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August 28, 2014

Throwback Thursday: Vietnam POWs return to warm reception at Scott

Wind, snow and cold welcomed 11 former prisoners of war late on Feb. 14, 1973, as they touched down at Scott Air Force Base, but a crowd of 1,000 welcomed them home from Vietnam with love and pride.

At 11:05 p.m. on Feb. 14, 1972, it was freezing and the snow was blowing at Scott Air Force Base, but 1,000 people came out to see 11 former prisoners of war come home from Vietnam.

Navy Cmdr. Raymond Vohden was the first one off the C-141, walking down the ramp on crutches. He saluted Lt. Gen. Jay T. Robbins, the Military Airlift Command vice-commander.

Navy Lt. Cmdr. Edward Davis brought home a puppy named Ma-co that was given to him by a prison guard in Hanoi. The crowd roared when a crewman held up the pup and then Davis let some pet him as he passed the barricade rope.

None of the servicemen had overcoats with the wind chill at 4 degrees, so plans were canceled to address the crowd during their stopover at Scott. They were shivering when they boarded the warm bus, but then Navy Capt. Jeremiah Denton and James Mulligan dashed out and into the crowd.

They hugged, kissed and shook hands with most of the well-wishers — their first contact with regular folks because their travel had been so tightly controlled. Several others followed, including Air Force Master Sgt. William Robinson: “You’re wonderful people; you’re wonderful.”

The crowd roared back that they loved and were proud of the men.

Someone gave Robinson a bottle of champagne that he waved over his head as he headed back to the bus.

The men changed planes after the stopover and then headed to other bases before they were home. A second flight the next night brought home 14 more former POW’s, including two Illinois men, Air Force Capt. Thomas J. Barrett and Capt. John L. Borling. Both stayed at Scott for treatment before heading home to the Chicago area.

Borling was a fighter pilot during the Vietnam War when he was shot down and seriously injured in the crash. He tried to escape using a Vietnamese supply truck, but it was carrying soldiers who overpowered him. He spent 6 years and six months in the infamous Hanoi Hilton, where prisoners were routinely tortured and starved in a place that’s Vietnamese name translates to “Hell’s Furnace.” He had been freed just three days before arriving at Scott.

Borling continued in the service, retiring as a major general, and still lives in the Chicago area with his high school sweetheart and their two daughters. He wrote a book of poems about his experiences as a POW called “Taps on the Wall.”

The night was captured by News-Democrat photographers Bill DeMestri and Clarence Chaput.

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