560 FTS honors legacy of POW fighter pilots at 43rd Freedom Flyer Reunion

  • Published
  • By Robert Goetz
  • Joint Base San Antonio-Randolph Public Affairs

A retired Air Force chaplain extolled the contributions and sacrifices of all of America’s service members last week as the 560th Flying Training Squadron again paid homage to the Air Force fighter pilots who endured the horrors of prisoner-of-war camps during the Vietnam War.

Retired Col. Robert Certain’s address during a wreath-laying ceremony at Joint Base San Antonio-Randolph’s Missing Man Monument was one of the highlights of the 43rd annual Freedom Flyer Reunion March 4.

The event also included the 19th annual POW/MIA Symposium, which featured the moving stories of Air Force pilots who were imprisoned in North Vietnam, a “missing man” formation flyover with four T-38Cs during the wreath-laying ceremony and the 196th Freedom Flight, a way of honoring former POW pilots with a “fini” flight that maintains the tradition of celebrating the final flight a pilot makes during a tour.

Certain, who was imprisoned along with two other aircrew members for 101 days in Hanoi after their B-52 was shot down Dec. 18, 1972, by surface-to-air missiles over North Vietnam, remembered Don Rissi, Bobby Thomas and Walter Ferguson, the aircrew members who did not survive the attack.

“They exemplified the highest ideals of the American aviator and demonstrated the greatest love of all by laying down their lives for their friends,” he said. “Let us remember all those who did not return from battle in this and in subsequent conflicts against the enemies of freedom and human dignity.”

Certain also saluted “the men and women of our armed and uniformed services who have made and kept us and our allies free through the years and worked to restore the nations we have vanquished.

“They paid the sacrifice and many times the ultimate sacrifice for the liberties we now enjoy,” he said. “Let us honor them by committing ourselves to ensure that this great nation will be a land where all people share the benefits of true freedom and gladly accept its disciplines.”

Col. Matt Isler, 12th Flying Training Wing commander, noted that the day’s activities were taking place on the same day 43 years ago when “three C-141 Starlifters lifted off from Hanoi with 108 newly released prisoners of war, 29 of which would become Freedom Flyers.”

He also referred to the day as a time to celebrate and remember – to “celebrate the release of all 591 POWs who were repatriated during Operation Homecoming” and “remember the 49,000 Americans who never came home from Southeast Asia, the 47,000 killed in action and the 1,624 Americans who remain unaccounted for there. 

“We who came home must never forget those who did not,” Isler said.

Later in the day, five Freedom Flyers told their stories during the POW/MIA Symposium in Fleenor Auditorium. Among the speakers were retired Col. Kenneth Cordier, who was held in prisons in and around Hanoi for more than six years after his F-4C Phantom was struck by a surface-to-air missile, and retired Col. Joseph Milligan, who spent nearly six years as a POW.

On the day before the wreath-laying ceremony and symposium, Paul Granger of Coronado, Calif., became the 196th Freedom Flyer. A B-52 pilot, his aircraft was shot down just two days after Certain’s. He and Tom Klomann, a navigator on that mission who has attended numerous Freedom Flyer reunions, are the only known survivors of that aircrew.

Lt. Col. Joel DeBoer, 560th FTS commander, said it is an honor for the “Chargin’ Cheetahs” to be part of the Freedom Flyer tradition.

“For the Cheetahs, it is meaningful to us that we could be a part of the process to return them to the air and help them close one chapter of their lives,” he said. “Very rarely do we get a chance to meet and honor the heroes that gave so much to their country.”