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Ross Perot: ‘Operation Understanding’

I created this aviation art print in 2006 with the assistance of a friend and fellow AvGeek, Forrest Tohill. The print is an homage to one of the aircraft that was used in ‘Operation Understanding‘ – a humanitarian mission undertaken at the height of the Vietnam War with the support of H. Ross Perot. Forrest was kind enough to share his research on ‘Operation Understanding‘ with me and it outlined just how pivotal Perot’s support was.

Near the end of Richard Nixon’s first year in office in 1968, Dallas businessman H. Ross Perot, the founder of the computer firm EDS, began to take an interest in the plight of the POWs held by the Hanoi regime. His interest was further stoked by an ABC reporter, Murphy Martin, who took four women whose husbands were missing in action to Southeast Asia in an attempt to meet the North Vietnamese negotiators. When he returned to Dallas, Martin put together a documentary of the trip and asked Ross Perot to preview it. One of the missing pilot’s sons was in the documentary and mentioned that he had never yet met his father. Perot asked “Do you mean that boy has never seen his dad?” Given a positive response, Perot didn’t just preview Martin’s documentary, he sponsored it and went on to form an organization – “United We Stand” – to advocate for POWs and MIAs in Vietnam. 

After meeting with President Nixon to brief him on this new organization, Perot devised a bold plan to try and deliver food, medicine, and gifts to the POWs in Hanoi for Christmas 1969. At the time, there were 1,420 confirmed POWs being held by the North Vietnamese. 

Dubbed “Operation Understanding,” the mission cost $700,000 of which Perot bankrolled $500,000 with the remaining balance coming from membership dues from “United We Stand.”

Twenty-six tons of food, gifts, and medications were loaded on N7097, a Braniff International Boeing 707-327C. Braniff’s inflight catering department devised a way of vacuum packing Christmas dinners for the POWs. Collins Radio provided special communications equipment so that N7097 could stay in constant radio contact throughout its flight to Vietnam.  All of this was accomplished only ten days before Christmas!

On 21 December 1969, N7097 took off from Dallas Love Field for a stop at LAX before continuing on to Honolulu. At that time, Braniff’s 707-320C fleet was used for USAF Military Airlift Command flights to support the war effort in Vietnam in what were called “PAC-MAC” charters. During a stop at Wake Island, Hanoi refused permission for N7097 to land in Vietnam, calling the flight “provocative.” The flight diverted to Hong Kong’s Kai Tak before proceeding to Bangkok where Perot met with Thai government officials.

Not one to give up easily, Perot flew by private aircraft on Christmas Eve to Vientiane, the capital of Laos, to meet with North Vietnamese embassy officials to try and get last minute permission to fly to Hanoi. The following day, Christmas Day, N7097 made the short hop from Bangkok to Vientiane. After much discussion, the North Vietnamese would only accept N7097’s cargo if it came via Moscow. Furthermore, they would not accept any package weighing more than 3 kilograms and all packages had to be in Moscow before December 31. 

Plans were made for N7097 to fly to Moscow via Tehran and Copenhagen, but through their proxies, the Burmese and Chinese governments refused clearance through their airspace. Adjusting quickly, Perot had N7097 fly to Tokyo, refuel, and head to Anchorage, Alaska. In the middle of the harsh Alaskan winter, hundreds of volunteers turned up to repackage the cargo to meet the North Vietnamese restrictions and they did it in less than ten hours! N7097 then departed and flew over the North Pole to reach Copenhagen on December 30. 

Anxious to meet the deadline, Perot visited the Soviet embassy in Copenhagen to obtain permission to fly to Moscow and arrive on December 31. Stonewalled yet again, Perot cabled Soviet Premier Alexei Kosygin. No response was forthcoming from the Kremlin. At 18:30 local time on December 31, Perot called a press conference to announce their flight to Moscow was denied and he would not make the deadline to get the packages to the POWs.

Despite returning to Dallas via New York without meeting their goal, Operation Understanding’s flight around the world brought media attention to the treatment of the POWs in Vietnam. Two more Perot charters were flown after the epic first flight. 

The artwork I created depicts the first of three Braniff flights chartered by H. Ross Perot to bring gifts and medicines to the American POWs being held by North Vietnam. The aircraft wore special markings with “Peace On Earth” titles by the aft passenger door and a special ribbon decal that unfortunately came off during takeoff from Dallas Love Field.

One of the most complicating factors in creating accurate illustrations of Braniff’s 707s in their 1960s Alexander Girard designed “Jellybean” liveries is that no known color chips have survived to be used as a reference. The paint colors were uniquely mixed at Braniff’s Love Field maintenance base and were subject to batch to batch variation. Additionally, aircraft weathered over time and if an aircraft was touched up, the paint differences often resulted in a patchwork appearance.

In developing the illustration for the “Peace On Earth” 707, I worked with Forrest Tohill to create what I feel is the most accurate representation of the Light Green color scheme the aircraft wore. Many contemporary references didn’t capture the color correctly and Forrest consulted with Braniff flight crews, cabin staff, and mechanics to determine the proper shade of green. And yes, we even determined that N7097 had its nose section repainted and that shade of green was slightly darker than the rest of the aircraft!

The other complex factor is that there are numerous discrepancies in contemporary references as to which 707-327C wore which color and when. Many references are based on reviews of photographs which, over time, can fade and discolor. Forrest was kind enough to spend time in Braniff’s archives at the University of Texas at Dallas reviewing source material to assemble a more accurate fleet list as well as to determine as best as possible the proper shades of colors used in the 1960s.

I had the distinct pleasure of meeting the last surviving Braniff captain from the first Perot charter, Captain George Phillips. I presented him with one of my prints in February 2006. Captain Phillips flew Douglas R4D Skytrains (the Navy version of the C-47) in the South Pacific before he was discharged from the Marine Corps in 1945 at the end of the war. He started out with several airlines including TWA and Panagra before he went to Braniff in 1949 as a DC-3/DC-4 captain. He remained a Marine Corps reservist and during the Korean War, he was reactivated to fly C-54s between Japan and South Korea. During his career at Braniff, he flew as captain on the Convair 240, all the Douglas prop-liners, and the Lockheed Electra as well as the Douglas DC-8, Boeing 727, 707, and 747 before he retired. Flipping through his logbooks was an amazing trip through aviation history. 

Unbeknownst to me, Forrest sent H. Ross Perot one of my prints. One evening as I was getting dinner ready for the kids, my cell phone rang, but I didn’t pick up as you can imagine what getting my three daughters fed at their young ages was like. It rang a second time, this time it went to voicemail.

After dinner, I listened to the voice mail message. It was Ross Perot! He asked me to call him back at my leisure. I called back immediately! His secretary answered and I told her who I was.

Oh yes, Mr. Perot has been eagerly waiting to hear back from you. Let me transfer you to his office.

Perot and I talked for about 10 minutes. He expressed his gratitude that I had done an aviation art print commemorating the first of his three ‘Operation Understanding‘ charter flights that brought attention to the plight of the POWs.

To most of the country H. Ross Perot was a somewhat eccentric Texas billionaire. But for those of us who graduated from the University of Texas Southwestern in Dallas, he was the single biggest benefactor of medical education and scientific research at Southwestern, having donated more than $90 million to various programs and initiatives at the medical school.

As a practicing physician, much of my medical education at UT Southwestern’s medical school benefitted from H. Ross Perot’s generosity.

The lives he touched through his philanthropy made the world a better place, no matter what you see on the news these days.

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