JOINT BASE PEARL HARBOR-HICKAM, Hawaii - Using tap code to communicate with other prisoners in the camp, retired U.S. Navy Capt. Jerry Coffee, tapped out messages each night for seven years to the other captives at the Hanoi Hilton in Vietnam, including frequently tapping out the letters of their motto, "R-E-T-U-R-N W (with) H-O-N-O-R."
He demonstrated those taps during a speech at the commemorative ceremony marking the 40th anniversary of Operation Homecoming, April 4, where on that day in 1973, the last Vietnam conflict prisoner of war did indeed "return with honor" and landed on what was then, Hickam Air Force Base, Hawaii.
"It was 40 years ago that I stepped off one of those big, beautiful
Air Force C-141 Starlifters on this very spot," Coffee said.
More than 300 members of the 15th Wing, Pacific Air Forces Headquarters and Joint Prisoner of War/Missing in Action Accounting Command (JPAC) at Joint Base Pearl Harbor-Hickam, gathered to honor the returnees from the historic operation. Era video of the disembarkation showed the younger Coffee walking down a red carpet with hundreds gathered around. He stopped, knelt down on his hands and knees and kissed the ground he was walking on. This was the moment he returned to United States soil, a place he thought he would never see again.
"I was so glad to be home," he said.
The commemoration paid tribute to those veterans who endured, in some cases, many years of torture and sacrifice in prisoner camps during the Vietnam conflict, many of which still haven't made it home.
"America's former prisoners of war are among the nation's most venerated heroes, having served with dignity and courage through the worst of human circumstances," said Maj. Gen. Kelly K. McKeague, JPAC commander. "These men persevered. They persevered through the most unconscionable conditions; starvation, isolation, torture and the ever present threat of death. Yet even during their darkest hours, they virtuously demonstrated extraordinary personal courage and steadfast devotion to their values, their family and their country."
The United States and the democratic Republic of Vietnam signed the treaty ending the Vietnam War in Paris, Jan. 27, 1973. As part of the agreement, North Vietnam provided the U.S. with the names of POWs held by their forces. By the end of the month, North Vietnam provided 617 names, including 55 who died in captivity. Eventually, 591 POWs, including U.S. and allied servicemen and civilians, were released by North Vietnam and returned. Forty years ago, returning POWs landed at Hickam's Military Airlift Command terminal, located on the northeast end of the main ramp. There, they stepped from the planes and onto U.S. soil for the first time.
"Whether I was the first or last, it didn't make any difference," said
retired U.S. Army Maj. Bob White, who was one of three to be on the last plane to leave Vietnam. "I was just tickled to death to be out."
Coffee, who spent seven years and nine days in the Hanoi Hilton, after his RA5-C Vigilante reconnaissance aircraft was hit by enemy fire on Feb. 3, 1966. He was on an intelligence-gathering mission against a heavily defended portion of the coast of North Vietnam. He was held prisoner until Feb. 12, 1973.
Also attending the ceremony was retired U.S. Navy Capt. Jim Hickerson, who spent one week shy of five years and three months in captivity, and was captured Dec. 22, 1967. The then-lieutenant commander was about 10 miles south of Hai Phong when his aircraft was hit by a surface-to-air missile and he was forced to eject. He remained a prisoner of war until March 14, 1973.
Retired U.S. Marine Corps Chief Warrant Officer 4 William Thomas spent 11 months in captivity. Thomas was captured May 19, 1972, when his aircraft was shot down during a combat mission a few miles from Quang Tri City, South Vietnam. Thomas was released March 28, 1973.
And the last American to be repatriated during Operation Homecoming, retired U.S. Army Maj. Bob White, who was captured Nov. 15, 1969, when his aircraft was hit while on a visual reconnaissance mission. He ejected over South Vietnam after the aircraft caught fire.
During his time in captivity he spent approximately 19 months in a cage that was four feet by six-and-a-half feet and only four feet high. He estimates that he spent 23.5 hours a day in those cages. He was not reported on the Paris POW lists and was later revealed as being held in a remote South Vietnamese village. He was released in the delta, and evacuated by helicopter to Saigon where he was received by a C-9 aircraft. Finally, White arrived here in the early morning hours of April 4, 40 years ago. Although his journey was long, members of the Hickam and Oahu community turned out in hundreds to welcome him home.
"It was pretty special then," White said. "I have some really fond memories of that day."
In 1973, U.S. Air Force C-141 Starlifter aircraft flew 36 sorties in support of Operation Homecoming, with the final sortie arriving April 4, 1973. The prisoners of war in attendance collectively gave more than 16 years of their lives in captivity. They are proud to be home and will never forget their experiences, as long as they live.
"Every night we would sign off by tapping," Coffee said, continuing to demonstrate on the podium making the microphones amplify each rap on the wood. "We had calluses on our knuckles because it was our primary means of communication. Every night you would tap to you neighbor in the next cell, or he would tap to you. We would always exchange [tap, tap, tap.] God Bless or G-B. [tap, tap, tap.] G-N, for good night. [tap, tap, tap.] G-B-A, God bless America."