HICKAM AIR FORCE BASE, Hawaii – Remains of 21 American servicemen missing in action in Vietnam and North Korea were returned to U.S. soil Wednesday by a former prisoner of war flying the same plane that carried him home from North Vietnam in 1973.
Air Force Reserve Maj. Gen. Edward Mechenbier piloted the C-141 transport plane for the Joint POW/MIA Accounting Command, which is charged with searching out troops unaccounted for in American wars.
The 21 sets of remains – in aluminum containers draped with American flags – were brought off the plane onto the tarmac before a military honor and color guard. They were then taken to the command’s forensics laboratory, where experts will try to identify them.
Mechenbier, 61, stood stoically and saluted during the repatriation ceremony.
“That is beyond words … to see we still care enough to expend the time, talent, energy and resources to go back and help bring closure to the families,” he said.
Two sets of remains are thought to be from an Army helicopter and an Air Force plane lost in 1968 during the Vietnam War. The 19 others are believed to be soldiers who died in Korean War battles in 1950. The remains were brought together in Guam for the flight to Hawaii.
Mechenbier, the last Vietnam POW still flying in the Air Force, was making his final flight before he retires at the end of the month.
Mechenbier, of Beavercreek, Ohio, spent nearly six years in Hoa Lo prison, nicknamed the “Hanoi Hilton,” after his fighter jet was shot down in 1967 while targeting rail yards about 30 miles northeast of Hanoi.
He flies with the 445th Airlift wing based at Wright-Patterson Air Force Base near Dayton, Ohio, which set up his recovery flight to Vietnam using the plane known as the “Hanoi Taxi.”
The plane has remained in service since the war and become something of a flying museum. Decades-old photos of POW homecomings line the plane’s interior, along with signatures of the released prisoners who nicknamed it on their ride home.
“I had never been back to Hanoi, and when the 445th set up the mission and I had a chance to go along, I just couldn’t turn it down,” he said.
Mechenbier’s three hours at Noi Bai Airport in Hanoi last Friday to pick up the remains marked his first visit to Vietnam since he was flown out in February 1973.
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