JOINT BASE SAN ANTONIO-RANDOLPH, Texas –
Two former Vietnam veterans and prisoners of war were honored by the 560th Flying Training Squadron during the 48th Annual Freedom Flyer Reunion at Joint Base San Antonio-Randolph March 24-25.
In March 1973, all American troops left the Vietnam conflict as per the Paris Peace Accords, and in that same month, the “Chargin’ Cheetahs” were selected to retrain repatriated U.S. prisoners of war, shot down in combat, to resume their flying service.
The 560th FTS has hosted the reunion every year since then – with the exception of 2020 – bringing together a group of Airmen united by a shared experience of survival against all odds and celebrating the triumph of the human spirit. The activities honor the sacrifices of the POWs and their families, providing a unique opportunity for others to learn about their experiences.
The Freedom Flyers – Air Force aviators who endured years of physical and mental torture in infamous prisoner-of-war camps like the "Hanoi Hilton" – took part in a wreath-laying ceremony, an aerial review and a Prisoner of War/Missing in Action Symposium.
During the two-day reunion, Freedom Flyer #208, retired Maj. Theodore Sienicki, and Freedom Flyer #209, retired Lt. Col. Frederick McMurray, participated in aerospace physiology training, egress training, a freedom flight brief and a final flight. Sienicki and McMurray were also greeted upon landing with the traditional champagne shower to commemorate their “fini flights.”
During the Vietnam War, it was tradition for the pilot’s last flight in Southeast Asia to be their “champagne” flight, where they would be met by their peers and celebrated for their safe return. For POWs, this flight was never accomplished.
“These brave Americans sitting before us embody the courage, character and commitment that shape who we are as Airmen,” said Col. Scott Rowe, 12th Flying Training Wing commander, during the wreath-laying ceremony and aerial review at the Missing Man Monument at Washington Circle at JBSA-Randolph March 25. “Thank you for your service and your sacrifice to our country.”
“We gather for the express purpose of recognizing, honoring and celebrating the U.S. Air Force pilots, weapons systems officers, electronic warfare officers and navigators who were downed over Vietnam,” said guest speaker Brig. Gen. Scheid Hodges, Individual Mobilization Assistant to the commander for 8th Air Force and Joint Global Strike Operations Center at Barksdale Air Force Base, Louisiana. “They returned with honor and many later flew right here at Randolph Air Force Base to be requalified for active service or for their ‘fini flight.’”
At the conclusion of the ceremony, a four-ship flyby of T-38C Talons from the 560th TFS performed a missing-man formation. There were also flybys by a T-1 Jayhawk from the 99th FTS; a T-6 Texan II from the 559th FTS; a B-1 Lancer from the 28th Bomber Squadron from Dyess Air Force Base, Texas; an AC-130J Ghostrider from the 17th Special Operations Squadron at Cannon Air Force Base, New Mexico; and an A-10C Thunderbolt from the 75th Fighter Squadron from Moody Air Force Base, Georgia.
A highlight of the reunion was the POW/MIA symposium March 25 at Fleenor Auditorium, which featured the stories and reflections from POWs who shared their experiences from their time inside the "Hanoi Hilton," the infamous POW camp and other camps.
The grim, but inspiring, stories included the establishment of the tap code and other successful forms of communication. The forum also gave the Freedom Flyers an opportunity to relay their experiences to today's Airmen, the majority of whom are too young to remember the conflict.
“The most common question we get is ‘How did we do it,’” said retired Col. Tom McNish, a former F-105 pilot and one of the POWs who spoke at the symposium. “It comes down to faith – faith in God, faith in country, faith in ourselves and faith in our fellow prisoners – along with integrity and determination.”
One theme common amongst the former POWS speaking at the symposium was the ability to communicate with each other.
“Communication was our victory," McNish said. “The Viet Cong could never stop us. We continued to connect and support each other.”
“Our job was to live up to the Code of Conduct,” said retired Col. Lee Ellis, in describing the camaraderie amongst POWs. “When you’re a leader with character, you gain trust. When you have confidence and humility, people will follow you.”
“The things we learned in the military and as POWs still apply today,” Sienicki said. “What do you do as an ordinary guy in this situation? You do everything you can. Ingenuity just comes down to ordinary guys doing extraordinary things.”
“Freedom is not free,” added McNish, who spent 2,373 days in captivity. “If we fail to protect our freedom anywhere, the world becomes less free. It becomes more difficult to defend ourselves when this happens.”