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As part of the 10th Air EVAC Squadron, Janelli and her team had been on alert since Thanksgiving of 1972, while Henry Kissinger was trying to negotiate with the North Vietnamese for a prison exchange. On Feb. 11, 1973 the first announcement was made that the North Vietnamese would release 1,000 prisoners of war from South Vietnam, including 546 American service men.
A red cross was painted on the tail of the C-141 to avoid being shot down by enemy fire.
On March 5, 1973 Janelli, peering through one of the plane’s few windows, marveled at the beauty of the resort-like coastline as they prepared to land in Hanoi. She remembers thinking that war has been going on for years in this rural farmland.
On the wall of one of the old hangars at the rugged landing strip, someone had written in red, “Yankee Go Home.”
While the crew of two nurses and three medics waited, armed North Vietnamese soldiers guarded the plane and the perimeter. For four tense hours they waited until at last a school bus appeared, transporting 27 POWs, mostly Army men, a few Filipinos and a German pediatric nurse, Monica Schwinn.
Most of them, including the woman, had been in captivity for four to five years. All walked toward the plane on their own power, but many were transferred to litters due to their weakened state. When the North Vietnamese knew a release was imminent, they would try to “fatten up’ the malnourished prisoners before the freedom flight home.
Appreciating the historic significance of the flight, 2nd Lt. Janelli took the patient manifest and asked each of them to sign it. On the document, which she has since donated, along with her scrapbooks, to a naval museum in Buffalo, N.Y., Lt. Col. William Means, USAF penned, “I equate your bird to a giant stork delivering me to be reborn into a new life.”
Prior to this momentous flight, Atlantic City High School graduate Linda Janelli’s missions mostly involved 18-hour-long days, departing Travis Air Force Base in Fairfield, Calif., to Clark Air Force Base in the Philippines. There they waited to fill the plane with the wounded coming from Vietnam via Japan, that were stacked in litters up to five high.
They would refuel in Guam and a second crew would be briefed and continue on to Hickam Air Force Base in Hawaii.
The flight nurse, who later served in Operation Desert Storm as an Air Force reservist, recalls that although the POWs returned to fanfare, the average GI never received a homecoming.
“People who were ashamed of our role in Vietnam and took it out on servicemen who were in uniform,” she said.
The lieutenant colonel admits that she was careful not to wear her uniform in public because she “didn’t know how (people) would respond or how they were going to act.
“Vietnam veterans talk about the third wounding,” she explains. “The first wounding is going over. The second wounding is when you’re injured or have to be transported medically. The third wounding is the treatment that they got when they came back to the States.”
“Yes,” she admits,” a homecoming is long overdue.”
Linda M. Janelli, Ph.D., is an adjunct professor of nursing at the Richard Stockton College of New Jersey.
A proper “welcome home” for is long overdue for veterans of the United States Armed Forces who risked their lives during the politically unpopular and protracted Vietnam War. A committee of passionate local veteran advocates seeks to right that wrong on June 1 during an outdoor festival of music, celebration and arts and crafts at Bader Field called VetRock. All proceeds will go to support Vietnam era veterans.
For more information see www.wisercharitable.org.
Donna Clementoni is director of employer outreach for the New Jersey Committee of the Employer Support of the Guard and Reserve. She will be profiling Vietnam era veterans leading up to VetRock.