The Vietnam war officially ended January 27, 1973. Vietnam released 590 prisoners by April 1 and the last U.S. troops left March 29. But the war was not over for the families of MIAs. Where were their husbands, fathers, brothers, and other family members that were listed only as missing in action? Were they still prisoners, or dead?
In the spring of 1973, Cookie and I were visiting my son John at Travis Air Force Base in Fairfield, California. North Vietnam had released the remains of seven MIAs and they had been flown to Hawaii for identification and were now being returned to the U.S. to their families for burial. John came home one evening and said he had obtained permission for us to attend the ceremony at the Air Force base.
It was mid afternoon and we stood on the edge of the tarmac with military officers in full uniform, a few veterans wearing their old uniforms, and several families with small children and babies. Off the end of the runway were seven waiting hearses. (continued)
We were waiting patiently when there was the loud roar of motorcycle engines. Into the waiting area roared about twenty big Harly motorcycles ridden by what appeared to be Hell’s Angels. They had tattoos, silver chains, long hair, and strange-looking helmets. A closer look showed each wore one or more articles of a ragged military uniform.
Earlier John had explained to us that each casket would be escorted by a military color guard and the highest ranking officer from their branch of the service.
Soon, a big C5 (cargo plane) could be seen coming out of the clouds. It was very low and very, very slow—in fact, you wondered why it didn’t fall to the earth. It landed and slowly, slowly taxied up the runway. At this point, everyone was absolutely silent, the babies stopped fussing, and children stood still. The motorcyclists came to full military, a position that they held throughout the ceremony. It was an awesome moment.
At this time, the families, each with a chaplain, came onto the runway. I wondered how many of the young people had never seen their father.
The cargo doors at the rear of the plane opened and a Marine Honor Guard and a Marine General exited. They were followed by marines carrying a flag-draped casket. The chaplain said a short prayer and all escorted the casket to the hearse. This was repeated six times. All branches of the service were represented. During this time, the bikers had stood at attention, saluting each casket.
I cannot describe my feelings at this time, sadness, a great pride in America and its people, and great respect for the Hell’s Angels who came to honor their comrades.
The only other time with similar feelings was at the Punch Bowl Cemetery in Hawaii. There are 33,230 grave sites here and it is filled to capacity with World War II and Korean War veterans. On a small hill overlooking the many white crosses is a thirty-foot female known as Columbia standing on a symbol of the prow of a U.S. Navy ship. Engraved at the base of the statue are the words spoken by Abraham Lincoln to Mrs. Bixby, who had five sons that died in battle.
The words are “The solemn pride that must be yours to have laid such a costly sacrifice upon the alter of freedom.”