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Scott AFB & Operation Homecoming: 50 Years Later

  • Published
  • By by Kris Matthews
  • 375th Air Mobility Wing Historian

Fresh off an overwhelming victory in the 1972 presidential election, Richard Nixon rang in 1973 with major progress on one of his most substantial campaign themes: ending American involvement in Vietnam. Beginning with his first win in 1968, Nixon pursued what he called “an honorable end to the war in Vietnam.” Finally, after years of delays and negotiations, a ceasefire was signed that was to end hostilities: the Paris Peace Accords. In a speech announcing the agreement on Jan. 23, 1973, President Nixon put a new spin on his goal: “peace with honor.” 

Of the several issues decided as a result of the Paris Peace Accords, one in particular would tie Scott Air Force Base into the annals of history: The return of prisoners-of-war, which was executed through Operation Homecoming. This historic airlift mission would bring home 591 American POWs: 325 Airmen, 77 Soldiers, 138 Sailors, 26 Marines, and 25 civilians. After moving through Saigon and the Philippines, the prisoners were brought back to the U.S. via 31 different military bases, including Scott.

Team Scott had executed similar operations 20 years earlier, after the Korean War, but the nature of the Vietnam War combined with the political climate in the United States and vastly improved technology, such as television, between the 1950s and 1970s made Operation Homecoming markedly different. The United States was desperately seeking closure during this time, and the notion of “bringing our boys home” ignited a wave of patriotism not seen in years.

As February 1973 began, Scott’s efforts became more urgent. Amenities, such as the base hospital for the returning prisoners and lodging for their families, were coordinated, and made available.  Also provided were services for each former prisoner to move forward with their lives, whether it was continuing their military service or separating (approximately 80% remained in service).  Many Team Scott members volunteered to “provide personal escort and assistance to the returnees and their families,” including helping with transportation, childcare, and other tasks as needed.

While our first Homecoming aircraft arrived on Feb. 14, it was only a stop for the 11 men who were en route to bases in the eastern states. The very next day, Feb. 15, Scott welcomed its first released POWs. Shortly after 1800, the aircraft arrived from Travis AFB and 13 returnees were welcomed by over 350 well-wishers who waited in the Midwestern cold; it began to snow, and the wind chill factor hit zero degrees. While 11 of them would continue, Scott received our two Illinois natives for processing: Captains Thomas J. Barrett of Lombard, and John L. Borling of Riverdale.

A colonel acting as spokesman approached the microphone but a touching scene unfolded first: three local children, aged 10 to 15, raced out to the returnees. Siblings Terri and Robert Davis along with friend, Julie Baners carried signs welcoming Capt. Borling home. Terri kissed him on the cheek and gave him the POW bracelet inscribed with his name that she had been wearing for about a year. The wives and mothers of each of the men received an orchid sent by President and Mrs. Nixon. There were several short speeches, and then Operation Homecoming drove on. Our local community continued its strong support at every event; the March 18 transfer attracted a crowd of approximately 4,000. 

The final former prisoner to depart Scott was Lt. Col. Leo Thorsness, who would receive the Medal of Honor in October before retiring due to his wartime injuries. His retirement ceremony at Scott included the presentation of a Silver Star, Distinguished Flying Cross with one oak leaf cluster, Air Medal with nine oak leaf clusters, Purple Heart with one oak leaf cluster, and the Combat Readiness Medal. 

By the end of the mission in April 1973, Scott received 29 released POWs; the 375th Aeromedical Airlift Wing had flown 61 missions, airlifting 346 ex-POWs. A Senior Master Sgt. tried to explain Scott’s feelings about these efforts: our Airmen had “…never taken part in an operation which filled them with more pride or inspired them to greater heights of professionalism.”

While more than 1,000 U.S. service members remain unaccounted for as a result of the Vietnam War, Team Scott should take immense pride in our contributions to this piece of history. This year’s 50th annual Vietnam Veterans Day on March 29 and September’s National Prisoner of War/Missing in Action Recognition Day are only two of the most high-profile dates we have to highlight the service of these Americans. At Scott Air Force Base, however, we honor these veterans every day with our actions.