Valentine’s Day is normally a day that evokes expressions of warm feelings and recollections between individuals. The events of two years ago in Parkland are a tragic exception, but many likely have a particular year that stands out in their memory for good reasons.
My wife of more than 40 years fully understands my favorite Valentine’s Day came the year before we met. The most unforgettable memory involved being around wives and families that were about to see their husbands and fathers for the first time in months or years.
On February 14, 1973, the first planeload carrying released prisoners of war from Vietnam returned to the U.S. Thousands understandably wanted to be there to welcome them home, but most were denied access at the gates of Travis Air Force Base in Fairfield, California.
I was one of the fortunate few to get in. Thankfully, my cousin was stationed on the base and was able to help this sailor stationed only an hour away in San Francisco to gain a visitor’s pass.
A group of about 400, including some family members, off-duty base personnel and me, waited near the tarmac before the Air Force C-141 plane touched down. The anticipation of witnessing unbelievably emotional reunions rose precipitously throughout those of us waiting.
As the former captives wearing dress uniforms disembarked, they were greeted by Air Force Major General John F. Gonge and Major General Daniel “Chappie” James. (James, a native of Pensacola, would soon become the Armed Forces’ first African American four-star General.)
Emerging first to a thunderous roar was the senior officer among the POWs, Navy Captain Jeremiah Denton. He served as the group’s spokesman.
“Right now, we’re all a little stunned in anticipation of the fact that some of us in a few minutes, and all of us within a few hours, are going to be reunited with our families,” he said shortly after stepping off the aircraft. “Thank you for this wonderful welcome!”
Denton, who spent more than 6 years in captivity, would be elected to the United States Senate representing Alabama in 1980.
Soon, the reunions we anticipated, and Denton previewed, occurred. They were even better than we could have imagined.
Major Alan Brunstrom, who spent six years at the Hanoi Hilton, was swarmed by his wife and daughter. Air Force Lt. William Acuri, Capt. Harry Geloneck and many others had similar encounters that day, while others continued to their homes on other flights.
Valentine’s Day 1973 was important for the country. Vietnam was finally over and this was the first day of a healing process that for those who lived through it, is now in its fifth decade.
Those lucky enough to have witnessed what would normally be very private moments will never forget them. For those not old enough to remember or do not understand their significance, let’s just say you had to be there to appreciate it.