“These experiences become engrained in your mind, and never go away.”
March 29, 1973, marks the day when then-Capt. Robert Certain was released from a Hanoi prison during Operation Homecoming.
“Every year between Christmas and Easter becomes an anxious time for me remembering those Prisoner of War days,” Certain said in an interview with Air Force Times. This year marks the 40th anniversary of his release.
On Dec. 18, 1972, President Nixon ordered a campaign against military targets in the cities of Hanoi and Haiphong during the Vietnam War, known as Linebacker II. A part of the 340th Bombardment Squadron at Andersen Air Force Base, Guam, Certain was “scheduled to go back to the states that Friday.” But the mission changed.
The beginning excerpt of “The Final Flight” chapter of Certain’s book, “Unchained Eagle,” reads:
“Col. Russ McCarthy, commander of the 43 Strategic Wing, came to the podium and announced, ‘Gentlemen, your target for tonight is Hanoi’ as a slide of North Vietnam with a target triangle over Hanoi lit up the screen behind him. Linebacker II was beginning.”
Even with some take-off mishaps straining the mission beforehand, the B-52 navigator eventually headed toward Hanoi, and was in charge of keeping the planes — all heading over in different waves — moving in sync as much as possible to rendezvous at the landing point. But instead he entered the bomb-release point over the Yen Vien rail yards with a failed radar system, which shut down in the midst of bombs exploding all around.
“We felt two missiles hit us…shrapnel and fire destroying the jets…the plane just descended downward,” Certain said.
The aircraft crashed and exploded 10 miles northwest of Hanoi but Certain ejected safely, taking him roughly 15 minutes to land on the ground.
“There was a full moon that night — around 8:30 p.m. — and they saw us coming down in our parachutes about 50 yards away,” Certain said. The next thing he knew the enemy was moving him into a truck to be transported to a nearby village.
“There were many small POW prison camps in North Vietnam: the ‘Hanoi Hilton,’ the ‘Plantation’ and the ‘Zoo’ were among the famous ones,” Certain said. He was held at the Hilton and eventually moved to the Zoo for the remainder of his POW time.
Many nights were spent being interrogated and being beaten with a rock, Certain recalled.
“Every anniversary gives me an understanding of how combat really never leaves a warrior,” he said.
It became his new way of understanding and accepting how common occurrences “are emotionally and spiritually bigger for [him] because of what [he] went through.”
Following the Vietnam War, he attended the School of Theology in Sewanee, Tenn., where he earned a doctorate degree in ministry. He became a military chaplain serving in the Air Force on active duty and in the reserves. He retired from the Air Force Reserves in 1999 as a colonel. He presided as an Episcopal priest over President Gerald Ford’s memorial service in January 2007.
“As a chaplain and as a parish priest following that, I wanted to give military families guidance, a way of helping them to understand our current generation of war fighters and how to see that life through,” Certain said.
Related reading: McCain marks 40th anniversary of POW release