Celebrating 40 Years As A Free Man
Next Tuesday (Feb. 12) will mark a supremely happy occasion for me – the 40th anniversary of my release to freedom after seven years and nine days as a POW in communist North Vietnam.
In the fall of 1972, Democrat Sen. George McGovern was running for the presidency against incumbent Republican Richard Nixon. From his campaign rhetoric, it was clear to the Vietnamese Communists they could get more concessions from McGovern at the ongoing Paris peace talks than from Nixon, so they were literally rooting for him. But when Nixon defeated him soundly, the Communists skulked away from Paris and suspended the negotiations.
In early December after the election, Nixon – in order to pressure the Communists back to the table – began bombing the immediate Hanoi area with B-52 bombers (a quantum escalation). Of course, the American anti-war media called it the “Christmas bombing.” As bombs fell within blocks of Hoa Lo Prison, pieces of plaster and debris fell from the ceilings of our cell blocks, but we POWs cheered on the bombers, knowing force was the only thing to which the Communists would respond. And after only three weeks, they did. They signed the Paris Peace Accords, which essentially ended the war, and prescribed the means for the release of all POWs.
The prison commander assembled us all in the prison courtyard and announced we would be released in two-week increments, sick and wounded first, and then in order of our shoot down, i.e., first in, first out – which was the only way we would agree to leave.
After a couple of weeks of decent food, sunshine and distribution of mail and care packages from home (all of which had been stored away back in the dungeons of the prison for years), we were issued new clothes and a little black duffel bag – as if we had “belongings” to carry out!
Then, 40 years ago this Feb. 12, we, the first increment of 120 POWs, marched smartly out the main gate of Hoa Lo Prison onto several small camouflaged buses and then through the streets of Hanoi, across the Red River to Gia Lam Airport to a most beautiful sight: Three USAF C-141 Jetstar transport planes with American flags and red crosses on the tails stood waiting.
A parachute canopy had been erected over two tables arranged in an “L” shape on the tarmac, a “recruiting poster” Air Force colonel in his “blues,” wings and ribbons sat behind one, and a high-ranking Communist staff officer behind the other. We lined up facing the tables, the colonel began calling out our names, and as I moved past the Commie, he said, “You know, you do not have to accept repatriation; you may stay if you want to.”
“WHAT?” said I, turning to the American colonel, returning his salute and repeating my name, “Cmdr. Gerald Coffee reporting for duty, sir.”
Escorted by a flight crewman, I walked up the tail ramp of the nearest C-141 and into the hugs of three good-looking, probably hand-selected Air Force nurses, who smelled soooo good! Then coffee and doughnuts and laughing and joking and current magazines and newspapers until all were aboard, and finally the pilot’s intercom command, “OK, gentlemen, strap in, we’re ready to go.”
As the tail ramp was raised and the engines began to hum, and the pilot taxied to the runway, we all became very quiet. “My God, is this really happening? After all these years, is this really it?”
At the end of the runway the pilot applied full power, then released the brakes. As the big plane gradually rattled through its takeoff roll on the rough runway, I strained forward against my shoulder straps. “C’mon you beast, get airborne, get airborne.”
Finally we felt the nose lift and the wheels break loose, and that hydraulic whine as the wheels clunked up into the wheel wells, and suddenly it became as smooth as flight, and the pilot came up on the intercom:
“Congratulations, gentlemen, we’ve just left North Vietnam.”
Only then did we clap and holler and cheer.
Only then did we believe it!
(Editor’s note: The plane landed at Clark Air Base in the Philippines, where the POWs spent four days getting checked medically and debriefed. After a stop at Travis Air Force Base in California, where he met his parents and sister, Jerry was on his way to Florida to reunite with his wife and children.)