He flew POWs out of Hanoi at end of Vietnam War

Beginning in February 1973 some 600 American aviators held in the Hanoi “Hilton” were released by their North Vietnamese captors. This is a picture of one of the POWs being reunited with his family.                                         Photo provided by Russell Ogan

Second Lt. Russell Ogan was returning from a fighter sweep over the Battle of the Bulge flying low and slow because of the weather, in “Gloria May,” his P-47 “Thunderbolt,” when his fighter took a direct hit from enemy ground fire.

“It was Friday the 13th and I was on my 13th combat mission when I almost got shot down,” recalled the 80-year-old retired brigadier general, who lives in Lake Suzy, east of Port Charlotte, Fla. “The weather was so bad we were flying with a 300 foot ceiling.

“My flight leader said he knew where we were. He was wrong. We were flying over the Bulge in German territory,” Ogan said. “We passed right over the Germans and all hell broke loose. Ground fire hit the tail section of my plane and punched a hole in my fighter big enough for three people to stand in.”

The hole in his tale was large enough to knock most fighter planes out of the sky. However, he managed to bring his battered “Thunderbolt’ back to base on a wing and a prayer.

By the time World War II was over, Organ had flow 62 combat missions. He was awarded the Legion of Merit with a bronze oak leaf cluster, seven Air Medals and his command pilot wings, which represented approximately 4,500 hours flying time.

He had to wait until the end of the Vietnam War to receive the Distinguished Service Medal, the highest award given during peace time to a member of the armed forces, for a POW flight he will never forget. Ogan also received the Meritorious Service Medal and two Air Force Commendation Medals for superior performance of duty while in the military.

Like millions of other servicemen in the Second World War, he was discharged and didn’t return to the Air Force until the Korean War heated up. Ogan joined the 148th Fighter Interceptor Squadron at Dover Air Force Base, Del. in 1951.

This is Brig. Gen. Russell Ogan in the 1970s when he served in many positions in the U.S. Air Force, including being in charge of flying the POWs out of Hanoi. Photo provided by Russell Ogan

He thought he was going to Korea, but he ended up in Alaska instead. He became the area defense commander for northern Alaska, in command of a fighter interceptor squadron of F-80s and F-94 fighter jets. He was based in Fairbanks.

Following that job, Ogan held a variety of high-profile posts around the world for the Air Force. He was chief of Data Process and Weapons Control Branch of Integrated Divisions, assistant director of Systems Integrations and director of the Aerospace Systems Office of the Air Force Ballistic Missile Division. He did a stint at the National War College. Then he served three years in Germany as Vice Commander of the 88th Air Division. He then was appointed Deputy Director of Personnel Data and Records at the Military Personnel Center. Later, he became Vice Commander of the 14th Air Force.

But he says his most memorable service in the Air Force came later in his 32-year military career.

“During the Vietnam War, I was working for Defense Secretary Melvin Laird in the Pentagon,” Ogan said. “It was during this period in 1972 that I got to know Dr. Henry Kissinger during flights to Paris to negotiate the release of our POWs. I was the spokesman on Kissinger’s team for all of the military commands.”

At the conclusion of the negotiations it was determined the North Vietnamese and Viet Cong held 606 American POWs who were to be repatriated. Ogan was the military officer in charge of flying the POWs out of Hanoi, North Vietnam, to freedom.

Lt. Ogan puts a foot on the wheel of “Gloria Mae,” his P-47 “Thunderbolt” named for his wife. He flew the plane in World War II. Photo provided by Russell Ogan

“I flew out of Clark Air Force Base in the Philippines aboard a C-130 transport at 5 a.m. on a two-hour flight to Hanoi. We landed there about 7 a.m. We were the advance party who made sure everything was worked out when the final three, four-engine Air Force transports landed several hours later to pick up some of the POWs,” Ogan said.

Part of his advance work included smoking green cigarettes and sipping tea with members of the North Vietnamese delegation who met him at the airport terminal in Hanoi.

He didn’t smoke and those green cigarettes were terrible, he said. It was a 30-minute formality he had to endure. He didn’t say much while sitting at a table face-to-face with the enemy.

“Exactly at noon, the first of our airplanes landed to pick up the POWs,” he said. “The second plane landed at 12:30 p.m. and the third at 1 p.m. The POWs were brought to the airport in small, olive-green buses.

“It was all choreographed and formal. They got off the buses, walked over to me, saluted and I shook their hands. Some of these people had been prisoners for eight years. I was the first free person they had shaken hands with in eight years. You can imagine their feelings.

“I remember there was one POW they brought out of the bus on a stretcher because he couldn’t walk. When he reached me, he climbed out of the stretcher, walked over saluted and said, “’Thank you,’” Ogan said.

All the while, a contingent from the media was watching the transfer of the POWs form a prearranged press spot nearby.

Three airmen stand in the hole caused by flak from German guns when Ogan flew low over the Battle of the Bulge during World War II. Photo provided by Russell Ogan

One plane after another landed at the airport in Hanoi, picked up approximately 80 former POWs and flew them back to Clark Air Force Base. It was a euphoric flight to freedom for the former prisoners of war.

