This Day In History: March 17

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On March 17, 1973, Associated Press photographer Slava “Sal” Veder captures a heartwarming scene on the tarmac of California's Travis Air Force Base as a recently freed American prisoner of war runs toward his family. The jubilation of the moment is encapsulated in the central image of his teenaged daughter, whose wide smile and outstretched arms express her unbridled exuberance over her father's return from Vietnam. The photo depicting Lt. Col. Robert L. Stirm and his family, called “Burst of Joy,” goes on to win a Pulitzer Prize in 1974.

But the scene isn't what it seems.

Stirm was among 20 POWs from prison camps in North Vietnam aboard the plane that landed at Travis AFB, where a large crowd of family members turned up to welcome their loved ones home. Stirm, an Air Force fighter pilot shot down over Hanoi in 1967, had spent more than five years as a prisoner of the Vietnam War.

“You could feel the energy and the raw emotion in the air,” Veder said in describing the moment.

The central focus of the photo is Stirm’s 15-year-old daughter, Lorrie, who hadn’t seen her father since she was nine. She tore down the runway toward her dad, arms wide open—with her smiling mother, sister and two brothers trailing close behind her.

“We didn’t know if he would ever come home,” an adult Lorrie told Smithsonian in a 2005 article. “That moment was all our prayers answered, all our wishes come true.”

Sadly, the situation behind the photo wasn’t nearly as happy. A few days before his homecoming, Stirm received a "Dear John" letter from his wife, Loretta, who told him their marriage was over and that she’d been seeing other men. The couple went through a bitter divorce, and Stirm lost his legal battle against his ex-wife over money from his military pay and pension.

Stirm told the Roanoke Times in 1993 that while he had several copies of the photo, he couldn’t bring himself to display it in his home because it reminds him of his wife and her betrayal, making the moment seem hollow. The moment “brought a lot of notoriety and publicity to me and, unfortunately, the legal situation that I was going to be faced with, and it was kind of unwelcomed,” Stirm told the newspaper.

To his daughter, and to millions of strangers, the photo elicits warm, happy feelings, although Lorrie has said that it is bittersweet to think of POW families who weren’t reunited. “Burst of Joy” has appeared in numerous books and exhibits and symbolizes for many the end of the divisive Vietnam War—which claimed some 58,000 American lives—and the dawn of new life after a dark period.

HISTORY Vault: Vietnam in HD

See the Vietnam War unfold through the gripping firsthand accounts of 13 brave men and women forever changed by their experiences.

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