More than 1,600 individuals are still missing due to the Vietnam War, according to one local veteran who participated in the evacuation of Prisoners of War.
“My part in it was very small and I’m humbled at the fact that there was 54,000 lives spared over in Vietnam,” said Ronnie White, who flew with the Marine Corps during Operation Homecoming.
“Most of the people that I knew that served over there in Vietnam had little knowledge of diplomacy,” said White, “things that were going on behind lines. And maybe not even knew what their own real mission was. That was kind of different with our squadron.
“We knew after training what we were going there for, what the mission was, and we would be over there until it was over. It was kind of defined and to me that was rewarding,” said White, “to be a part of something that actually came to light.”
White had a very different perspective of Vietnam because he was indirectly a part of the negotiations that ended the conflict.
“Beginning in ‘72 is when the real negotiations to end the war were taking place,” said White. “There was only two people involved in that. Basically it was Henry Kissinger and top NVA (North Vietnamese Army) adviser and they were over in Paris talking about ending it. So that’s when they formed HM12, which is Helicopter Mine Sweeping Squadron 12, and that is the unit that I was assigned to.”
HM12, commissioned with 13 Sikorsky CH53 helicopters, helped fulfill the requirements of the Paris Peace Accords by eliminating mines that had been set in Cam Pha, Haiphong, Hon Gai and Vinn Harbors.
“They were big, ugly, slow and made great targets,” said White of the helicopter he flew.
“We had to assure them that Haiphong Harbor was cleared, but they had to assure us that no NVA would have any kind of molestation to any of our mine sweeping efforts in those three harbors while we were working,” said White. “Now that sounds real good except that there was one group of people who didn’t get the word and that was the VC [Viet Cong]. VC was always late to get the word. While we were trying to do peace keeping efforts, they still viewed us as the enemy that had to be taken down.”
When not being shot at by the VC while clearing the harbor of explosives during Operation End Sweep, White and members of his squadron were taxiing diplomats between the American flag ship and Haiphong preparing for Operation Homecoming.
“Our job then was to go into Haiphong in North Vietnam, pick up NVA, bring them out to the [USS New Orleans],” said White, “and we never shut those choppers down the whole time that they were setting there during any negotiations that were still going. There was two transport choppers and two security choppers. They would go to the table and we would take them back to Haiphong. The next day they might meet in Haiphong and we’d go out there. So it was back and forth.”
Although the cease fire agreement was signed in Paris on Jan. 27, 1973, stating that Prisoners Of War would be returned to American custody as the US swept clean the harbors of mines, things did not go according to plan.
“They agreed we was going to get the first load of POWs out and we agreed we was going in to clean out Haiphong Harbor,” said White. “We did that. They’d come to the table again. We actually went to the table three different times in a period of a year there.”
It was not until Feb. 12 that the first POWs were released.
“That’s when we flew out on three Air Force C141s and a C9 out of Saigon. I know you’ve heard of Hanoi Taxi,” said White. “The ones that you see most of is that first 40, but there actually was 591 that were pulled out during Operation Homecoming. Of those, 325 of them were Air Force, 138 Navy, 77 Army, 26 Marines and 25 civilians. I was told that over half of [the civilians] was media.”
According to White, one of the first 69 POWs to be released was from Surry County, Lt. Col. David Hatcher from Mount Airy.
“To my knowledge he’s the only one, but I will say of the 1,200 that are still missing [in Vietnam], 44 of them call North Carolina home.
“It’s still important to know that we have got over 1,600 MIA (missing in action). There’s 468 that were lost overseas that we may never ever get, but that still leaves 800 that’s still MIA somewhere,” said White. “I know that every administration has its own priorities and I hope that will continue those efforts to locate those 800 some plus MIAs that are over there.”
Citizens can help ensure this each fall.
“Usually on the third Friday of September each year, we recognize [MIAs and POWs],” said White, who is proud to have served the soldiers who may have suffered most.
“Everything I’ve done was just small compared with the efforts that was being done by other people and the sacrifices that they made,” said White, “the people that were on the ground every day in the jungle. I salute them.
“I felt like I was actually doing something and when I talk to other comrades who were serving over there, they didn’t have the same kind of feelings that I did about it. Being a part of Operation End Sweep and Operation Homecoming to me was very fulfilling. Again the things that I’ve done are just small stuff.”
Veterans can meet Ronnie White and others who have served in the military at the Captain Mark W. Garner Post VFW Post 7794 at 6 p.m. on the fourth Tuesday at the National Guard Armory, 1775 N. Bridge St., Elkin. For more information, go to www.vfwpost7794.org or call Post Commander Richard Hackler at 336-957-2017.
Beanie Taylor can be reached at 336-258-4058 or on Facebook at www.facebook.com/TBeanieTaylor.