Fifty Years On: Remembering the 1973 Paris Peace Accords

  • Published
  • By Lt Col Terrence G. Popravak, Jr. Lt Col, USAF (Retired)
  • 142nd Wing / Historian's Office

Today, January 27, 2023 marks the 50th anniversary of the signing of the Paris Peace Accords, “An Agreement Ending the War and Restoring Peace in Vietnam,” which brought an end to the active US involvement in the Vietnam War.  The accords were formally signed on January 27, 1973, in Paris, France at the Hotel Majestic by the leaders of the four official delegations, United States and Republic of Vietnam on one side with the Democratic Republic of Vietnam and Viet Cong/Provisional Revolutionary Government on the other.

Many Oregon Air National Guard (ANG) veterans served in Southeast Asia during the war, and talk of the war and their personal experience in it continues to this day in various veteran get-togethers.  You can read a few of their many stories in “Remembering the OreANG’s Vietnam Veterans,” here.

To call it peace in January, 1973 was perhaps a bit of a misnomer, as the fighting in Southeast Asia between various opposing military forces in the countries of Indochina (the Vietnams, Laos and Cambodia) continued for over two years.  More Americans lost their lives in the war after the accords were signed, adding to the more than 58,000 dead by the end of it.  This was part of the estimated 1.3 to 3.4 million dead between all combatants and civilian populations in the region.  Not to mention the post-1975 slaughter of an estimated 2.2 million or more souls in the “Killing Fields” genocide of Cambodia by the conquering Khmer Rouge.  “War is hell,” as American Civil War General William Tecumseh Sherman said and the Vietnam War certainly was that.

But for the most part, aside from isolated actions such as the SS Mayaguez Incident of May, 1975, after the signing of the Paris Peace Accords US forces in Southeast Asia observed the ceasefire against their North Vietnamese adversaries, began the withdrawal of all US troops and advisors from South Vietnam as well as the dismantling of US bases in South Vietnam.  The signatories of the accords looked forward to the exchange of prisoners to follow within 60 days after the agreement was signed.  For US personnel, Operation Homecoming welcomed the return of 591 former POWs.

                                                                                                                       POW/MIA Situation

Although Oregon’s Air Guardsmen were dedicated to defense of the homeland, the organization’s members, especially those who had served overseas in the war, were acutely aware of their comrades-in-arms service and sacrifice in Southeast Asia.  As America’s involvement in the war culminated in late 1972, issues of the Oregon ANG’s newly-revived Air Scoop Newsletter conveyed how much the Prisoner of War (POW)/Missing in Action (MIA) situation weighed on the hearts and minds of Air Guardsmen and Americans. 

The July, 1972 of the Air Scoop noted that some 1,600 Americans were POWs or MIAs in Southeast Asia, and that the ”Missing Man” formation was being flown by USAF and ANG units to honor absent or departed comrades in the war. 

From Portland ANG Base, the Oregon ANG’s 123rd Fighter-Interceptor Squadron conducted such salutes with flights of four F-101B Voodoo fighter-interceptor jets in flyovers at appropriate public events, like the Hillsboro Independence Day commemoration.  As a four-ship flight flew over a particular geographic point, one plane ascended, pulled up and away from the others leaving a symbolic empty place in the formation for viewers on the ground to see and contemplate. 

In the August, 1972 issue of the newsletter, the 142nd Fighter Group’s Chaplain Maj William C. Hurn, Jr. wrote “I hope that all of you are aware of this tragedy (POW/MIA) and will personally remember the prisoners and their families in your prayers.  Another strong suggestion I can make is that you support them and their cause in whatever way you can.”

POW/MIA Bracelets

The same Air Scoop issue highlighted one of those ways with the example of an Oregon ANG couple that made notable personal efforts to bring awareness to the plight of the American POW/MIAs in SE Asia.  Capt Neal Justice and his wife Pat coordinated the local sales of POW/MIA bracelets inscribed with the name of an individual POW or MIA and the date of their loss. 

An F-101 Weapons System Officer in the 123rd FIS, Justice was a “River Rat,” a Vietnam combat veteran with credit for 100 missions north and member of the Red River Valley Fighter Pilots Association.  He and Pat helped interested citizens to acquire POW/MIA bracelets offered by a non-profit organization called Voices in Vital America.  Such bracelets were to be worn with a vow to wear it until the day the Red Cross was allowed in Hanoi to determine the status and treatment of POWs. 

In 1972, a POW/MIA bracelet cost $2.50 for one in silver finish and $3 for one in copper, with part of the proceeds going to a national scholarship fund for the children of POW/MIA/KIAs.  Many Air Guardsmen wore bracelets and the Justices initially accounted for between 300 and 400 bracelets sourced for people in the local area. 

