Image: U.S. Air Force Reserve Maj. Gen. Edward J. Mechenbier
Richard Vogel  /  AP
U.S. Air Force Reserve Maj. Gen. Edward J. Mechenbier, 61, right, watches as the remains of an American serviceman are loaded onto a C-141 cargo plane during a formal handover ceremony at Hanoi's Noi Bai airport on Friday.
updated 5/28/2004 11:56:41 AM ET 2004-05-28T15:56:41

Piloting the same plane that rescued him 31 years ago, a former American prisoner of war returned to Vietnam on Friday on his last military mission to bring home remains thought to be fallen comrades.

Air Force Reserve Maj. Gen. Edward Mechenbier stood in his flight uniform saluting two aluminum cases draped in American flags as they were carried onto the Air Force C-141 — dubbed the “Hanoi Taxi” after it carried freed prisoners home on Feb. 12, 1973.

“For those of us who were fortunate enough to come home, I think we owe a little bit to all the families ... to help them make the closure on that end,” he said.

Mechenbier, 61, of Beavercreek, Ohio, spent nearly six years locked in Hoa Lo prison, nicknamed the “Hanoi Hilton,” after his fighter jet was shot down over North Vietnam in June 1967 during his 80th mission.

Image: Edward J. Mechenbier points to a sign on a military cargo plane.
Richard Vogel  /  AP
U.S. Air Force Reserve Maj. Gen. Edward J. Mechenbier, 61, points to an emblem on the side of the Hanoi Taxi, a military C-141 cargo plane, prior to a formal handover ceremony of remains of American servicemen missing in action from the Vietnam War, at Hanoi's Noi Bai airport, on Friday.
He said he never dreamed of returning to Vietnam, but two other pilots from his home base came up with the idea for him to fly the Hanoi Taxi on his last mission before retiring with more than 3,500 hours in the sky. Mechenbier is the last Vietnam-era POW in the U.S. military, and he said he’s the oldest pilot still flying.

“It’s a very personally satisfying thing for me to be part of this mission,” he said, adding that he wasn’t overcome by emotion when he flew above a very different Hanoi, buzzing with motorbikes and cars.

Standing on the tarmac, he said he was going to “fly home and cry.”

The hard part, he said, will come at the end of this mission. “After 40 years of military flying, that’s what I’m going to miss,” he said.

'Return With Honor'
The Hanoi Taxi he landed Friday got its nickname after the prisoners signed their names inside during their historic flight known as Operation Homecoming. Lining the interior are decades-old pictures of the POWs and their homecoming in the United States. Emblazoned on the outside are the words “Return With Honor.”

It has remained in constant service and was given a makeover two years ago, repainted white on top and gray on the bottom just as it was when Mechenbier first saw it.

“It’s the most beautiful thing to fly,” he said. “Being able to fly this is a personal treat.”

Mechenbier said he harbors no ill feelings toward Vietnam, adding that he adopted a daughter from the country in 1975. He hopes to come back to visit Hanoi, and even return to the former prison, which has become a major tourist draw.

“I’m excited — being here, looking around and seeing what Vietnam is all about,” he said. “I wish we could spend some time here because I would like to see more of the country.”

Mechenbier took off a couple hours after landing. He will deliver the two sets of remains to a U.S. military laboratory in Hawaii for identification.

The remains were discovered in central Vietnam by a U.S. military recovery team that searches for soldiers still unaccounted for.

About 1,800 servicemen remain missing from the Vietnam War, which ended in 1975.

Mechenbier flies with the 445th Airlift wing at Wright-Patterson Air Force Base near Dayton, Ohio, which is involved in support missions worldwide ranging from Antarctic supply flights to medical evacuations in Iraq.

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