Honor and Respect

Andersen Air Force Base sits on the top of a cliff, above the ocean, on the north end of Guam. The runway does not end right at the cliff’s edge, but, it is fairly close. When pilots come in to land or take off, they negotiate that end of the cliff, and supposedly, during low tide, you can see parts of planes down in the water of the ones who did not make it.

I do not know if that particular story is true or not, but, it was highly entertaining when the two pilots I was flying with into Guam, in the middle of a pounding rain storm, told it to me. It was more entertaining for them because I was “white knuckling” it, while they navigated the Lockheed C-141B Starlifter cargo jet over the edge of the cliff to the runway. They also told me that it frequently was raining so hard whenever planes would land, that instead of saying it was storming, they would say it is “Guaming”. That story I definitely believed.

I had flown in and out of Guam a couple of times. My goal there was to catch another flight heading further south to the Palau Islands. I would spend the night at Andersen and join up with this other crew in the morning. That evening though, I joined the commanding officer at the base. He gave me a nice tour, and asked if I could do a favor.

“Absolutely, if I can. What do you need?”

“We have a ceremony happening in the morning, and, I’d like to know if you could come down and photograph it for us.”

“Sure, I think I can do that for you.”

I joined the general again, at 5AM, on the flight line. He was dressed in his full ceremonial uniform and had a color guard with him. The guard consisted of three Airmen, in dress uniform, carrying the standards and American flag. One other officer was with them, and, he had a wreath.

On the runway sat two Starlifters. One, painted in camo colors, had come in earlier that morning from Thailand. Their cargo had already been moved over to the other Starflifter, a green one, which was going to take off for Hawaii in just an hour or so. The general told me that the ceremony was going to take place in that one, and, if I could head in and photograph it, that was the favor.

I walked inside. It was quite dark and seven metal coffins had been lined up with great precision in the middle of the jet, each one draped with an American flag.

I walked through them, careful not to disturb the flags, and headed towards the nose of the plane. There were a few seats left up there so I climbed up on one and watched and waited. The general and his officer along with the color guard, slowly and with solemn purpose, came up into the cargo hold. I photographed the entire ceremony which consisted of laying the wreath on one of the coffins and a very heartfelt speech delivered by the officer, welcoming them home.

Five of the coffins held the remains of men from the Vietnam War. The other two held the bodies of airmen found in the wreckage of a cargo plane that had crashed in the mountains of China. They had been lost since WWII. The Chinese government, as an act of courtesy, was returning these men to the US.

Guam is the first American soil these lost men touch down on during their trip home, so, it is up to the officers there to greet them and officially welcome them home. The ceremony only lasted a few moments after which they took a step back and saluted these coffins then exited the plane as quietly as they had entered.

I was left alone in there with them, and of course, wondered who they were, what their stories were. I was glad that 7 more lost had been found and were going home to hopefully help heal the emotional wounds of their families. This being 1992, I was not sure how much family would still be there, especially for those men who had been lost in the 1940’s, but the military does not look at it this way. They are their brothers forever and ever and each and every one of them are welcomed home with tremendous honor and respect.

The coffins were sent to the Human Remains Identification lab in Hawaii where the team there would do their absolute best to identify them.

Welcome home.

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The greatness of a nation and it's moral progress can be judged by the way it's animals are treated - Mahatma Ghandi

©  Briar Lee Mitchell, 2014