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THEN & NOW: They Met 49 Years Ago on His POW Flight Home

He had spent nearly seven years in captivity. She was a flight attendant. The rest is history.

spinner image a couple when they were married and what they look like now
Left: Courtesy Mike Lane; Right: Ray Baldino
spinner image people hold up a welcome home sign as someone from the military stands before an american flag. the words aarp veteran report appear above the flag
Getty Images/AARP

You can subscribe here to AARP Veteran Report, a free e-newsletter published every two weeks. If you have feedback or a story idea then please contact us here.

Capt. Mike Lane was freed from the notorious Hanoi Hilton as part of Operation Homecoming in February 1973. He had spent six years and two months in captivity after ejecting from his F-4 Phantom at 25,000 feet over North Vietnam.

The 31-year-old U.S. Air Force pilot was flown back on a military aircraft to Andrews Air Force Base outside of Washington, D.C. “I was there for a couple of weeks to make sure all my body parts worked okay, and I was still sane and safe to let loose on the streets,” Lane recalled to AARP Veteran Report.

Next he was to return to Charlotte, North Carolina, for a homecoming celebration. This time, he flew on an Eastern Airlines civilian flight. On board that day was a flight attendant named Ruth Sweeney.

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Ruth was one of the 5 million Americans who had spent $2.50 on a nickel-plated POW bracelet engraved with the name, rank and loss date of a captured or missing American serviceman. The bracelet had been a reminder to her of those still suffering far away in Southeast Asia. Many had forgotten them, but she had not.

Five-minute rock star

spinner image mike lane
Photo of Lane, made by the North Vietnamese, on the day he was captured.
Courtesy Mike Lane via Maine Military Museum

“When the crew told me that Mike was on the plane, I just had to meet him,” Ruth told AARP Veteran Report. She approached him when they landed in Charlotte.

“This young flight attendant walks up to me and wants to know if I knew the guy that she was wearing the POW bracelet for,” Lane said.

Ruth was inquiring about the fate of Captain John Fer, whose name had been on her wrist for three years. “John made it, he’s fine,” Lane responded. “He’s got all his digits. He’s cool.” Ruth thanked him and left to join the reception group on the tarmac.

Lane was greeted by a crowd of well-wishers. “I walked over to them, and I was a five-minute rock star for the young kids,” Lane said. “They were all happy to shake my hand. While all this was going on, that young lady, Ruth Sweeney, ended up standing next to my best friend from high school, by the name of Tommy.”

Perhaps realizing that Lane could use a helping hand — the Air Force officer had barely seen a woman for almost seven years — his friend stepped in.

“Tommy, God bless him, played Cupid, and was bold enough to ask for her phone number, and she gave it to him,” Lane said. “And he gave that to me the next day.”

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The rest is history

Lane called the number. After a few conversations, Ruth agreed that he should fly to Atlanta and that their first date should be a picnic in nearby Stone Mountain Park. When Lane arrived in Atlanta, he was met by a blonde with startling emerald eyes and wearing a green pantsuit.

At first, he didn’t recognize her. On the Charlotte flight, Ruth’s hair had been pinned up and those eyes had been obscured by a pair of glasses. This time, Lane remembered, “her hair was down, and she was just gorgeous.”

The couple’s second date was in Washington, D.C. “We were wined and dined on the South Lawn of the White House by President Nixon and his wife, had a grand time, and then the rest is history,” said Lane.

Mike Lane and Ruth Sweeney married just over six months later, one day short of the seventh anniversary of the day his F-4 had been shot down.

“I remember more those first few weeks, when we were getting to know each other, and how much he appreciated every single thing around him,” said Ruth. Lane would lie awake at night “in catch-up mode,” she said.

“He was reading voraciously, traveling every chance he got and experiencing everything. New cars, the way people dressed — everything about the country was different. I’ll never forget when he opened a bag of pretzels and stuck his whole head inside just to smell how good pretzels were.”

When their son started junior high school, Ruth went back to work as a flight attendant, and she continued in the job for some three decades. “Mike needed alone time to come to grips with things and not have somebody running interference all the time,” she said. “That worked for us.” Lane retired from the Air Force as a colonel in 1988 before working for McDonnell Douglas and then founding his own company.

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‘It’s been a hoot’

“We both love to travel,” Ruth said. “So we’ve tried to see as much of the world as we can since retirement. We love just being together and with friends and family.”

Lane was awarded the Silver Star, and his citation states that when, in captivity, “the enemy resorted to mental and physical cruelties to obtain information, confessions and propaganda materials … [he] resisted their demands by calling upon his deepest inner strengths.”

Being a POW taught him personal integrity and empathy, Lane believes. “You can’t go lying. You have to truly listen to what people have to say and understand them.”

Mike Lane, 80, and Ruth, 75, now live near Melbourne, Florida, and will celebrate their 49th wedding anniversary in December. “Holy catfish!” he said. She laughed, adding, “It’s been a hoot.”

You can subscribe here to AARP Veteran Report, a free e-newsletter published every two weeks. If you have feedback or a story idea then please contact us here.

Do you have a potential story that might make a THEN & NOW article in AARP Veteran Report? If so, please contact our editors here.

Abraham Mahshie was previously the Pentagon editor for Air Force Magazine. As a journalist for two decades, he has covered national security and politics across the U.S. and Latin America and also worked as a defense contractor. The son of a Vietnam veteran, he grew up in Miami.

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