Skip to comments.Last Vietnam POW pilot retires from military
Posted on 07/01/2004 11:22:07 AM PDT by rhema
The last Vietnam POW flying for the U.S. military called it a career Wednesday, reluctantly folding up his wings after 44 years in uniform.
Maj. Gen. Edward Mechenbier, who reached the Air Force's mandatory retirement age for his rank at 62, was honored in a ceremony at Wright-Patterson Air Force Base.
"If we didn't have an age-limit law, General Mechenbier would not step down," said Gregory Martin, commander of Air Force Materiel Command.
Mechenbier agreed, and drew laughs from the several hundred people at the ceremony when he poked fun at his predicament.
"When you're getting run out of town on a rail, get in front and make it look like a parade," he said. "Welcome to my parade."
Mechenbier's fighter jet was shot down over North Vietnam in 1967. He was captured and sent to Hoa Lo prison, nicknamed the "Hanoi Hilton."
For part of his six years in captivity, Mechenbier was in a cell 15 feet from now-Sen. John McCain. The two communicated with each other by writing on the bottoms of plates with lead spoons.
Mechenbier was released in 1973 and resumed his duties with the Air Force.
During Wednesday's ceremony, congratulatory letters from President Bush and Defense Secretary Donald Rumsfeld were read during the ceremony. Mechenbier's voice broke with emotion as he ended his speech with a reference to the Star-Spangled Banner.
"Flying will be the greatest void to fill," he said.
Mechenbier made his final military flight three weeks ago when he returned to Hanoi to fly home remains thought to be those of two fallen comrades, occupants of an Army helicopter and Air Force plane lost in 1968.
Piloting the same plane that took him out of Vietnam three decades earlier, Mechenbier flew the remains to Hawaii to be identified. Also on board were the remains of 19 others believed to be soldiers who died in the Korean War.
Mechenbier called it the high point of his career: "That is probably the single most emotional, memorable thing I've done in 44 years."
God bless the Major General.
I have bookmarked this article.
*ping* and pass it along
Don't seem to be the type that would use the three paper cuts/three purple hearts and out type does he?
Thank you sir, for your sacrifice and service.
They should give him a F-4 or a 'Thud' as a retirement present.
Let him keep his hand in.
I have never been able to figure out how a thud could ever get off the ground, but I guess it proves, that if you make something go fast enough, you can make it fly.
From today's Columbus Dispatch:
A pilots turbulent journey
44-year veteran is the last former Vietnam POW to retire
Thursday, July 01, 2004
FAIRBORN, Ohio When Maj. Gen. Edward Mechenbier attempted to raise his arms to still the cascade of applause saluting his 44 years in the military, many in the audience may not have noticed that he couldnt lift his elbows to shoulder level.
Having spent hours with his hands bound behind him and suspended by his arms above the floor of the "Hanoi Hilton," his shoulders had been dislocated so frequently that they afforded him just enough mobility to return a salute.
"I dont know how I kept it from the doctors," he confided, referring to the flight surgeons whose stamp of approval he needed to continue flying planes.
But retiring as the last remaining active-duty Vietnam POW and at age 62 the oldest military pilot yet flying, he had no more secrets to keep.
His final hours at the controls of a C-141 Starlifter had taken him to Hanoi two days after Memorial Day to bring home a pair of American-flagdraped aluminum cases holding the remains of two soldiers thought to have been Mechenbiers comrades in arms during the Vietnam War.
"That was the single most-emotional thing Ive done in over 44 years," he said yesterday from the hangar auditorium at the U.S. Air Force Museum, near Wright-Patterson Air Force Base.
The emotional freight of the plane he piloted away from Hanoi was not simply the caskets in the cargo hold. Thirty-one years ago, when he was released after six years as a POW, he was brought to freedom from Hanoi on the very airplane he piloted a month ago to pick up the MIA remains.
When his F-4C Phantom fighter jet was shot down over the Vu Chu rail yards outside Hanoi in 1967, he parachuted toward a group of locals taking potshots at his descending, sittingduck form.
The bullets missed, but his back was broken.
Forbidden to converse with fellow POWs, he developed an elaborate set of hand signals to communicate. Pressed by his captors about the digital semaphores, he said, he convinced the guards that an upraised middle finger was an expression of salutation and friendship.
When a group of anti-war activists arrived from the United States, Mechenbier recalled with a wry smile, "Thats how the guards greeted them."
To stave off insanity after rules on inmate conversation were slightly relaxed, he taught his buddies German. Then, like some odd precursor to a jailed Martha Stewart, he schooled them in the art of wine selection and the proper steps for hosting a formal dinner.
They argued about the best wine to serve with coq au vin while they were dining on rotten pumpkin and turnip tops.
Brushing aside the easy temptation to talk about bravery at his farewell fete, he mentioned only that during a stint in the Ohio Air National Guard he had managed to keep Ohio safe from West Virginia, Indiana and Michigan.
He joked of his retirement, "When youre getting run out of town on a rail, get in front and make it look like a parade."
Turning his gaze to his wife, Jerri, and the couples four children three of them orphans adopted from Vietnam, Thailand and Korea he said, "I owe each and every one of you a big chunk of my heart."
Of the retirement that officially begins this morning, he said, "I dont plan to be a Wal-Mart greeter. But generals and commanders dont do very much."
Deflecting praise as though it were a left hook and appearing a little befuddled by all the armpumping congratulations and platitudes tendered in goodbye notes from both President Bush and Secretary of Defense Donald H. Rumsfeld, he looked like a man who would rather be anywhere but in the limelight.
It brought to mind a quote from author/historian Bruce Catton on the aging Civil War heroes he had met as a youth:
All that was real had taken place when they were young; everything after had simply been a process of waiting for death, which didnt frighten them much. . . . They had seen it inflicted in the worst possible way on boys who hadnt bargained on it, and they had enough oldfashioned religion to believe without question that when they passed over they would simply be rejoining men and ways of living they had known long ago.
Mike Harden is a Dispatch Metro columnist . He can be reached at 614-461-5215 or by e mail .
Wow. What a career. God bless him.
They don't actually fly - they're just so ugly that the earth repels them.
M. Gen. Ed Mechenbier, USAF
Shot down June 14, 1967.
POW for 2076 days (5.7 years)
Seeing a warhorse that's used to the clouds get glued to the ground like that, I cannot imagine how it feels from his point of view.
General Mechenbier, A grateful citizen salutes you.
I thought those were the F-100s.
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