Flashback Friday: Operation Homecoming Brought POWs Home in 1973

April 13, 2018 12:47 PM

It was Friday, April 13, 1973 when the Minnesota Twins played their home opener against Oakland.

The Twins won 8-4 before a crowd of 13,040 at a blustery Met Stadium in Bloomington. But the biggest stars on the field that day weren't Tony Oliva or Harmon Killebrew, who each had RBIs.

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Nor even Larry Hisle, who went 2-for-3 with a home run, or winning pitcher Jim Kaat.

Rather, it was a group of recently-released prisoners of war from Minnesota who were honored before the game with 1973 Major League Baseball passes, autographed baseballs and blue gloves.

"No matter what happens in the game today, the real heroes won't emerge from the game," Minnesota sportscasting icon Halsey Hall told the crowd, according to an article in the next day's Minneapolis Tribune.

"They're right here."

The men were among the almost 600 POWs who had been held by North Vietnam and were released as part of "Operation Homecoming," which followed the signing of the Paris Peace Accords in January of that year.

Their releases occurred throughout the first few months of 1973. They included POWs with Minnesota ties like Leo K. Thorsness, a Congressional Medal of Honor winner who was awarded the nation's highest military honor after being shot down and spending six years in captivity.

Thorsness, a native of Walnut Grove who shared a cell with Senator John McCain at the infamous "Hanoi Hilton," died last year.

RELATED: Medal of Honor Recipient, Minnesota Native Dies at 85

And there was Roger Ingvalson, a Silver Star winner whose first wife Jacqueline died while he was in captivity.

He spoke of the important role faith played in getting through his experience when he and his son Craig, who had been cared for by relatives after his mother's death, returned to his native Blooming Prairie in April of 1973.

"For several months I was in solitary confinement and the Vietnamese thought I was alone, but they were wrong," he told the big crowd that gathered to welcome him back, according to a story in the Minneapolis Tribune.

"I had God with me every minute." 

After moving to Tennessee and remarrying, Ingvalson - who also was held at the "Hanoi Hilton" - would go on to found Chattanooga Prison Ministries, which was later renamed Prison Prevention Ministries and still exists today.

He died in 2011.

"At the beginning, I think it logically connected to the fact that he had been in a prison himself and had that experience," said Craig, who spent the school year with his mother's family in Maine and summers with his father's family in Minnesota while his Dad remained in captivity.

"But where it went pretty quickly was to a ministry for people who were in a bad place, whether it was entirely their own fault or not. He knew that comfort comes from a spiritual base."

Then there was the group honored at Met Stadium that April.

Selected to throw out the first pitch was Minneapolis native Richard Bolstad, a veteran of both the U.S. Marine Corps and Air Force.

After serving in the Marines during the Korean War, Bolstad received an honorable discharge in April of 1953 before enlisting in the Air Force later that year.

According to various online biographies, he was shot down over North Vietnam in November of 1965 and spent 2,656 days in captivity - including at the "Hanoi Hilton" - before his release in February of 1973.

"We were all excited to have him back home safely," Don Bolstad said of his brother, who died in 2014.

"He was alive and well. He'd lost a lot of weight. But mentally, he was OK. He really just wanted to move on."

That was not an uncommon approach among returning POWs.

"He talked about his experience to me," Craig Ingvalson said of his father. "But it didn't go any further than that. I think he knew that the exposing and retelling of the pain didn't serve any positive purpose for those involved."

Instead they moved forward.

Upon his return, Bolstad married his wife Helen, to whom he'd become engaged while on leave in 1965.

"I hadn't really given up hope that she'd be waiting," Bolstad told the Tribune in March of 1973 while on a return visit to Minneapolis. "But I didn't expect her to be."

Bolstad too was awarded the Silver Star for bravery during his time in captivity.

And his brother said it was especially appropriate he was among those honored by the Twins that April day in 1973.

"He was very athletic himself," Don Bolstad said. "He participated in a lot of different sports. In fact, if he had pursued it, I think he felt like he might have been able to play Major League Baseball."

Credits

Frank Rajkowski

Copyright 2018 - KSTP-TV, LLC A Hubbard Broadcasting Company

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