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.
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
“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.”