A couple of months after the return of the POWs to this country, President Richard Nixon had a soiree for all 606 of them and their wives at a large gathering atop the State Department building in Washington, D.C.

“The president talked to each one of the POWs individually at this gathering,” Ogan said. It took the long line of former prisoner’s three-and-a-half hours to work their way to the head of the line, shake the president’s hand and say a few words to their commander-in-chief.”

“They worshiped Nixon. They thought he was the best thing that ever happened to the United States. And he worshiped them in return,” he said.

Among the returning POWs was a Navy captain by the name of John McCain.

“He wasn’t the center of attention in those days as he has since become. But even then, I thought he was a great guy,” Ogan said.” I have the most respect for him because of all he went through during the years he was held captive.”

Looking back on his three decades plus in the Air Force, the retired brigadier general said, “Taking the prisoners out of Hanoi was the highlight of my career. And I can honestly say, it was the easiest job I ever had. I had the cooperation of everybody.”


Ogan’s File

Name: Russell G. Ogan
Age: 80 (at the time of interview)
Hometown: Reading, Pa.
Current: Lake Suzy, Fla.
Entered Service: November 17, 1942
Rank: Brigadier General
Unit: Fighter Pilot World War II, Fighter Squadron Commander Dover AFB, Del. 1951; Director Combat Operations Ladd AFB 1951-56; Headquarters Air Defense Command 1956-60; Sector Operation Center NATO Germany 1963-66; 71st Missile Warning Wing 1968-71; Director POW and MIA Affairs; Office Secretary of Defense, Washington, D.C. 1972-74
Commendations: Distinguished Service Medal, Legion of Merit with Bronze Oak leaf Cluster, Air Medal with one Silver Star and one Bronze Oak leaf Cluster
Married: Gloria Mae Withers
Children: Susan Gunn, Russell L. Ogan


This story was first published in the Charlotte Sun newspaper, Port Charlotte, Florida on Sunday, Nov. 24, 2003 and is republished with permission.

All rights reserved. This copyrighted material may not be republished without permission. Links are encouraged.

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Ogan, Russell G.
Nov. 20, 1923 – Dec. 18, 2012

Brig. Gen. (Ret.) Russell G. Ogan, 89, of Lake Suzy, FL passed away Tuesday, December 18, 2012, with his family by his side. Russell was born in Reading, PA in 1923, to John and Edna Ogan.

In November 1942, he enlisted in the Army and was later transferred to the Aviation Cadet program through which he received his pilot wings and commission as Second Lieutenant in February 1944. During World War II, he flew 62 combat missions as a P-47 pilot with the 371st Fighter Group in the European Theatre of Operations.

In June 1971, he was assigned as Deputy Director, Personnel Programs, Deputy Chief of Staff, Personnel, Headquarters U.S. Air Force, Washington, D.C. He assumed duties as Director, Prisoner of War and Missing in Action Affairs, in the Office of the Assistant Secretary of Defense (International Security Affairs) in June 1972.

He received the Distinguished Service Medal, the highest award given during peacetime to a member of the armed forces, for a POW flight that was the highlight of his career. He received the Meritorious Service Medal and two Air Force Commendation Medals for superior performance of duty while in the military. He retired from military service in 1974.

His second passion was golf and he was a founding member of the Kingsway Country Club in Lake Suzy, FL.

He is survived by his high school sweetheart, Gloria Withers Ogan, whom he married in October of 1943; a son, Russell L. Ogan (Kathi) of Fort Myers; cherished grandchildren, Ryan Ogan, Kaitlyn Ogan, and Scott Harkins; brother, Bill. He was preceded in death by his daughter, Suzy Ogan Gunn (Greg); his parents and sister, Betty.

A Memorial Service will be held at 4:00 pm, Thursday, January 10, 2013 at Kingsway Country Club, 13625 SW Kingsway Cir. Lake Suzy, FL. He will be laid to rest with honors at Arlington National Cemetery. Memorial contributions can be made to the charity of your choice . Please visit kays-ponger.com to leave the family condolences and to sign the online guestbook. Kays-Ponger & Uselton Funeral Homes is in charge of arrangements.

*From the Sarasota Herald Tribune, page 10B on Sunday, January 6, 2013



Comments

  1. The Arlington service for my grandfather will be july 8th at 3pm at arlington national cemetary……

    Ryan Ogan

    • Ryan – Thank you for letting me know. It was my privilege to write his your grandfather’s story. Again, my sincere condolences to you and your family.

  2. Today I learned a friend of mine Col. Driscoll had passed away….he was on one of the first POW flights. I worked with his wife Sharon, and after she learned I was the Navy air controller that had the honor of providing advisory assistance to this flight…..she wanted her husband to meet me. When Mr. Driscoll met me, he said what an honor it was to meet me! I said come on….it is you that I stand privileged to meet. What a great man. On board the USS Horne(DLG30)….it was an honor and a great thrill to be involved with this mission….I have never forgotten it

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