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Local veteran remembers patriation mission

  • Published
  • By Ed Drohan
  • 43rd Airlift Wing Public Affairs
As a young man, Bruce G. "Grant" Lewis enjoyed talking with his uncle, a World War II fighter pilot who'd been shot down and spent time as a prisoner of war. He wanted to see what the world beyond Lumberton, N.C., looked like, and thought he could work on his education away from the small town as well. 

The thought of being part of history never really entered his mind when he left high school after the 11th grade to enlist in the Air Force in December 1959. But 13 years later and almost 9,000 miles away, that's exactly what he did. 

It was Feb. 12, 1973, and then-Tech. Sgt. Grant Lewis was an aeromedical technician waiting on the tarmac at Gia Lam Airport in Hanoi, North Vietnam. He was being followed everywhere by, as he puts it, a small North Vietnamese soldier with a very large gun while he waited for the first group of American POWs to arrive for their trip out of captivity, a mission that became known as Operation Homecoming. 

Mr. Lewis, who eventually retired in 1986 as a senior master sergeant, had been trained as an independent duty medical specialist and aeromedical evacuation specialist over the course of his career, and spent about two years in Vietnam over several temporary duty assignments. He'd flown Army "dustoff" missions, evacuating wounded Soldiers from front line battles on UH-1 helicopters and had worked with explosive ordnance disposal teams as the team medic while the team destroyed captured weapons caches. 

He'd also flown C-130 aeromedical evacuation missions bringing wounded troops out of Vietnam to Clark Air Base, Philippines before sending them back to the United States.
It was because of his experience that he was asked to help plan the POW homecoming missions. 

"From August to December 1972 I was a liaison - I gave them information as to what they'd need for the mission," Mr. Lewis said. "We talked about what the aircraft should look like, things like the red X on the tail, and ordered new sheets and litters." 

In December 1972, Mr. Lewis was assigned as the noncommissioned officer in charge for the medical portion of the mission, and the die was cast. U.S. negotiators were making progress in talks aimed at ending the war and gaining freedom for the POWs, some of whom had been held by their captors for more than eight years. 

It was Feb. 10, 1973 when the word came down - the mission was a go. Mr. Lewis left Clark AB on a C-130 with other support personnel at 6:30 a.m. two days later, and was one of the first on the ground in Hanoi. 

"Our C-130 had communicators and all the support material," Mr. Lewis said. "There were four C-141s, including one on standby in case one of the other three broke, and there were fighters in the air even though not many people knew about that." 

Mr. Lewis' job was to check off each prisoner and make sure the communicators relayed the information back to Clark that they had been released. Each prisoner was assigned a code based on the length of their captivity, with Navy Lt. Cmdr. Everett Alvarez Jr., one of the longest held American POWs, being A1 and the first of the prisoners Mr. Lewis got to greet. The thought of that meeting at the C-141 that was waiting to take the POWs to freedom still fills Mr. Lewis with emotion. 

"He saluted and said, 'Permission to come aboard.' I saluted back, said 'Permission granted,' grabbed his arm and pulled him on board," Mr. Lewis said, choking back tears.
His team got on the last aircraft and traveled with the POWs as they left Hanoi for the trip to Clark AB. Once the aircraft took off, the former captives reacted as most people would expect. 

"There was a lot of yelling. They were happy, crying - there was tremendous excitement on that aircraft," Mr. Lewis said. 

Despite being told they shouldn't do so, the crew passed out several copies of Playboy magazine, cigarettes and coffee to the passengers. "We couldn't figure out the reason they wanted us to keep them isolated." 

He added that the nurses on the flight were very popular as well, with most of the passengers wanting to talk to them since they were the first American women they had seen in years. 

Between Feb. 12 and April 4, 1973, 591 American POWs were released by the North Vietnamese. After spending time at Clark AB for medical treatment and assessments, the repatriated POWs flew to Hawaii and then back to the United States. Mr. Lewis escorted a group on the flight to Hawaii. 

"They were anxious; they wanted to get home so badly and they wanted to see their families," Mr. Lewis said. "They were subdued. There was some talking but they were very anxious to get home." 

Mr. Lewis, who now lives in Fayetteville, spent almost 13 more years in the Air Force after Operation Homecoming, but he still thinks about that mission and his experiences in Vietnam. 

"It was enlightening, maturing, scary - I wish I could unscrew the top of my head and let people touch it so everybody could see how much heroism there is out there," he said. "I was sure happy to be with all those heroes."