Maxwell welcomes Vietnam War POWs home again 50 years later

  • Published
  • By Senior Airman Rhonda Smith
  • Air University Public Affairs

In 1973, Maxwell welcomed 43 prisoners of war released by North Vietnam following the Paris Peace Accords that ended U.S. involvement in the Vietnam War. Operation Homecoming saw the return of a total of 591 POWs to American soil from Feb. 14-April 1, 1973.

Half a century to the day after the first of the 43 POWs set foot on Maxwell, the installation once again opened its arms to honor a few of them during the first event kicking off Operation Welcome Home.

Maxwell was one of only 10 Air Force bases selected to welcome the U.S. warfighters home. 

Air University is truly honored in welcoming our three guests to this program”, said Dr. Mehmed Ali, director, Muir S. Fairchild Research Information Center. “Their personal stories of survival are the ultimate illustrations of resiliency that we can all learn from, and the historical examples of support that came from their families, colleagues and the nation are ones we should celebrate and continue to emphasize into the future.”

A special guest panel session was held with three of the POWs on Feb. 14, 2023.

The panelists were:

Retired Col. Leon F. Ellis Jr.: Ellis flew 53 F-4C Phantom missions before he was shot down and taken prisoner in North Vietnam on Nov. 7, 1967. He was held for a little over five years at the Hanoi Hilton prison camp. He arrived at Maxwell on March 17, 1973, during Operation Homecoming.

“I can remember my most challenging time was when I got tortured for the first time and getting back to my cell. I had built out a three-page biography that the only truth in it was my dad’s first and last name,” said Ellis. “Captain ‘Fin’ Fisher, who was my leader and my friend, says, ‘Lee, you did the best you could, and we're proud of you.’ That's what happened in every case. There were people there to encourage us when we were down.”

Retired Capt. Guy D. Gruters: Gruters was shot down twice during the war and was captured the second time he was shot down on Dec. 20, 1967. He was also held a little over five years at Hanoi Hilton. Gruters received more than 30 combat awards. He arrived at Maxwell on March 17, 1973, during Operation Homecoming.

Retired Col. Carlyle “Smitty” Harris: Harris was captured on April 4, 1965, and held for eight years at multiple POW camps. Most notably, Harris created the “tap code” for POWs, a form of communication that was essential in carrying out directives from senior ranking officers while also boosting morale having a way to talk with one another. He arrived at Maxwell on Feb. 17, 1973.

“The most challenging thing was just to have communication, operate a brotherhood and support each other,” said Harris. “I think that (communication and support) really helped us come home with pride and honor and with the unity that we had with each other.”

This was the first in a series of events the installation is hosting for Operation Welcome Home to celebrate, reflect and educate the community on the contributions of America’s Veterans. 

“This was an exceptional opportunity to listen and share this 50th anniversary of the repatriation of prisoners of war from Vietnam,” said Col. Ryan Richardson, 42nd Air Base Wing commander. “On behalf of Air University and the 42nd ABW, we just want to say thank you to these patriots.”

For additional information and a schedule of upcoming Operation Welcome Home events, visit