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Lothes helped bring home prisoners of war

Submitted photo John Lothes, 78, of Elkins, served the United States for more than 25 years as a member of both the United States Army and United States Air Force.

ELKINS — Throughout his more than 25-year military career, an Elkins man helped to bring home a number of prisoners of war.

John Lothes, 78, served as a member of the United States Army from August 1958 through the summer of 1964 when he retired as a Specialist E-5. He returned to the military as a member of the United States Air Force in January 1968, where he served until February 1989, retiring as a Major.

On March 5, 1973, as part of “Operation Homecoming,” Lothes was involved in bringing two West Virginian POWs home from Hanoi, Vietnam — Gail Kerns of Valley Bend and Joseph Rose of Morgantown.

“He’s from Valley Bend. I didn’t know it at the time, on the flight, but I found out later. He is from Valley Bend, Gail Kerns,” Lothes said. “I just happened to be on the flight that brought him out of Hanoi.”

Lothes said in addition to the March 5, 1973, POW rescue flight he was involved in two other POW rescue missions — one in February 1973 and another on March 29, 1973, all out of Hanoi.

During his time in the Air Force, Lothes also assisted with several significant aeromedical evacuation missions including helping victims of the hijacked cruise ship “Achille Lauro” on Oct. 7, 1985; helping victims of a Berlin, Germany, disco bombing on April 5, 1986; helping victims of an international Pan Am 747 that was hijacked in Karachi, Pakistan, in September 1976, among other missions.

“Victims of the hijacked cruise ship ‘Achille Lauro.’ It was a cruise ship off the coast of Italy. A significant part of the mission for us was there was an elderly lady and her husband was in a wheelchair. The terrorists shot him and threw him overboard,” Lothes said. “We went and evacuated the victims from that. There was also a Berlin disco bombing at a night club. It was a terrorist attack on an establishment frequently visited by American soldiers and there was a bomb explosion.

“There was a Pan Am 747 hijacked in Karachi, Pakistan. That was an American Pan Am 747 aircraft that was hijacked on the ground in Karachi, Pakistan, and when an airplane is on the ground they have what they call an APU, an auxiliary power unit, that runs the electricity on the plane,” he continued. “Well, in all the excitement, they forgot to keep gas in the APU so the lights went out in the airplane, so the terrorists ran through the airplane shooting and throwing grenades, which killed and injured many, so we sent an aerovac unit down to Karachi to bring those survivors back.”

Lothes was also involved with roughly 30 humanitarian missions, including being a crew member on missions that evacuated more than 600 freedom fighters.

“We evacuated over 630 Afghan freedom fighters to the United States for medical care. There was a congressman from Texas, when the Afghans were fighting the Russians, that set up medical care in Texas. The physicians in Texas agreed to give medical care to the Afghan freedom fighters that were fighting the Russians in Afghanistan,” Lothes said. “He worked with the state department and the state department negotiated with the military department of defense and they arranged for the aerovac system once a month.

“We would fly into Islamabad, Pakistan, and these freedom fighters would come over the mountain and congregate in Islamabad,” he continued. “We would go in once a month, pick them up and fly them back to Rhein Main, an Air Force Base in Germany. They would stay at the Wiesbaden Air Force Hospital, which is a good-sized facility, of the Frankfurt (Germany) General Hospital, which is an Army hospital, overnight or until we had the next mission coming to the states. We would bring them to (Andrews Air Force Base) and the domestic aerovac system would take them to Texas. Once they recuperated, they would go back the same way.”

Lothes also spoke of three soldiers he knew — Tech Sgt. Denning C. Johnson, medical tech; Capt. Mary T. Klinker, flight nurse; and Staff Sgt. Michael G. Paget, medical tech — all three of whom lost their lives during the April 4, 1975, “Operation Baby Lift” mission.

“Operation Baby Lift was during the evacuation of Saigon (Vietnam) when Saigon fell. We sent an aerovac crew in on the C-5, which was a huge cargo airplane, to evacuate these children out of Saigon and that airplane actually crashed,” Lothes said. “Three aerovac crew members were lost during that incident. Those are the three names on the Vietnam Wall that I actually knew. Those are the only three names that I personally know on the Vietnam Veterans Memorial Wall in Washington, D.C.”

Lothes also served as Military Airlift Command (MAC) Command Surgeon’s representative for the Advanced Medium Short Takeoff and Landing (AMST) aircraft and the Stretch C-141 project and started the Medical Readiness Internship Program in February 1985. He co-authored the article “Aeromedical Evacuation During Wartime,” which was published in the May/June 1982 edition of U.S. Air Force Medical Service Digest.

Awards and decorations received by Lothes include the Air Force Meritorious Service Medal with three oak leaf clusters; the Air Medal; the Joint Service Commendation Medal; the U.S. Army Good Conduct Medal; the Armed Forces Expeditionary Medal, with device; the Vietnam Service Medal, with three devices; the Humanitarian Service Medal, with three devices; and the Republic of Vietnam Campaign Medal.

Lothes said the thing that sticks with him about his time in the service is the willingness of military personnel to go the extra mile for their country.

“I’m impressed the most by the willingness of the military individuals to give their all for their country. That is the most impressive thing to me. Some of these things we have been through, as you can see, they are willing to give their all for their country,” he said. “My fellow military people, that’s impressed me the most, how willing they are to do it, which includes leaving your family, wife and children to go do things for the country at their expense. That is impressive to me, their willingness to do whatever it takes.”

He added when he joined the military, he did so with a group of his friends from Elkins and the surrounding areas.

“There were 21 or 23 of us from Elkins in August of 1958 that joined the army and we went to basic training on the ‘Buddy Plan,'” Lothes said. “They recruited us and we went in as a group. Once I got in, I realized that is what I wanted to do, that was me. My assignments were unreal. The assignments they gave me ended up being the things that I loved.”

Lothes served as a Fourth Ward Elkins City Councilman from 1993 to 1997. He was chairman for the safety committee and a member of the finance committee. In 2000, he was elected to the Randolph County Board of Education and served as board president.

He is a member of the American Legion, Veterans of Foreign Wars, Disabled American Veterans, the Retired Officers Association, the Air Force Association and the National Association for Uniform Services.

A 1957 graduate of Don Bosco Agriculture High School in Huttonsville, Lothes earned a bachelor of arts degree in business administration from Davis & Elkins College. During his time at D&E, he was a member of, and received his commission through, the United States Air Force Reserve Officer Training Course (ROTC) program. He later earned a masters degree in business administration from the University of Guam.

Married to the former Wilga Betty Pirner of Sulzbach-Rosenberg, Germany, the couple have five children: Frances, Rebecca, Wilga, Ramona and Johnny.

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