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‘I felt euphoric;’ 50 years ago, these Vietnam War POWs flew to freedom through an Air Force base in Chicopee

Westover Air Reserve Base (Alex McLeod/WikiCommons)

Capt. Charles A. Brown Jr. and fellow crewmen had just completed a bombing run over North Vietnam when a missile hit the left wing of their B-52. The jet caught fire.

That led to 101 of the longest days of his life.

Brown and three other crew members parachuted out, were captured and ended up in the infamous Hỏa Lò prison, known by those held captive as the Hanoi Hilton.

Fifty years later, veterans like Brown are recognizing the anniversary of the release and return of hundreds of American POWs held across Vietnam — some of whom reunited with their families after landing at Westover Air Reserve Base in Chicopee.

Three of the former captives — Brown, Charles Greene and Theodore “Tadziu” Sienicki — shared memories of that homecoming in interviews with The Republican and MassLive.

About four months after Brown was captured, on Jan. 27, 1973, a withdrawal agreement was signed by the United States, North Vietnam and South Vietnam. Terms called for some 600 prisoners of war to be released between February and April.

Brown was 26 and one of the last to return home. Prisoners agreed that those who needed medical care would go home first, followed by those held the longest. Some had been prisoners for six and seven years, so Brown was still considered a “new guy” at the Hanoi Hilton.

He and five others landed at Westover at 8:25 p.m., April 1. Five of them were stationed at the base and the sixth lived in New York.

“It was one of the best days of my life, flying into Westover,” he said.

The group, aboard one of the last planes returning prisoners of war from North Vietnam, were welcomed home by more than 1,000 people. The crowd gathered in one of the base hangars, according to a 1973 story in the Springfield Union, a predecessor to The Republican newspaper.

“Yes, there were a lot of celebrations. I think we got a thank you letter from Budweiser for making their year,” Brown said.

Brown had been stationed in Southeast Asia for two years and flew 190 bombing missions over South Vietnam, Cambodia and Laos. He was serving as co-pilot on his last mission with a crew of five others when the missile struck their jet. Two airmen, Maj. Richard Cooper and Chief Master Sgt. Charles Poole, were killed in action.

“When you are surrounded by fire your options are limited and we ejected,” Brown said. The four landed in different spots and were all caught by the North Vietnamese. One ended up near a missile site, another’s parachute was caught on a steeple, leaving him hanging, and one sought safety under a bridge — only to realize too late a group of Vietnamese soldiers had done the same.

Brown said he plunged into a canal. The colored shark repellent he was carrying poured out, giving away his location.

“We dropped 108 bombs that day and that upset them,” he said.

After the four were rounded up they were taken to the Hanoi Hilton, where he remained for months. “I wouldn’t want to do it again,” Brown said.

After returning, Brown, who grew up in eastern Massachusetts, remained in the military and at Westover, retiring in 2004 as a colonel and the chief of aircraft maintenance. He has since moved to Arizona and worked for a while at the Davis-Monthan Air Force Base, the so-called boneyard where retired military aircraft are stored.

From prison to freedom

Records about the returning veterans are limited. The Westover base historian and the Air Force Historical Research Agency at Maxwell Air Force Base, in Alabama, said they have no documents about the planes that landed in Chicopee carrying the prisoners of war.

This year, the Collings Foundation, which runs the American Heritage Museum in Hudson, created a permanent exhibit about the Hanoi Hilton. “North Vietnam employed severe torture methods, including sleep deprivation, malnutrition, beatings, hanging by ropes, locking in irons, and prolonged solitary confinement,” their website says.

The prison had been built by the French and was used to hold political prisoners during its colonial rule of the country. When most of the prison was torn down, a collector saved materials from several complete cells, including a concrete bed with shackles, a door, window and bricks from walls. The cells were rebuilt in the heritage museum, said Hunter Chaney, director of marketing and communications for the museum.

“It was such a rarity to have something like this and to recreate it was quite unique,” he said. “It is a unique way to show the plight of the POW.”

When the exhibit opened in February, 19 veterans who had been prisoners attended a dedication. A number of others, including Brown, were interviewed about their experiences being held captive in Vietnam.

Most of the people who were held in Hỏa Lò were flight crew members who had been shot down over North Vietnam. Many were tortured. Conditions were filthy and food was limited, Chaney said. Of all the prisoner of war camps around Vietnam, Hanoi Hilton was the most infamous.