As the Paris Peace Accords were implemented, American POWs began to return home.  The February, 1973 Air Scoop carried a front-page article titled “My Man is Alive!”  This excitement was shared by many bracelet-wearers as former POWs returned, a number of whom called the Justices to tell them about theirs.  Capt Justice and his wife Pat could take some satisfaction that their efforts were fruitful.  The two eventually accounted for around 3,500 POW/MIA bracelets being distributed in the local area.  Mrs. Pat Justice said the bracelet experience “has just been fantastic.”  Capt Justice added that the bracelets serve “as a real personal thing, and you get a feeling of deep responsibility toward the man whose name is on the bracelet.”

Members of the Justice Family wore four of the bracelets, though at this time none of their men had returned.  Capt Justice wore one for his friend, Maj Charles Burkart, a B-57 Canberra bomber pilot in the 13th Bombardment Squadron, shot down over Laos in June, 1966 and listed as MIA.  “It’s a personal thing” Justice said.  Sadly, Lt Col Neal E. Justice and his wife Pat passed away in 2014 and 2006, respectively while his friend Col Charles W. Burkart, Jr. is still missing.  Col Burkart’s case is categorized as “Active Pursuit” by the Defense POW/MIA Accounting Agency (DPAA).

In the May, 1973 Air Scoop, Chaplain Hurn wrote about how he was able to meet and talk with one of the returned POWs, then Capt (later Brig Gen) James E. Sehorn, an F-105 pilot of the 469th Tactical Fighter Squadron, shot down at the height of the Rolling Thunder bombing campaign.  Capt Sehorn was on his seventh mission and had dropped his two M118 3,000-lb bombs on the Paul Doumer Bridge near Hanoi during a major air attack on December 14, 1967.  Pulling off the target, his Thunderchief was hit by enemy 85mm anti-aircraft artillery.  He nursed it about 30 miles southeast of Hanoi but then had to step out of the jet, and step into some five-and-a-half years of captivity. 

Sehorn, from Forest Grove, Oregon, told Chaplain Hurn of the value of faith in his time of captivity and suffering, 1, 917 days imprisoned.  “Capt Sehorn feels so strongly about the strength that is gained from others knowing of their concern, their prayers, and their love.”  Of note, Capt Sehorn’s wife Darleen fought on the Homefront for him and others as the Oregon coordinator for the POW/MIA movement.

On May 6, the Portland ANG Base Chapel held a time of “Recognition and Remembrance,” and the Chief of Staff of the USAF General John D. Ryan designated Sunday, May 13, 1973 as a “Day of Recognition and Remembrance” for Air Force personnel who served in SE Asia.  This was to “…share joy and gratitude for the return of our POW’s, to remember in prayer and hope our MIA’s and their families, to commemorate our KIA’s, and remember all personnel who served in Southeast Asia.”  

A drawing in that May, 1973 Air Scoop depicted someone wearing a POW/MIA bracelet for USAF Maj Edward D. Silver of Corvallis, Oregon.  He was an F-4C Phantom II pilot in the 390th Tactical Fighter Squadron who was shot down on July 5, 1968 over Quang Binh Province of North Vietnam and still unaccounted for at that time.  Nearly 43 years after his loss, and 39 years after the bracelet was drawn in the Air Scoop, Lt Col Edward Dean Silver’s remains were eventually found, recovered and identified using modern forensic techniques in May, 2011.

POW/MIA Bracelets Today

But many other men thought to be POW, or carried on the rolls as MIA, did not come home in 1973.  Some people still wear POW/MIA bracelets to remember them; I’m sure there are many amongst the families, friends and others interested across our country.  I personally know of three people who do.

One of these persons is my oldest son Sean Popravak, CPT, AR, ORARNG, commanding B/3-116 Cavalry in Oregon.  For years he’s worn a POW/MIA bracelet for Navy CAPT Harley H. Hall of Vancouver, Washington.  CAPT Hall, a former Blue Angels Leader and a previous SE Asia combat tour veteran, was an F-4J Phantom II pilot with Navy fighter squadron VF-143 aboard USS Enterprise (CVA(N)-65) as the Paris Peace Accords were signed.  He flew his last combat mission on the morning of January 27, scant hours before the ceasefire was to take effect.

While attacking enemy vehicles in South Vietnam’s Quang Tri Province, North Vietnamese Army forces which had invaded South Vietnam during the Easter Offensive of 1972 and remained there, his aircraft, bureau number 155763, was hit by anti-aircraft fire.  It caught fire and a short time later as they headed back toward the sea, he and his Radar Intercept Officer (RIO) backseater, LCDR Philip A. Kientzler, were forced to eject as their F-4 died.  His wounded RIO was captured by North Vietnamese forces and was released later in 1973.  Hall was seen to land in his parachute by his wingman and then run off into some brush.   

