Cases containing the remains of U.S. soldiers who fought in Vietnam and North Korea were brought from a C-141 Starlifter aircraft known as the "Hanoi Taxi." The remains were brought to buses for transport to the Joint POW/MIA Accounting Command's Central Identification Laboratory located at Hickam Air Force Base.

Vietnam mission
stirs ex-POW

An Air Force general returns
with remains of missing warriors

A C-141 Starlifter transport jet -- bringing back remains of those missing in action from the Vietnam and Korean wars yesterday -- is nicknamed the "Hanoi Taxi."

The monstrous jet transport is best known for a mission on Feb. 12, 1973, when its 40 passengers were the first Vietnam War prisoners freed after years of captivity.

Among the POWs in Operation Homecoming was then-Capt. Edward J. Mechenbier, who was forced down on his 80th combat mission June 14, 1967, while piloting a F-4C Phantom over North Vietnam.

Mechenbier, 61, was a prisoner of war for five years, eight months and four days in Hoa Lo Prison, better known as the "Hanoi Hilton."

Now a two-star major general in the Air Force Reserve at Wright-Patterson Air Force Base in Ohio, Mechenbier returned to Hanoi last week as a pilot on the Hanoi Taxi. It was his last time in the cockpit before he retires at the end of the month, and was his first trip to Vietnam since 1973.

Mechenbier said that while flying into Hanoi, "I was calm and cool and it didn't bother me a bit. But when we were sitting on the tarmac in Hanoi, and I was reminiscing with the crew, I realized I was running off. I was excited. I wouldn't say I was overcome with emotion, but it certainly had an impact.

"But when we took off out of Hanoi ... I saw this big super highway going to the northeast to an area not far from where I was shot down. I looked to the right to the area where the prison camps were. ... It was a little nostalgic. At the same time, I was glad I was distracted by flying the aircraft. Otherwise, I would have been a basket case."

Mechenbier, of Beavercreek, Ohio, is the last Vietnam-era POW still in the U.S. military. He also is believed to be the oldest pilot still flying in the military.

Mechenbier walked through the C-141's cargo area, showing visitors the bulkhead where he and the other POWs signed their names during their historic Operation Homecoming flight. Lining the aircraft's interior are decades-old pictures of the POWs.

The Hanoi Taxi has been in service since the Vietnam War and most recently was on active duty with the 445th Airlift Wing in Kuwait until the Air Force decided that its white and gray paint scheme made it too easy of a target. Unlike the other jet transports in the Middle East, which have a dull black-gray covering, the Hanoi Taxi was given permission by Air Force Reserve officials two years ago to be repainted white on the top and gray on the bottom just as it was during Operation Homecoming.

Before Mechenbier met with reporters he addressed a formation of the Joint POW/MIA Accounting Command, saying their efforts to account for those missing in action from all wars "keep proving that they are not forgotten."

The reserve Air Force general added: "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. There's no magic way we can bring them back -- they're dead. But they're not forgotten."


Family seeks closure
among remains at
Hickam operations

Thirty-six years ago, Col. Howard Smith's F-105 Thunderchief jet fighter was shot down over Dong Hoy in North Vietnam.

Smith is still one of 1,800 missing in action from the Vietnam War, which ended in 1975.

Smith's son, Kevin, arranged for a tour of the Joint POW/MIA Accounting Command's Central Identification Laboratory while on a Hawaii vacation. The Smith family was at Hickam Air Force Base yesterday during the return of two sets of remains from the Vietnam War and an additional 19 belonging to Korean War soldiers.

"We haven't heard anything yet," Kevin Smith said when asked about his father's case. "But it's still an active case."

The two sets of Vietnam War remains are believed to be from 1968 -- an Army UH-1D Huey helicopter in Quang Tri Province and an Air Force O-2A Skymaster reconnaissance aircraft in Quang Binh Province.

The 19 sets of North Korean remains are believed to be from battles in November to December 1950.

Twelve sets are believed to be those of soldiers of the Army's 31st Regimental Combat Team of the 7th Division that were recovered from the east side of the Chosin Reservoir.

Seven remains were found in Unsan Country where the Army's 8th Cavalry Regiment of the 1st Cavalry Division fought in November 1950. There are still more than 8,100 soldiers missing from the Korean War.


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