Coming home

The return of the prisoners of war was dubbed “Operation Homecoming.” The first prisoners were flown out of Vietnam on modified C-141 planes. Most were first taken to Clark Air Base, in the Philippines, where they received medical care and were debriefed. They then flew home, landing at a variety of bases depending on where they lived or were stationed, Chaney said.

Although the unpopular war sparked protests and many returning veterans faced the vitriol of anti-war demonstrators, returning POWs were better treated, he said.

Chicopee historian Stephen Jendrysik said protests and anti-military sentiment were limited in Chicopee, perhaps due to the large number of people stationed at Westover, many of whom served in Vietnam.

At the time, Jendrysik was a young high school history teacher. He said many of the students in the school were from military families who had fathers serving in Vietnam or had recently returned from war.

Retired Chief Master Sgt. Owen “Chip” Connolly, of Granby, who was stationed at Westover in 1973, remembers prisoners of war coming home. He met some in a hospital, where he was recovering from a car accident.

Connolly said people took good care of the returning POWs. They went skiing at the now-closed Mount Tom and attended area sporting events. “I remember one pilot and a nurse hit it off pretty good. I think they eventually got married,” said Connolly, who retired from Westover in 2008 after 32 years in the military, including service in Vietnam.

Long road home

According to The Republican archives, the first two prisoners of war to land in Westover arrived at about 2 a.m., Feb. 17, in a C-19 aircraft. Capt. Alan Brudno, who was from Quincy, and Master Sgt. Arthur Cormier, of New York, had both spent more than seven years in captivity. Four months later Brudno committed suicide.

A second plane arrived Feb. 21 bringing home Capt. Joseph Milligan, of New Jersey, after more than five years of imprisonment. The fourth POW, Capt. Joseph Crecca Jr., also of New Jersey, arrived Feb. 25, according to newspaper archives.

A group of four arrived March 7 and included Lt. Col. Kenneth W. North, who had been a prisoner for nearly seven years. The other three were Maj. Charles Greene, who grew up in Needham and was living in Rotterdam, N.Y.; Robert Biss, of Pennsylvania; and Capt. Melvin Pollack, of New York. Archives show the final POW plane to land at Westover was Brown’s.

Major Greene’s war

Greene was released one week short of having served six years in a number of prisons in Vietnam, including one near the Chinese border, the Sơn Tây prison camp. U.S. forces raided the camp, but found that prisoners had already been moved. Greene was held at the Hanoi Hilton at least twice. When he was shot down, his daughter was nearly 5. When he next saw her she was turning 11.

“She had grown up a lot,” he said. “There were a whole lot of changes we didn’t know about. Dress codes had changed, a lot of things had changed.”

After joining the Air Force, Greene spent 18 months in an aviation and pilot training program and was sent to Vietnam at age 31. He was shot down on his 19th mission while flying an F-105 as one of four lead planes in a formation of 32 that were bombing a steel mill about 30 miles north of Hanoi.

His plane was supposed to draw fire — and it did. The crew ejected while going 550 mph; one man died, but he and another crew members were unharmed.

“I was captured by the Chinese. It turned out to be a blessing of sorts because the Vietnamese did not want that known,” Greene said. That saved him from some of the worst interrogations and forced confessions.

He and other captives spent a minimum of their first 45 days being tortured. He said he remembers being held in chains. Another time his wrists were shackled to his ankles so he couldn’t lie down.

Shortly after his capture, a black bag was put over his head and he was forced into a hole covered with a stone. At some point, the cover was removed and he could feel someone tapping on his head with their knuckles. “It was an old woman and she showed me a Christian cross she had around her neck. She handed me a handful of chocolate chip cookies. It was a godsend,” he said.

Greene said the highest-ranking officers, including the late Sen. John McCain, were subjected to the most intense torture. Greene said he was a lowly captain, so he wasn’t beaten as much.

“Everyone asks ‘How did you deal with it?’ Well you don’t have a choice,” he said.

In the days before the Vietnamese announced a treaty had been signed, captives received signs that something was happening. Prisoners had a pact that no one was to cheer, even if they heard good news.

“We didn’t react because they wanted to make it a big ceremony. These people had been beating the hell out of us for six years,” he said.

In his long journey home, after the Philippines, Greene landed in Hawaii and spent a few days there. He boarded another plane that took him to Washington, D.C. where former POWs were greeted by Gen. Daniel “Chappie” James, the first Black four-star general in the Air Force.

When he landed at Westover, Greene was greeted by his wife, daughter, parents and multiple family members.

