JOINT BASE SAN ANTONIO - RANDOLPH, Texas —
On a Friday afternoon in 1966 at Eglin Air Force Base, Fla., personnel gathered together for a commander’s call. Among the crowd was Lt. Joe Milligan, now a retired colonel, who unknowingly would make a decision that altered the rest of his career.
“The squadron commander said 'I need some volunteers, but I can't tell you what it is,’” Milligan said. "I was a young lieutenant, I was always raising my hand. Myself and one other squadron member went to see him [after the commander’s call].”
After volunteering for the ambiguous position, Milligan soon found out he was becoming a Wild Weasel, which was a top-secret, highly classified group that was organized to develop new tactics to counter surface-to-air missile threats over Vietnam.
“It turned out I was one of the original 12 Wild Weasel pilots in the Air Force,” he said. “I went to Ubon Air Base, Thailand. Since it was a top-secret program, my orders said to PCS to Southeast Asia, no base name or organization. None of us knew where we were going till it was time to go.”
After arriving in Asia, Milligan was assigned to the 433rd Tactical Fighter Squadron. Since U.S. troops entered the Vietnam War in 1965, many pilots, aircrew and other personnel were taken and held captive by the North Vietnamese.
On May 20, 1967, Milligan was shot down and captured while on his 113th combat mission. He was held captive for five years and nine months before he was released Feb. 18, 1973.
“I spent six years as a prisoner of war,” Milligan said. “I volunteered to go, I was gung-ho. I didn't volunteer to be a POW, but that happened.”
Despite hardship, Milligan remained resilient and faithful to his commitment.
“If I had it all to do over again, I'd still volunteer to go,” he said. “I have no regrets and I'm not bitter about anything. I would truly consider myself privileged to have had the opportunity to serve my country. It's been a big impact on the rest of my life; I lived through an experience that few people have and hope they would never have to, but it shaped me as an individual.”
For his dedication Milligan received a Silver Star, Legion of Merit, two Distinguished Flying Crosses, Bronze Star, eight Air Medals and two Purple Hearts.
Following his release, Milligan continued his education earning a master’s degree in animal science, doctorate in nutrition and a Doctorate of Veterinary Medicine before continuing his service as an officer. He then retired as a colonel after 24 years of active duty.
Today, Milligan acts as a liaison between other Vietnam POWs and the 560th Flying Training Squadron for the annual Freedom Flyers Reunion.
As part of tradition in Vietnam, pilots and all aircrew members’ last combat flight in theater was called their champagne flight.
“The tour of duty in Vietnam was either one year or 100 missions in North Vietnam, whichever came first,” Milligan said. “But at any rate when an aircrew or pilot returned from their last mission in theater, they would be met by the other members in their squadron at the airplane and doused with champagne.”
After the release of POWs at the end of the Vietnam War, the 560th FTS offered a program that allowed returning POWs to become requalified pilots and also opened the opportunity for them to finally have their champagne flight.
“Well, the POWs obviously never got their champagne flight, so in the requalification program here at the 560th, the first flight for each of those pilots was their champagne flight. They were met by the members of the 560th and doused with champagne,” Milligan said. “It was [also] called their freedom flight, hence the name Freedom Flyers which has stuck until today.”
Each year, Vietnam POWs are given the opportunity to have their freedom flight. Col. Milligan’s is freedom flight No. 162 out of 198 to date. Three flights, 199-201, will take place as part of this year’s reunion.
The 45th Annual Freedom Flyer Reunion will take place March 23. During the reunion there will be a wreath-laying ceremony to honor those who did not return, lunch for all Freedom Flyers and guests, and a POW symposium.
“It’s always great to get back together with those guys and tell our war stories,” Milligan said. “Besides the camaraderie with each other, to me it’s always been a thrill to get back on a flying base and be able to mingle with the pilots and student pilots and all the support staff. Seeing and hearing the airplanes again, brings back a lot of memories. [It also offers] an opportunity to reconnect and see what the Air Force is doing today. I’m really looking forward to attending the reunion, renewing old ties and listening to the sound of freedom!”