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Operation Rolling Thunder remembered, 50 years later

March 2, 2015 (Photo Credit: Screenshot)

Air Force leaders, Vietnam veterans and their families gathered Monday at the Air Force Memorial in Arlington, Virginia, to honor the 50th anniversary of the Vietnam War and remember those lost in the conflict.

The ceremonial wreath laying at the base of the monument's three soaring spires was accompanied by a flyover of a B-52 Stratofortress from the 69th Bomb Squadron at Minot Air Force Base in North Dakota.

Chief of Staff Gen. Mark Welsh in his speech saluted several family members of prisoners of war and troops missing in action . He became emotional as he described watching February 1973 news coverage of POWs returning from Vietnam and reuniting with their families. Some of those POWs were present at the ceremony.

"Even those whose injuries made it impossible for them to stand fully at attention somehow did when the band played the National Anthem," Welsh said. "Gentlemen, there is no way to repay you for your service or your sacrifice, but we would like to show our respect and our appreciation."

Welsh then visibly choked up as he described watching one family's reunion on television.

"I remember watching as one POW, on crutches and with a severely damaged leg, embraced his wife and two children," Welsh said. "And a third child, a young girl who had probably never seen her father before, kept her distance. I remember seeing him hand his crutches to his wife, balance on his one good leg, and reach toward his young daughter with both arms. ... I remember quietly begging her to go to him, from thousands of miles away. And while I don't remember ever seeing her take a step, suddenly she was in his arms."

One of the airmen to whom Welsh paid tribute was POW Capt. Ronald Storz, who died in captivity. Storz was a member of the so-called Alcatraz 11 -- a group of POWs, including Adm. James Stockdale, who fiercely resisted their captivity and were held in solitary confinement for years as punishment. His daughter Monica attended the ceremony.

March 2 marked the 50th anniversary of the first day of Operation Rolling Thunder, the massive B-52-led bombing campaign that was the first sustained assault over North Vietnamese territory. It lasted three years, and more than 1,000 aircraft were lost in the campaign.

The first Air Force POW of the Vietnam War was then-1st Lt. Hayden Lockhart. He was shot down over North Vietnam while flying one of eight F-100 aircraft that day. Lockhart, braved heavy anti-aircraft fire to hit the target "with complete disregard for his own safety," his Distinguished Flying Cross citation says. He noticed his plane was on fire and ejected.

Lockhart evaded the enemy for a week before being captured. During his nearly eight years of captivity, Lockhart withstood torture by his captors. In addition to the Distinguished Flying Cross, Lockhart received the Legion of Merit and the Silver Star.

Now 76, the retired lieutenant colonel was unable to attend the ceremony.

Welsh urged those in attendance to imagine the brutal, lonely existence POWs experienced in captivity, and asked them to honor the memory of the troops who served in Vietnam.

"Sometime today, write their motto on a small piece of paper, and put it in your wallet or in your purse. And every time you notice it in the future, take it out, unfold it and read the words: 'Return with honor.' Then put it back, and quietly thank the heroes we honor today for doing exactly that, and recommit yourself to making those great airmen as proud of us as we are of them."

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