IT represented, in a peculiarly American way, a ritual of resurrection. For the U.S., the war in Viet Nam had gone ambiguously: the nation's longest battle had ended in nothing like glory but in a kind of complex suspension. The nation could at least find its consolation, even its celebration, in the return of the prisoners. Here, at last, was something that the war had always deniedthe sense of men redeemed, the satisfaction of something retrieved from the tragedy. The P.O.W.s' return bore a tangible finality that the war itself, even in its negotiated resolution, could never offer the U.S. Now the captured Americans, who had been closest to the mystery of the enemy, were extricated, were coming home.
For a time last week, the release of the first prisoners seemed as maddeningly tentative as the Paris talks themselves. Last-minute haggling between Saigon and the Communists delayed the move from day to day. Then at week's end the word was passed through the Pentagon: 115 of the 456 men held in North Viet Nam would be turned over in Hanoi, and 27 of the 120 Americans held in the South would be freed by the Viet Cong at Quan Loi, about 60 miles north of Saigon. As part of the bargain, the South Vietnamese would release 4,000 North Vietnamese and Viet Cong prisoners over a four-day period. In both North and South, the U.S. captives would be loaded aboard medical-evacuation planes for Clark Air Base in the dusty Luzon plain of the Philippines. At Clark as the release approached, the men inside the Joint Homecoming Reception Center Command Post scanned a bank of clocks reading "Hanoi," "Local," "Hawaii," "Washington D.C.," and "Zulu" Greenwich mean time. Officers manned hot lines, and prepared to chart every movement of the prisoners from the instant of their arrival. The exercise was worthy of a major offensive, except that now the object was almost extravagantly peaceful.
The U.S. military's planning for the operation had been meticulous and even loving, in an official way. When the prisoners of war from Korea were released in 1953, they were greeted by an intimidating battery of officers, psychiatrists and reporters; this time the prisoners were to be protected. Each was assigned his own escort, a sort of aide-de-camp, counselor, valet and buddy. Many of the escorts were personal friends of the captives, the others were selected by service, age, rank and background to match their P.O.W.s as closely as possible.
The 270-bed Air Force hospital at Clark, hitherto devoted primarily to the treatment of Viet Nam War casualties, had been elaborately prepared, though in a carefully understated way. The hospital's corridors were lined with gaily colored Valentine's Day decorations and posters made by schoolchildren at the base: WELCOME HOME, WE LOVE YOU and DO YOU LAUGH INSIDE ALL OVER. The prisoners would be assigned to two-or four-man rooms, unless they require intensive care. The men would be treated as gently and gingerly as possible. The casual treatment had been planned by a battery of experts. Even former Pueblo Commander Lloyd Bucher, a veteran of North Korean jails, was among those waiting at Clark Field.