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The Honolulu Advertiser
Posted on: Saturday, February 15, 2003

Former POWs embrace sad duty

By William Cole
Advertiser Military Writer

As the nation braces for the possibility of a war against Iraq, about two dozen former POWs yesterday welcomed home fallen comrades from a long-ago conflict in a sobering reminder of what war really costs.

Former Vietnam POW and retired Air Force Lt. Col. Larry Chesley, and his wife, Judy, hold their hands over their hearts as the remains of a U.S. serviceman recovered from an aircraft crash site in Laos is carried off a C-130 aircraft and into a hangar at Hickam, on its way to be identified. The Chesleys are from Gilbert, Ariz.

Bruce Asato • The Honolulu Advertiser

The veterans, in Hawai'i for the 30th anniversary of the first release of POWs from the Vietnam War in 1973, were at Hickam Air Force Base for a repatriation ceremony of remains recently recovered in Laos from two Air Force crashes.

Two flag-draped caskets ceremoniously carried off a C-130 transport contained remains that could be those of an F-4 Phantom crewman shot down in March of 1972, and a Coast Guard and three Air Force crew members of an HH-3E "Jolly Green Giant" helicopter that was lost in June of 1968.

The return to Hickam was bittersweet as the vets who 30 years ago passed through Hawai'i on their way home recalled the welcome, and paid respects to the fellow servicemen who didn't make it back alive.

"There aren't words to express that kind of stuff (when we returned)," said retired Air Force Lt. Col. Larry Chesley, who spent almost seven years as a POW. "People were cheering, bands were playing. We were just loved."

Chesley, an F-4 Phantom backseater, was making a napalm run on an ammunition dump in 1966 when small-arms fire brought down the jet.

"We had just gone across this beautiful little valley, and all of a sudden, the plane was on fire," the Arizona man, 64, said. "I ejected, and it knocked me unconscious."

When he came to, Chesley could see 13 or 14 of the enemy coming toward him as he floated to the ground.

"I was only tortured nine times — people were tortured 400, 500 times, time after time," Chesley recalled. "The torture was to have us lie (and say) the war was illegal and immoral and unjust."

The remains of a U.S. serviceman recovered from Laos is carried past a joint service color guard at Hickam Air Force Base.

Bruce Asato • The Honolulu Advertiser

D.C. Johnson, an Air Force pararescueman during the war, attended the repatriation because of a fellow pararescueman, Sgt. James D. Locker, who died on the "Jolly Green" that was shot down in 1968. The crew was attempting to rescue a downed Marine pilot on the Ho Chi Minh Trail.

The Big Island man, who was shot down in a helicopter six months after Locker, said with yesterday's repatriation, "there's a sense of him finally coming home, a sense that he has finally returned to the United States. He was unquestionably a hero, as well as a good and gentle man."

Over six weeks in 1973, more than 600 POWs were flown to Hickam on their journey home to Hawai'i and the Mainland. About 25 former POWs and their families from across the United States are attending the three-day observance of the return.

Kailua's William Thomas, a retired Marine, was an observer in a forward air control OV-10 that was shot down in 1972. A POW for about 10 months, he ended up in Hanoi.

Thomas was stationed at Kane'ohe Bay, and his wife and two boys were here when he returned to Hickam. The uncertainty that his family went through was the worst part of the experience for Thomas.

"That was the thing that I hated the most — they (the North Vietnamese) would never tell them they had me."