Our Stories: Retired FedEx Express Pilot Promotes Project Welcome Home
By John Perkinson, Senior Staff Writer
Capt. Joe Crecca (FedEx Express, Ret.) in front of Midnight Express
If there’s one thing Capt. Joe Crecca (FedEx Express, Ret.) could point to that led to his release from the infamous “Hanoi Hilton” POW camp in Vietnam, it would be the B-52 Stratofortress. “That airplane flew the bombing missions in December 1972 that compelled the North Vietnamese to eventually sign the Paris Peace Accords,” he said.
Given Crecca’s affinity for this iconic warbird, it’s no surprise that he’s one of five veterans spearheading Project Welcome Home to erect a Vietnam Air War Memorial at The Museum of Flight in Seattle, Wash. With the help of these five servicemen, the museum is in the process of fully restoring Midnight Express, a B-52G (#59-2584), at Paine Field in Everett, Wash. When the project is completed, the aircraft will be the focus of the new memorial.
A graduate of Newark College of Engineering, Crecca enlisted in the U.S. Air Force in 1966. He flew McDonnell F-4C Phantoms during Operation Rolling Thunder, a U.S. bombing campaign during the Vietnam War. On Nov. 22, 1966, his aircraft was shot down by a surface-to-air missile and he was taken prisoner, spending the next six years and three months in the Hoa Lo Prison—aka the Hanoi Hilton—a facility notorious for interrogating and torturing captured American military pilots shot down during aerial attacks. Other prisoners included U.S. Sen. John McCain (R-Ariz.) and Capt. John McGrath (United, Ret.).
Part of the reason Crecca holds the B-52 in such high esteem is because the aircraft was used to conduct the war’s Operation Linebacker II, an 11-day airstrike of the Hanoi and Haiphong areas. U.S. President Richard Nixon called for the action as leverage to coerce the North Vietnamese to return to peace talks. The strikes were successful in securing a ceasefire, and Crecca was released on Feb. 18, 1973, one of the 591 American POWs to be released by March 29, 1973.
Crecca recalled boarding a C-141 Starlifter at Gia Lam Airport in Hanoi to finally be taken home. “When the pilots pushed the throttles up for takeoff and the engines roared, a spontaneous cheer went up inside the aircraft,” he recalled. “When the airplane rotated and lifted up from the runway, there was another spontaneous cheer. Those are called significant emotional events, and when they happen, you never forget them.”
Crecca continued to fly for the Air Force until 1978, retiring as a major. He then opted to transport civilian air cargo for Flying Tigers and later FedEx Express before retiring in 2005.
Midnight Express, which flew in the first wave on the first night of Operation Linebacker II, is being restored and painted at Boeing’s Kilo-6 site at Paine Field. The bomber was built in 1960 and amassed 15,305 flight hours before being retired. Unfortunately, it was left unattended for many years and suffered some serious deterioration prior to the project.
Midnight Express is being restored at Boeing’s Kilo-6 site at Paine Field in Everett, Wash., before being transported and installed at Boeing Aviation Pavilion in 2018.
In 2018, the B-52 will be transported in sections on flatbed trucks 30-plus miles south to The Museum of Flight at Boeing Field, where it will be reassembled and installed south of the facility’s Boeing Aviation Pavilion. Along with the aircraft, the memorial will feature a 9-foot bronze statue of an aviator. The park will also include other Vietnam-era airplanes and helicopters, but Midnight Express will be the centerpiece.
The retired FedEx Express captain said he owes his life to the B-52s and their crews. “Without them, my bones would be in Hanoi,” he acknowledged. “It’s time to rectify these years of abandonment by bringing this magnificent creation of Boeing engineering and a symbol of American military might and political resolve to a more fitting and dignified place of rest.”
And if all goes as planned, the B-52 will be welcomed home at The Museum of Flight in October 2018.
Freedom Isn’t Free
Support is needed to help restore Midnight Express and give it a home in a place of honor. Project Welcome Home is primarily funded by private donations and will cost an estimated $2.2 million to complete. Visit Project Welcome Home to make a donation.