CLARK AIR BASE, Philippines -- A gaunt but cheerful 108 American prisoners of war regained their freedom today, with the senior ranking prisoner in North Vietnam declaring the U.S. POWs "performed magnificently ... they were first class soldiers."
"I would like to say I've been in better places but I have never been with better people," Air Force Col. John P. Flynn, 50, the senior ranking man held in the North, said as he stepped off his freedom flight.
"Our men performed magnificently. They were first class soldiers. They were first class citizens."
The 108 were flown from Hanoi to Clark Air Base in the Philippines in three planeloads. If processing at Clark goes as smoothly as it has in the past, the first of the men should be back in the United States by the weekend.
The release leaves 147 known U.S. POWs still in Indochina, including 10 in Laos. Another 32 are to be released by the Viet Cong Friday and the rest are all supposed to be freed by March 28 according to the Vietnam cease-fire.
Flynn was followed off the plane by Navy Lt. Cmdr. John S. McCain III, the son of retired Adm. John S. McCain, who was commander-in-chief of the Pacific forces at the height of the Vietnam war.
The younger McCain, 36, walked from the plane with a noticeable limp and graying hair. He paused for about 15 seconds to chat with his father's successor, Adm. Noel Gayler, and then limped to the bus, where he climbed on unassisted.
Among the men released today was Bobby Joe Keesee, a mysterious civilian who at one time reportedly flew a stolen airplane to Cuba. U.S. officials said they did not know why Keesee, a Korean War paratrooper who was last seen in Bangkok in 1970, was held prisoner but since there were no outstanding charges against him, a State Department spokesman said in Washington he would be welcomed back like the rest.
Keesee did not get off the plane with the rest of the prisoners, but walked off the back ramp directly onto a bus. Authorities at Clark had no immediate comment on his status.
Keesee was the only civilian among the 108. The rest were mostly pilots shot down in 1967 and 1968.
Most of the men appeared to be in good physical condition although thin and pale. The two exceptions were McCain, who was shot down on Oct. 26, 1967, and Air Force Capt. Hubert C. Walker, 31, of Tulsa, Okla. Walker, moving very slowly under his own power, was escorted off the plane by a medic.
The senior man on board the third C141, Air Force Col. David W. Winn, chose to step of his plane in the flight coveralls worn by American pilots instead of the blue outfits given the other POWs by the North Vietnamese.
"You brought us home with honor and we hope to serve you well," Winn said. "To borrow from Keats, freedom is happiness and happiness is freedom. That is all we need to know and it's all we know today."
One of the prisoners had his wife waiting here for him. Roberta Stafford, wife of Navy Cmdr. Hugh A. Stafford, 38, flew to Clark from Hong Kong where she lives to be on hand for her husband's arrival. Air Force officials said Mrs. Stafford chose to greet her husband privately in the base hospital rather than greet him on the flight line.
An enthusiastic crowd greeted the men with cheers, flags and posters and the men responded with happy smiles and vigorous waves as they walked down a red carpet to buses. As they drove to the base hospital in blue ambulance buses, they leaned out the windows and gave the crowd the thumbs up sign.
"From all of us and believe me from the bottom of our hearts, I want to thank God, the United States of America and all you wonderful, good looking people," said Navy Capt. Leo T. Profillit, 44, of Palo Alto, Calif., the first man off the plane.
He then said "Thank you" but it was barely heard above the cheers and yells from the 500 persons who came to the base to greet the returning men.
A U.S. military spokesman said in Saigon the United States will resume its troop withdrawal to coincide with the latest release of the POWs. The withdrawal had been suspended since Sunday because of disputes over the POW release.
In addition to the POWs coming out of Vietnam, the last two American prisoners held in China were scheduled to be released Thursday.
Among those to be released by the Viet Cong Friday were Army Maj. Floyd J. Thompson, an American advisor who was the longest held prisoner of war, and Marine Pfc. Ronald L. Ridgeway, who was originally listed as killed in action but was discovered to be alive when the Communists released his name earlier this year.
In the United States, Peggy Manhard learned that her diplomat husband, Philip, would be released after nearly five years of captivity. She was attending a White House reception for foreign diplomat wives when President Nixon made a surprise appearance.
"I'm thrilled and thank you very much," she told the President, her eyes brimming with tears.
"Obviously your husband is a strong man," Nixon said to her as she shook her hand.