RANDOLPH AIR FORCE BASE, Texas –
The brutality that American prisoners of war suffered at the hands of their captors during the Vietnam War is one of the darkest chapters in our country's military history.
But these bona fide heroes have remarkable stories of survival to tell and inspire, and some of them - a special group of former Air Force pilots - will again share their experiences in the infamous POW camps of North Vietnam with the Randolph community.
Known as the Freedom Flyers, these former POWs will reunite next week for the 37th time at the base where the "Chargin' Cheetahs" of the 560th Flying Training Squadron requalified some of them for flight following the Vietnam War and have given all of them a "freedom flight," the fini flight they never had an opportunity to take.
"The Freedom Flyer Reunion celebrates the repatriation of the Air Force pilots who were POWs in Southeast Asia," said Maj. Jeffrey D'Ambra, reunion director. "The 560th was charged with giving them their fini flights, the champagne flights they never got in theater, and requalifying them. It is the longest continuously running reunion in the Air Force."
One of the highlights of the reunion is a symposium set for 8:45 a.m. March 26 in the base theater that features six Freedom Flyers who will tell the stories of their captivity, including a failed escape attempt and the successful employment of a "tap code" and other ways to communicate with each other.
Major D'Ambra said the symposium is an opportunity for the base community to listen to real American heroes talk about an experience his generation has not had to endure.
"These men were horribly tortured, but they never lost faith in each other and their country," he said.
The reunion also pays homage to "those who didn't return," Major D'Ambra said, the POWs who died in captivity and the pilots who died in combat, with a wreath-laying ceremony and a missing man flyby following the symposium. An aerial review with 13 aircraft from the Vietnam and modern eras at 6 p.m. and a dining-in mess at 6:45 p.m. will wrap up the activities that day. A golf tournament and banquet will conclude the reunion March 27.
Another former Air Force pilot and POW will join the fraternity of Freedom Flyers at this year's reunion when retired Lt. Col. Jay Hess, who was imprisoned more than five years after his F-105 was shot down in August 1967, takes his freedom flight to become the 195th Freedom Flyer. His pilot will be Lt. Col. Darryl Parkinson of the 560th FTS.
Mr. Hess retired from the Air Force in November 1973 and was a longtime Air Force Junior ROTC instructor in Utah.
Major D'Ambra said the reunion allows the Freedom Flyers and members of the 560th FTS to share their common bond as Air Force aviators.
"We get to hear their stories and they want to know about our careers," he said. "It's a great forum to trade information."
Major D'Ambra said the Freedom Flyers not only survived the unspeakable horrors of North Vietnamese POW camps such as the Hanoi Hilton, where they were considered war criminals, they thrived following the war, leading productive lives and rising to great heights in the Air Force and the civilian world.
"They remembered what happened to them, but they didn't let it interfere with the future," he said. "We're in awe of what they've done."
Lt. Col. Mark Doria, 560th FTS commander, said the squadron takes pride in its kinship with the Freedom Flyers.
"The 560th FTS is extremely proud of its role in welcoming back these American heroes and continuing the tradition of honoring our Air Force warriors," he said. "This is an outstanding opportunity to show them how much we respect their sacrifices and for Randolph to learn from their experiences."
For more information about the reunion, call Major D'Ambra at 652-0785 or e-mail him at email@example.com