On an overcast day in March 1973, photographer Sal Veder of Associated Press captured an image of a POW being happily greeted by his family. The photo was titled “Burst of Joy" and became the quintessential homecoming photograph of the Vietnam Era. It was run in countless newspapers across the country. It also won a Pulitzer Prize in 1974.
But what of the family? How did they come to be racing towards each other on a tarmac in California? What happened after the image was taken?
The Vietnam War concluded on January 27, 1973 with the signing of the Paris Peace Accords. Once U.S. troops began to withdraw, POWs would also be released and allowed to return home. And so, in early 1973, Operation Homecoming started. From February 12 to April 4, 54 flights carried 591 American POWs home, and in one of these flights was Lt. Col. Robert L. Stirm, the soldier in the famous photograph.
Born in San Francisco, Stirm joined the Aviation Cadet Program before graduating as a 2nd Lieutenant in the U.S. Air Force in November 1954. On February 6, 1955, he married his wife Loretta. Together they had four children: Lorrie, Robert, Roger, and Cynthia (“Cindy”).
He was deployed to Vietnam in August 1967; he was shot down two months later over Canal Des Rapides Bridge in Hanoi and was captured by North Vietnamese troops. Just like other POWs, Stirm survived torture, starvation, and over 280 days of solitary confinement. In the six years he was held as prisoner, Stirm was transferred to different camps including the infamous Hanoi Hilton (where he spend some time in the same cell as Senator John McCain).
Operation Homecoming was Stirm’s way out of the conditions of North Vietnamese prison camps.
On March 17th, Stirm arrived at Travis Air Force Base in California with around 20 other POWs. In addition to the press, a large crowd of family members and supporters came to welcome the POWs home. Upon landing, Stirm gave a short speech on behalf of the flight's POWs. Across the tarmac, his family patiently waited for him to finish the formalities in the family’s station wagon.
Once his speech concluded, his wife and four children got out of the car and raced to greet him. After six long years, they were finally reunited. Lorrie, shown in the photograph running down the runway with her open arms, was only 9 years old the last time she saw her father. Following only steps behind Lorrie in photograph was her mother and her three younger siblings. “We didn’t know if he would ever come home. I just wanted to get to Dad as fast as I could,” Lorrie says. “That moment was all our prayers answered, all our wishes come true.”
The photo was the perfect prelude to a “Happily Ever After” story which included hardship, love, desperation, and homecoming. However there is more behind the scenes of this photograph. Three days before Stirm returned home from Vietnam, he arrived in the Philippines for evaluation. An Air Force chaplain handed him a letter. His wife was ending their relationship. “I have changed drastically–forced into a situation where I finally had to grow up,” the letter said. “Bob, I feel sure that in your heart you know we can’t make it together–and it doesn’t make sense to be unhappy when you can do something about it. Life is too short.”
Upon his return to the states, the couple tried to work out their marriage, but within a year, the couple divorced.
Stirm remained in the military before retiring as a colonel in 1977 and settling in Foster City, California. He remarried but divorced again while his ex-wife Loretta remarried and moved to Texas.
Of the famous photograph, Stirm said, “I have several copies of the photo but I don’t display it in the house.” He does reiterates what he likes about the photograph, “I was very pleased to see my children—I loved them all and still do, and I know they had a difficult time—but there was a lot to deal with.”
The main issue he has with the famous photo is not the situation in which it was created – the return of a POW who endured unimaginable hardships – but of the woman in it. “In some ways, it’s hypocritical, because my former wife had abandoned the marriage within a year or so after I was shot down,” Stirm recounts. “And she did not even have the honor and integrity to be honest with the kids. She lived a lie. This picture does not show the realities that she had accepted proposals of marriage from three different men. . . . It portrays (that) everybody there was happy to see me.”
The four children see the photograph in a different light. They all have the picture mounted in their houses. “We have this very nice picture of a very happy moment,” Lorrie says, “but every time I look at it, I remember the families that weren’t reunited, and the ones that aren’t being reunited today—many, many families—and I think, I’m one of the lucky ones.”