ROMEOVILLE -- On Feb. 12, 1973, three Lockheed Martin C-141 Starlifters each returned 40 prisoners of war to America from Hanoi, North Vietnam.
James "Buck" Johnson of Coal City was in the Air Force at the time. He was stationed at Clark Air Base in the Philippines, assigned to work on C-141s, which brought back most of the 591 prisoners of war held by North Vietnam. The aircraft became known as the "Hanoi Taxi."
Members of the first flights were imprisoned the longest -- six to eight years -- and retired Air Force Maj. Gen. John Borling was one of them.
On Friday, Johnson met Borling at Culver's on Weber Road in Romeoville. It was part of a fundraiser by Project Join Us, which aims to connect commerce and philanthropy while raising funds for various U.S. military and charity organizations, and Allen Force, which promotes a healthy and successful lifestyle for all veterans and their families by providing networking, fitness and recreational opportunities and community events.
Johnson was surprised to meet one of the men he helped bring home decades ago.
"I was just expecting a phone call," Johnson said. "This is a bit overwhelming."
The original plan was for Borling to place a call while Johnson was at the fundraiser, but Borling was able to squeeze in a couple of hours in Romeoville on the way from his Rockford home to an event in Peoria.
No one told Johnson about the change in plans.
"This is my favorite Culver's now," Johnson said.
The introduction happened because of a chance encounter between Johnson, his wife and Diana Anastazia -- the leader of Project Join Us -- at the same Culver's restaurant. They began talking about his Air Force experience, and Anastazia vowed to do whatever she could to connect the two men.
"I believe someone assigned to work on planes is just as important as the ones flying them," Anastazia said.
Borling is a decorated Air Force pilot who earned, in 1994, a rank of chief of staff of the Headquarters Allied Forces North Europe, in Stavanger, Norway. Borling was born in Chicago and authored "Taps on the Walls: Poems From the Hanoi Hilton," which he memorized while imprisoned because he had no pen or paper.
Johnson was born in Iowa and settled in Coal City after leaving the Air Force in 1975 following four years of service. He landed a job working for AT&T in Naperville. He and his wife are members of American Legion Post 796 of Coal City, Diamond and Carbon Hill.