The C-141 Starlifter was the “most beautiful” aircraft James “Quincy” Collins had ever seen.
The captured American aviator was going to board the “Hanoi Taxi” as one of the first 40 American POWs freed from North Vietnamese captivity Feb. 12, 1973.
He had spent seven-and-a-half years as a POW after his F-105 Thunderchief was shot down over North Vietnam in 1965.
“I’m a fighter pilot and those transports don’t do anything for me, but that was the most beautiful airplane I think I’d ever saw,” said Collins, 84, a retired colonel who lives in Charlotte, N.C.
For the first time, patrons to the National Museum of the U. S. Air Force will be able to climb inside the jet when a $40.8 million expansion opens Wednesday, a new home for some of the most famous planes in American history. The Hanoi Taxi flew two flights to Vietnam to bring home American POWs.
“The Hanoi Taxi is a very important aircraft but for POWs, whether or not they were actually on the first flight out or not, it is still a symbol for them of the day they got to come back home,” said museum historian Jeff Underwood.
The ‘taxi’ ride home
Former Air Force fighter pilot Paul Kari was on that first journey out of Vietnam, but wasn’t sure it was going to happen until he, like Collins and 38 others were brought to Gia Lam Airport in Hanoi. He had been imprisoned since Father’s Day in June 1965 when when his F-4 Phantom was shot down.
“Finally, when we saw the 141 we realized it was for real,” said Kari, 80. “I bit my tongue so hard to keep from tears welling up in my eyes I made a permanent indentation for years.”
Collins of Charlotte, N.C. was concerned he may not have made it out on the first flight when he had parting words for the political commissar of American POWs in Vietnam just before the freed pilot was about to board.
Looking at this captor, he said, “the good thing about this is I get to leave, but you have to stay.”
“And then I thought, ‘Oh hell, why’d I’d say that.’”
Worried this might delay his release, he ran to a nearby Air Force colonel standing next to an American flag “and I said, ‘Get me on that airplane quick before something happens.’”
Even while in the air, some POWs did not want to believe they would be freed until they heard the pilot announce over the intercom they were over international waters, Kari said.
“And when he did that the whole plane just erupted into screams and laughter and joy and all that,” said Kari, who today farms 1,000 acres near West Liberty, Ohio.
POWs in captivity
The first POWs released were in captivity the longest, often suffering torture, brutal beatings, little food and isolation during imprisonment.
Kari weighed 173 pounds when he parachuted from his F-4 Phantom with another crewman, and lost about about 70 pounds while imprisoned seven years and eight months. He broke his back when he ejected out of the fighter jet and dislocated his shoulder and endured torture in captivity.
“I think we lived day to day just hoping the next day we’d be alive,” the retired lieutenant colonel said. “And after 2,795 days, you realize (freedom) was going to come true.”
“So many Americans were so worried about them for so many years,” Underwood said. “We really didn’t understand how bad their treatment was. Once we understood, we were even more horrified of how poorly they were treated as POWs.”
In 2004, the long-serving Hanoi Taxi returned to Vietnam to bring home the remains of two service members. The jet, last assigned to the Air Force Reserve 445th Airlift Wing at Wright-Patterson, stood outdoors in the museum’s air park for years since the four-engine plane with a storied history arrived a decade ago.
Protests against the Vietnam War roiled the United States in the late 1960s and early 1970s. The return of the POWs near the end of American involvement in Vietnam was a milestone and a turning point, Underwood said.
“This aircraft is not only a symbol for the ending of the Vietnam War, it’s also a symbol of unifying and bringing everyone back and this started the long healing process of the American people,” he said. “It starts with this airplane. Because everyone, whether they supported the war or they were against the war of if they didn’t care, they understood the importance of that one day we started seeing the film of these men getting on board the aircraft. We were all Americans again.”