NEWS | March 7, 2016

Newest 'Freedom Flyer' takes final flight for his B-52 crew

Joint Base San Antonio-Randolph Public Affairs

The events of Dec. 20, 1972, were clearly on the mind of former Air Force pilot Paul Granger as he exited a T-38C Talon following a special hourlong flight March 3 that began and ended on the east flightline at Joint Base San Antonio-Randolph.

            Caught up in the emotional aftermath of his long-overdue “Freedom Flight” piloted by Lt. Col. Joel DeBoer, 560th Flying Training Squadron commander, Granger paid tribute to his B-52 aircrew that was shot down over North Vietnam that December night as he joined an elite fraternity of Air Force pilots known as the Freedom Flyers.

            “Our trip is complete,” he said. “It was the best I ever had.”

            Granger also greeted retired Capt. Tom Klomann, the only other known survivor of the six-man B-52 aircrew that participated in the air offensive of December 1972 known as Operation Linebacker II, and presented him with Freedom Flyer patches symbolizing his connection to the pilots imprisoned by the North Vietnamese.

            It was Klomann, one of the navigators on that aircrew, who finally persuaded Granger to journey to San Antonio from his Coronado, Calif., home and become the 196th Freedom Flyer, the designation for the former prisoner-of-war Air Force pilots who have been given their Vietnam service fini flights by the Chargin’ Cheetahs of the 560th FTS over a period spanning five decades.

            Granger’s induction into the Freedom Flyers – complete with a champagne shower following his fini flight – was one of the highlights of the 43rd annual Freedom Flyer Reunion March 3-4 at JBSA-Randolph.

            Although Granger and Klomann were aircrew mates on that mission over North Vietnam, they didn’t actually meet each other until they attended a huge dinner hosted by President Richard Nixon on May 24, 1973, that honored the nearly 600 POWs in Vietnam who were released that spring.

            “Tom was a substitute on the crew,” Granger recalled. “I didn’t even know he was the navigator until we got back to the States.”

            Granger and Klomann met different fates after they ejected from their B-52 when it was struck by surface-to-air missiles.

            Klomann doesn’t remember a thing that happened that night – and for days to follow.

“The first month was a blank,” he said. “I was unconscious during much of that time.”

            According to his biography, Klomann free-fell 20,000 feet when his parachute deployed and was taken to a North Vietnamese hospital where he remained unconscious for a week and semi-conscious for another two weeks. He sustained major injuries to his leg, arm and hip along with head trauma, a collapsed lung and open wounds.

After spending nearly two months in that North Vietnamese hospital, Klomann was among the first POWs to be returned to the States on Feb. 16, 1973. His convalescence continued at Wilford Hall USAF Hospital.

In contrast, Granger was captured by the North Vietnamese, suffering only minor injuries, and taken to the infamous “Hanoi Hilton” POW camp.

By the time Granger was imprisoned, the situation at the Hanoi Hilton had changed.

“There were daily interrogations and intimidation, but no torture was going on,” he said. “They would tell us we were criminals and that we would be executed.”

Bombing raids on the North Vietnamese were becoming more frequent, and the explosions were met with enthusiasm from the POWs, Granger said.

“Every time there was a strike, there was cheering,” he said.

Granger recalled one particular raid that struck the Cuban embassy.

“I was in an isolation room and an air raid siren went off,” he said. “A jet flew overhead and there was a loud explosion. Shutters blew off the windows and debris was flying everywhere. I heard loud cheers and applause. The guys were so elated that the bombing had started again.”

Granger was included in the last group of POWs who left Hanoi at the war’s end, arriving at Clark Air Base, Philippines, on March 29, 1973. He was reintegrated and assigned to the 454th FTS at Mather Air Force Base, Calif., and separated from the Air Force four years later. He was hired by Pacific Southwest Airline, which was later purchased by US Airways, and retired in 2005.

Klomann medically retired from the Air Force as a captain, earned a master of business administration degree and worked as a budget analyst at Audie Murphy Veterans Administration Hospital in San Antonio for 23 years. Despite the serious injuries he received – and the fear voiced by doctors that he would not be able to walk again – Klomann remains active, playing 18 holes of golf on a regular basis.

“He’s really tough,” Granger said.

Klomann, who lives in San Antonio and frequently attends the Freedom Flyer reunions, has kept in touch with Granger over the years, encouraging him to become part of the Freedom Flyer tradition.

“I had already checked out and started with an airline, so the time frame never worked out,” said Granger, who was accompanied by his wife, Leslie, to the Freedom Flyer Reunion. “Tom has always wanted to get a Freedom Flyer number, but they aren’t given to navigators. I wasn’t going to come, but he asked me to come fly for the crew.”

Both Klomann and Granger called their Vietnam experience life-changing.

For Klomann, it was learning that every day is a gift.

For Granger, it wasn’t the experience at the Hanoi Hilton but the realization – after losing four of his crew mates – that life can be short.

“When things are going bad, I try to reflect and realize that things are not so bad after all,” he said. “Why I was spared, I don’t know. I hope there’s a reason I’m still here, so I try to reflect on that.”