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.
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
trip is complete,” he said. “It was the best I ever had.”
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.
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.
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.
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.
was a substitute on the crew,” Granger recalled. “I didn’t even know he was the
navigator until we got back to the States.”
and Klomann met different fates after they ejected from their B-52 when it was
struck by surface-to-air missiles.
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.”
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.
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.
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.
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.”
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.
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
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.”