JOINT BASE SAN ANTONIO-RANDOLPH, Texas —
The commander of Air Force Personnel Center last week praised the Air Force aircrew members who returned home from North Vietnamese prisoner-of-war camps nearly 50 years ago for holding “strong to American principles and values in the face of the harshest possible conditions.”
“You kept faith with each other, you never gave up and you returned home with honor and pride,” Maj. Gen. Andrew Toth said during a wreath-laying ceremony March 29 at Joint Base San Antonio-Randolph’s Missing Man Monument, one of the highlights of the 560th Flying Training Squadron’s 46th annual Freedom Flyer Reunion.
Toth’s remarks came on the second day of the two-day reunion, which pays homage to the Air Force pilots and other aircrew members who were shot down and imprisoned by the North Vietnamese but were later retrained by the 560th FTS to fly again for their country or given the opportunity to experience their fini flight.
Other highlights of the Freedom Flyer Reunion were the 22nd annual POW/MIA Symposium on the afternoon of March 29, which featured the stories of aircrew members who endured the hardships of the POW camps; a “missing man” formation flyover with T-38C aircraft during the wreath-laying ceremony; and freedom flights for four aircrew members on March 28.
Toth focused on the sacrifices of those four aircrew members who became Freedom Flyers 201, 202, 203 and 204: Lt. Col. James Williams, retired Lt. Col. Thomas Hanton, retired Maj. Peter Camerota and retired Capt. Thomas Klomann. Williams and Hanton served as weapon systems officers, Camerota as an electronic warfare officer and Klomann as a navigator on aircraft that were shot down over North Vietnam.
“Four men, four hometowns, four heroes – sons of this nation who teach us about honor, courage and service,” Toth said. “Four men with extraordinary stories.”
Williams, an F-4D WSO with the Triple-Nickel fighter squadron at Udorn, Thailand, had to eject on May 20, 1972, and was taken prisoner. After his repatriation, he became an Air Force pilot, flying the F-4 and F-16, and, following retirement in 1995, became an Air Force Junior ROTC instructor in Tucker, Ga.
Hanton, an F-4E WSO with the 4th Tactical Fighter Squadron in Da Nang, ejected on his 135th combat mission June 27, 1972, and was taken prisoner. Following his repatriation, he served as an EWO until he retired in 1993.
Camerota was forced to eject over North Vietnam on Dec. 22, 1972, while serving as a B-52 EWO with the 2nd Bomb Squadron, but evaded capture for nearly two weeks. Like Williams, he attended pilot training after repatriation and flew the C-141 and C-21 until he retired in 1987.
Klomann was a B-52D navigator on a bombing mission out of Utapao, Thailand, on Dec. 20, 1972, one of three B-52Ds on that mission, when his aircraft was one of two shot down by surface-to-air missiles. He and his co-pilot, 1st Lt. Paul Granger, who became the 196th Freedom Flyer three years ago, were the only members of the six-man crew known to have been captured and survived. Interestingly, Klomann and Granger didn’t actually meet each other until they attended a dinner at the White House honoring Vietnam War POWs in May 1973; Klomann had been a substitute on the aircrew.
Toth also paid tribute to the approximately 30 Freedom Flyers on hand for the reunion as “national treasures” and recognized retired Maj. Gen. Kelly McKeague, who also attended the reunion and leads the efforts of the Defense POW/MIA Accounting Agency, an organization that is dedicated to accounting for the nation’s missing personnel from past conflicts.
“Our families send their loved ones into danger trusting that our nation will bring them home,” Toth said. “This is one of the most important pledges we make, and we must take every opportunity to reinforce this fundamental trust.”
Lt. Col. William Johnson, 560th FTS commander, said the squadron’s relationship with all American flying POWs from the Vietnam War is part of its tradition.
“After Operation Homecoming, when all the POWs were returned home and released from North Vietnam, the 560th Flying Training Squadron was tasked with being the unit to reintegrate them back into flying status for those who could, but also reintegrate them back into military life and American life in general,” he said. “As time went on, it transitioned from a reintegration program more to a fini-flight mechanism from where we are able to give a fini flight to individuals who were never given a chance to fly again once they returned home.”
Initially focused on pilots only, fini flights are now open to other aircrew members, including the four POWs who became Freedom Flyers last week.
It’s important for the “Chargin’ Cheetahs” of the 560th FTS to continue honoring the POWs who sacrificed so much for their country, Johnson said.
“That’s where we came from, that’s what our mission still is today – to fly, fight and win,” he said. “For those who went and did that, I believe it’s important for us to honor what they did and what they sacrificed.”
Although the POWs of the Vietnam War and the service members of today are separated by time, they are tied together by a common core of principles and morals, Johnson said.
“I think it’s real important for the Freedom Flyers to understand that the very principles and morals that they held so tightly during captivity are still alive and a driving force in those who wear the uniform today,” he said.