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updated 5/28/2004 3:44:49 PM ET 2004-05-28T19:44:49

Piloting the same plane that rescued him three decades ago, a former American prisoner of war returned to Vietnam Friday to fly home remains thought to be of two fallen comrades.

Standing on the steamy tarmac in his flight suit, Air Force Reserve Maj. Gen. Edward Mechenbier saluted two aluminum cases draped in American flags as they were loaded onto the C-141, dubbed the "Hanoi Taxi" by POWs who rode it home after their release.

Mechenbier said it was fitting the last flight of his military career should be at the controls of the historic blue and white aircraft that flew him to freedom on Feb. 12, 1973, after his release from six years captivity inside Hoa Lo prison, nicknamed the "Hanoi Hilton" by POWs.

"I consider myself among the very, very lucky to be alive and still be on flying status after all these years," the 61-year-old Mechenbier said. "Any three or four pilots could have flown this mission, but the chance for me to be a part of it, I find very personally satisfying."

The plane, which has remained in constant service since the war, has become something of a flying museum. Decades-old photos of the POWs' homecoming line its crude interior, along with the original signatures of the released prisoners who nicknamed it on their ride home. Emblazoned on the outside are the words "Return With Honor."

"It handles pretty good," Mechenbier said, laughing.

He was on his 80th mission in Vietnam when his F-4C Phantom II fighter jet was shot down in June 1967 while targeting the Vu Chu rail yards about 30 miles northeast of Hanoi.

He wouldn't comment on whether he was mistreated in captivity, saying it's "just something that happens in war." Instead, he talked of the peace both he and Vietnam have since found.

He adopted a Vietnamese baby girl in 1975, and he has a number of close Vietnamese-American friends back in Beavercreek, Ohio, who urged him to return to the city where he was imprisoned all those years without ever seeing.

Hanoi is a place he'd like to explore in retirement, Mechenbier said _ including the old prison that's now a major tourist draw, located next to a posh apartment building and trendy restaurant.

"The fact that it's no longer needed for a prison is a pretty good deal," he said. "It would be fun to see what Vietnam looks like other than through a little hole, because it's a beautiful country."

But there was no time Friday for Mechenbier to visit the streets of Hanoi, which are alive today with motorbikes and busy shops. After about three hours at Noi Bai Airport, the plane took off for a U.S. military forensics laboratory in Hawaii, where the remains will be identified.

The remains were recovered in central Vietnam by a U.S. military team that searches for soldiers still unaccounted for from the war. About 1,800 service members remain missing from the Vietnam War, which ended in 1975.

"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," Mechenbier said. "We are here 30 years after the war. The governments are working together trying to find a way to bring healing and closure _ they could have just written all this off."

Based at Wright-Patterson Air Force Base near Dayton, Ohio, Mechenbier flies with the 445th Airlift wing. He is the last Vietnam-era POW still serving in the military and the oldest pilot still flying.

He said the hardest part of this mission will definitely come next week when it's time to say goodbye to the career he would do all over again.

"That's going to be emotional," he said. "On that last landing after 40 years of flying airplanes, it'll be tough to walk away."

___

On the Net:

http://www.jpac.pacom.mil/index.htm

Copyright 2004 The Associated Press. All rights reserved. This material may not be published, broadcast, rewritten or redistributed.

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