During his six years in captivity, Greene said he decided to pursue a career in academia. When he returned, he completed his degree and earned an MBA, remaining in the Air Force until 1977. He and his wife added to their family with a second son, born about a year after he returned.

After spending 20 years in the military, Greene went on to work at the College of St. Rose in Albany, N.Y., and retired at 70 as the vice president of finance and administration.

Capt. Sienicki’s war

Capt. Theodore “Tadziu” Sienicki arrived at Westover one day before Brown in a plane that also carried two navigators from New York who had been held in captivity.

Sienicki was 24 when he was shot down May 3, 1972, over North Vietnam. He was sitting in back of the pilot in a F-4 Phantom when the two-seat plane broke in half.

Sienicki ejected from the flaming jet and landed uninjured in an area swarming with hundreds of Vietnamese troops. He hid in a creosote bush while troops passed by seven times, shooting into bushes and searching everywhere. His hiding place was given away when one of the enemy troops stepped on him.

When he was discovered, he was wearing a flight suit with zippered boots. His captors tried to take off his boots, but Sienicki realized they didn’t know how to unzip them. “I thought, ‘I will have to tell people I was shot down by people who didn’t know how to work a zipper’ … they learned to use Chinese anti-aircraft guns but not a zipper,” Sienicki said.

That was one of the many oddities Sienicki found during his 11 months of captivity, including one that left him with a 15-year tobacco habit.

“In Vietnam, all men smoke. When they asked me if I smoked, I said yes even though I was probably the only 24-year-old who had never smoked a cigarette,” he said. “I got three cigarettes a day. They didn’t mind starving you, but they believed it was inhumane to deny people the chance to smoke.”

At the Hanoi Hilton, the people imprisoned the longest – known as the FOG, for F—— Old Guys — generally taught the new guys the ins and outs of survival. One was a secret communication system the men had developed by tapping on walls or pipes.

“I survived because I was young, I was strong, I was clever and I was a good communicator,” he said, adding he practiced the code to become one of the fastest in the prison.

Sienicki went to Vietnam as a widower and was still reeling from the tragic passing of his young wife, who died at the age of 22 from leukemia. “Truthfully, being a prisoner wasn’t the worst thing that happened to me. My wife and I got married when I was still in college,” he said. “I loved that girl.”

By the time Sienicki was shot down, the torture of POWs had become more focused. The treatment was brutal.

“They would beat you unconscious, but that wasn’t the worst. At a certain point it was over,” he said. “They would put you in ropes, with one around your neck, and try to dislocate as many joints at the same time as possible.” Prisoners were locked in tiny rooms with no light for weeks on end. Sienicki lost about 50 pounds in his 11 months in captivity.

After about eight months at the Hanoi Hilton, Sienicki was moved to a place prisoners called “The Zoo,” an abandoned movie studio. When there, he taught the communication code to other people in captivity.

Fifty years later, Sienicki remembers the drive through Hanoi on his way to the airstrip where a plane was waiting to take prisoners to freedom. The prisoners were brought to a rail station, where the Vietnamese showed them damage done by U.S. bombs.

“They did it to make us feel bad, but I was impressed by how accurate those hits were. I thought that was good bombing,” he said.

He boarded a plane with about 75 of the last prisoners of war. “You never believed anything the Vietnamese said, there was so much propaganda. Everyone was pretty quiet. But when the wheels lifted up, everyone cheered,” he said.

In the Philippines, the former prisoners received hospital care. Everyone was underfed, most had parasites and needed medical attention. There were also celebrations. “In real life what you were doing there was eating a lot. I remember seeing a guy eat seven steaks,” he said.

Sienicki then flew to Westover, where he spent five days before going home. His parents greeted him. His father wore a broad-brimmed felt hat of 1940s vintage that was his son’s favorite and held great sentimental value, according to a Springfield Union story.

During those five days, people at Westover treated the released POWs well. He and his family attended a Polish dance and ate at an Italian restaurant in Springfield. “I felt euphoric. All the familiar sounds and smells make a difference,” he said.

Sienicki went on with his life. He remained in the military for 20 years, serving in a variety of roles, including as a flight test pilot, before retiring in 1989. He shifted to working in risk management for a developer, a job he still holds.

Shortly after he returned home, he met and married his wife, Frances. “We are complete opposites but we have a deep love for each other,” he said. The couple has four children, 13 grandchildren and are close to their 33 nieces and nephews.


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