 2000, 62 AW personnel deployed to Hanoi, Vietnam, Yokota, Japan, and Hickam AFB, Hawaii in support of Operation Homecoming. This particular mission represented two historic firsts. The repatriation of 21 human remains was the largest extraction to that date. President Bill Clinton presided over the ceremony in a historic trip to Vietnam, the first visit by a U.S. President since Richard Nixon, representing an opportunity to establish a friendly relationship between the two countries.

Using a C-17, nine aircrew personnel from the 7 Airlift Squadron and two members of the 62nd Security Forces Squadron helped President Clinton maintain his promise to bring home every fallen hero. The McChord C-17 carried equipment, vehicles and other cargo needed on the presidential visit, but its use had a more significant purpose to bring home fallen soldiers.

To this day, more than 5,300 American military personnel remain missing North Korea and over 1,600 remain missing in Vietnam while their families still await their return. In 2005, North Korea ceased the repatriating process due to a breakdown in diplomatic talks but in July 2018, released 55 sets of American remains in a good faith gesture. Once again, the Air Force carried these fallen soldiers home on a C-17.

The 62 AW and 446 AW are tasked with transporting essential cargo and personnel in contingency operations, airdropping troops into hostile areas, and providing humanitarian airlift, but also fulfill one of the most important missions—maintain the solemn promise of bringing our heroes home. 

Sources:
Air Mobility Command History Office
62nd Airlift Wing History Office