A HERO'S WELCOME...
...A BROTHER'S QUESTION
In March of 1973, Chief Warrant Officer Frank Anton (Call Sign "Firebird 90") was released from captivity in Vietnam.
For five and a half years he had endured the harshest conditions imaginable - first in the moving camps run by the Viet Cong in South Vietnam and then in Hanoi. Following his release, Frank remained in the army, retiring as a CWO-4 after 21 years of service. He then flew 727s for American Airlines until retiring in 1997.
Frank's experiences as a POW in the south were somewhat different than those of the pilots held in Hanoi. While no one had a pleasant time in captivity, the conditions in the jungle camps were never widely publicized. When the average American thinks of Vietnam Prisoners of War, the image that most often comes to mind is of the concrete walls made famous in movies like "Hanoi Hilton".
In reality, the camps of the south were an entirely different world.
There was even less food than in the Hilton and a prisoner's daily subsistence amounted to a bit of rice, supplemented on occasion with clear tasteless soup, manioc root (a starchy tuber) and any vermin they could kill. On special occasions, such as visits by Communist Party officials or high ranking NVA and VC officers, they would have a feast...a feast that the average American teenager would pass up for a bag of McDonalds french fries.
Medical supplies and treatment were all but non existent. The prisoners were forced by circumstance to watch their comrades die of starvation, disease and untreated wounds. Beatings and torture were the order of the day if they failed to comply with their captors demands or if they violated camp rules.
In January 1971, their captors decided to move the Americans. They transported them up along the Ho Chi Minh Trail to North Vietnam where they were taken by truck to Hanoi and imprisoned in the various camps controlled by the NVA. They remained there until the peace agreement was signed in 1973.
Upon their release, Frank and his fellow prisoners were taken to Clark Air Force Base in the Philippines for medical attention and debriefing. There he finally got to meet with other released POWs who had been kept in solitary confinement in the Hanoi Hilton and the Plantation...legends like Colonel Ted Guy, who had seized the reins and established a chain of command shortly after his capture in defiance of their jailers. The 591 former POWs finally got to eat delicacies most Americans take for granted...steak, bacon and eggs, ice cream, pancakes, clean water...
They got to hear the latest music, learn years old baseball, football and basketball scores, read magazines and call home to talk with the loved ones they would soon be reunited with at home.
Home...The word had taken on new meaning during Frank's 62 months of captivity.
His Dad, a retired US Air Force Colonel, and his mom hung a large "Welcome Home Frankie" sign on the front porch.
Family and friends who had waited more than five years, never knowing if they would see him again, gathered to await his arrival at McGuire Air Force Base in New Jersey. But inspite of it all, the relief of being back on friendly soil was tainted with regret...While Frank had survived and returned home, most of the more than 2000 believed to be held in Vietnam, Cambodia, China and Laos had not returned. Frank had witnessed the deaths of many of his friends in the jungle camps.
And there was one other...a man he saw only once...a man whose name he did not know at the time...a man he would never forget...
Those who wore the uniform during the Vietnam War received little enough in the way of recognition for their courage and loyalty to a nation that largely turned its back on her fighting men and women.
But those same men and women have, over the years, developed into a unique society which embraces its own in a brand of brotherhood known only to the warrior class. They have remained loyal to each other and to those they were forced to leave behind.
Even if they've never met, they can spot each other from across a crowded room, on opposite sides of a sports arena or on the street. They know each other by a certain look in the eye and they greet each other with a bear hug...or less conspicuously with a peculiar handshake they learned in another lifetime.
They are still warriors but in their quiet army there is only one rank..."Brother".
Like the rest, Frank never forgot his Brothers who served with him...and he thinks of one in particular every day.
But I'll let Frank tell that story in his own way....