Initially carried as MIA, then as POW, CAPT Hall’s status was later changed to killed, though no remains to account for him were returned until 1994, when the Joint Task Force-Full Accounting (JTF-FA, a predecessor of today’s DPAA) accomplished forensic analysis to confirm that the meager human remains they received from the Socialist Republic of Vietnam were from CAPT Hall. 

CPT Popravak reflected on his well-worn, washed-out, and faded bracelet: “CAPT Hall was from Vancouver, that's where I was living.  I think it's important to remember those left behind, and it's not just a name.  There's a real person behind that.  Guys that maybe should've made it back, but didn't.  It's a reminder for myself and those that see it that there's still a lot (of MIA cases) left over from that war, decades before I was born, that unfortunately remain unsolved. They should never be forgotten.” Fifty years later, CAPT Harley H. Hall, USN is not forgotten.

Over 1, 500 other servicemen remain missing and unaccounted for.  In some cases, DPAA deems remains are unrecoverable for various reasons, such as a loss at sea.  For most others, however, their cases are still classified as being in “Active Pursuit.” 

My youngest son, Nathan, an Air Force Brat, wears a POW/MIA bracelet for Maj Vincent A. Scungio, 13th Tactical Fighter Squadron, USAF, an F-105F Thunderchief Wild Weasel Electronic Warfare Officer backseater who joined the Air Force from New Castle, Pennsylvania.  His aircraft, F-105F serial number 62-8273, went missing on a combat mission over North Vietnam while fighting surface-to-air missile sites defending Kep Airfield against an air strike on November 4, 1966, during the Rolling Thunder bombing campaign.  The remains of his pilot, Col Robert E. Brinckmann, were eventually returned by Vietnam and identified in 1989, but Maj Scungio remains missing and unaccounted for.  His is another DPAA case in “Active Pursuit.”  

Nathan, who spent his younger years listening to the roar of 388th Fighter Wing F-16 fighters at Hill AFB, Utah, 366th Fighter Wing F-15s and F-16s at Mountain Home AFB, Idaho, and now the 142nd Wing’s F-15s at Portland ANG Base, Oregon, sees the bracelet as a reminder of unfinished business:  "War never ends for those it affects.  Sometimes it seems like those who have the power to bring these active pursuit cases DPAA has open to completion and account for our missing have long since forgotten the men who sacrificed everything for us.  The torch has been passed down from one generation to those in another who can make a choice to remember and to do something helpful.  It's our duty to encourage them, and hold their feet to the fire if necessary, until that torch is taken up again.  Until those brave souls who gave their all for us reach the finish line and are returned to their loved ones.”  Fifty-six years later, Maj Vincent A. Scungio, USAF is not forgotten.

I wear the POW/MIA bracelet for Col David L. Hrdlicka, USAF, 563rd Tactical Fighter Squadron, who joined the service from Littleton, Colorado.  He was shot down over Houa Phan Province in Laos on May 18, 1965 when his F-105D Thunderchief, serial number 59-1753, was hit by antiaircraft fire as he attacked a road segment and couldn’t get him back to base.  He successfully ejected from his stricken aircraft but was subsequently captured by Pathet Lao forces in the Sam Neua area.  Communist-bloc countries later showed a photograph of him in captivity in their media publications which confirmed his capture.  But he’s still unaccounted for and his case is in DPAA’s analytical category of “Active Pursuit.”

My bracelet came from a little POW/MIA booth near the Vietnam War Memorial during an impressively huge and emotionally-evocative Rolling Thunder motorcycle gathering in Washington D.C. in 2000.  After a 1990s assignment to the 388th Fighter Wing, which operated the F-105 in the Vietnam War, and earlier association with the 561st Tactical Fighter Squadron, a sister-squadron of the 563rd, I chose Col Hrdlicka’s bracelet to remember one of our missing from that “forever-war” which took place when I was a youth.  Fifty-seven years later, Col David L. Hrdlicka, USAF is not forgotten.

These men are among the 1,582 total still unaccounted for from the Vietnam War, with over 1,000 in the “further pursuit” category (as of October 5, 2022).  This includes 196 in the former North Vietnam, 497 in the former South, 263 in Laos, 41 in Cambodia and seven in China.  DPAA continues work via Joint Field Activities with the governments of Vietnam, Laos and Cambodia to account for more of our missing.  For more on the DPAA accounting effort, see their Vietnam War Accounting webpage here.

The echoes of the fighting ripple across the years and generations of lives touched by the scourge of war long after the guns go silent.  The echoes from the Vietnam War are still heard in the hearts and minds of veterans, the families affected and others with memory or connection to the fallen and the missing.  On this 50th anniversary of the signing of the Paris Peace Accords, we remember those who served in Southeast Asia, the fallen, the prisoners and the missing, whom we hope and pray will yet be found.

Note:  If any readers might have a POW/MIA bracelet of your own, please share in comments below who it is that you are remembering.