Burst of Joy
With the signing of the Paris Peace Accords on January 27, 1973 American involvement in the Vietnam was over. Through a series of diplomatic negotiations a deal was reached with the North Vietnamese government that allowed the return of 591 American POWs held by the communists. In Operation Homecoming from February 12 to April 4 there were 54 flights out of Hanoi, North Vietnam to bring the POWs home. One of these runs was the plane with Lt. Col. Robert L. Stirm. After giving a short speech Stirm’s family ran across the tarmac to greet their father who they hadn’t seen in six years. Slava “Sal” Veder who was working for the Associated Press caught this image. It went on to win the 1974 Pulitzer Prize for photography.
Taking the photo
The March 17th flight bringing 20 POWs home from Vietnam had a lot of press come out with a large crowd of around 400 family members and supporters. 46 year old Associated Press photographer Slava “Sal” Veder on assignment saw that after Lt. Col. Robert L. Stirm finished his speech his family had appeared on the runway. “You could feel the energy and the raw emotion in the air,” he said. He snapped off a couple of shots and then rushed to the makeshift AP darkroom that had been set up in the Air Base ladies’ bathroom (United Press International were in the men’s). He and another AP photographer, Walt Zeboski, picked six to develop. Sal picked his favorite, titled it Burst of Joy and sent it out over the wire. It was published across the country and because Lt. Col. Stirm’s had his back turned towards the camera the anonymous image came to represent all the Vietnam homecomings.
Lt. Col. Robert L. Stirm
Robert Stirm was born in San Francisco, California, in 1933. In 1953 he joined the Aviation Cadet Program and graduated as a 2nd Lieutenant in the U.S. Air Force on November 3, 1954. He served as a fighter pilot in Holland before getting training in the F-105 Thunderchief and going to Vietnam in August 1967. On October 27, 1967 Stirm was leading a flight of F-105Ds over Canal Des Rapides Bridge, Hanoi when he was shot down and captured that night. Before October 27th he had flown 33 combat missions. Throughout his six years as a POW he was held in several camps including the infamous Hanoi Hilton. He endured starvation, torture and a total of 281 days in solitary confinement. For part of his imprisonment he shared a cell with future politician John McCain. Robert Stirm remained in military service after his return retiring as a colonel in 1977. He lives in Foster City, California.
The Stirm family
While in the Air Force Robert Stirm married his wife Loretta on February 6, 1955. They had four children Lorrie Alynne, Robert L. Jr., Roger David and Cynthia “Cindy” Leigh. Lorrie was only 9 when her father was shot down. After 6 long years he finally came home. While her Dad gave a speech on behalf of the 20 POWs on their flight the family was stuck in the Stirm’s station wagon on the tarmac at Travis Air Force Base. Minutes passed that seemed like hours but finally with the formalities over, the children jumped out of the car and ran to their father. Lorrie remembers that she “just wanted to get to Dad as fast as I could, We didn’t know if he would ever come home … That moment was all our prayers answered, all our wishes come true.”
The happiness of the reunion didn’t last long. Three days before Stirm returned to America a chaplain had handed a Dear John letter from his wife. When he returned they tried to keep the marriage alive. Lorrie remembers “So much had happened—there was so much that my dad missed out on—and it took a while to let him back into our lives and accept his authority.” Robert and Loretta Stirm divorced within a year. His wife remarried in 1974 moving to Texas with her husband. Robert Stirm also remarried but this marriage too ended in divorce.
The oldest Robert became a dentist and the younger Robert, like his father, joined the Air Force rising to the rank of Major. Lorrie the oldest is an executive administrator and the youngest daughter Cindy is a waitress. Except for pilot Robert, who lives in Seattle, they all live in California. All four keep 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.”
Slava J. Veder was born on August 30, 1926 in Berkeley, California. An alumni of Modesto Junior College, Pacific College and Sacramento State. After working in several jobs such as fireman, sportswriter for the Richmond Independent and staff on the Oakland Hockey Club in 1949 he joined the Almeda Times-Star before moving to the Tulsa World were he got work as an editor. In 1956 he left the Tulsa World and worked for a number of papers around America working as an editor. In 1961 he returned to California to work for the AP in Sacramento before transferring to the AP San Francisco office. It was in San Fran that he took Burst of Joy and a year later won the Pulitzer.