Former POW talks courage, patriotism with 552nd ACW

  • Published
  • By Kimberly Woodruff
  • Tinker Public Affairs

As part of its continuing "Heritage Series," this week the 552nd Air Control Wing hosted retired Lt. Col. William R. Schwertfeger, a prisoner of war during the Vietnam War.

Colonel Schwertfeger, a pilot with more than 3,500 career flying hours who was forced down in North Vietnam on Feb. 16, 1972, spoke to wing members in Fannin Hall on Tuesday.

Colonel Schwertfeger spent 407 days in captivity in the "Hanoi Hilton" and endured solitary confinement and torture at the hands of his captors. He credits his faith in God and country for bringing him through the ordeal.

"Wolf 7," as he was known, flew 350½ missions with Wolf FAC. The half mission he spoke of occurred on Feb. 16, 1972. Then-Captain Schwertfeger was an F-4 pilot with the 433rd Tactical Fighter Squadron (Satan's Angels) at Ubon Royal Thai AFB. This self-proclaimed, "world's greatest fighter pilot" was examining Surface to Air Missile sites.

Intelligence said there were only three SAM sites in the area and the captain was out to make sure they were empty and then requested bombers to come in and wipe out the sites. Pausing, he said, "There was in fact, a fourth SAM site; a secret site that our own people knew about but couldn't tell us about because it was top secret."

Colonel Schwertfeger then spoke directly to the battle managers in the room and told them to never let that happen again. Don't hold back information, he cautioned. Because "the guys behind the green door" had kept the secret even from their own pilots, six crew members and three airplanes were lost that day.

After ejecting and landing in the rice paddies, he saw that North Vietnamese were coming at him from two sides. Colonel Schwertfeger said he had a quick mental discussion with his hero, John Wayne, about whether or not he should take them all out in a blaze of glory by using the grenades he kept on his chest, or put up his hands and surrender. His favorite quote from "The Duke" is, "Courage is being scared to death ... and saddling up anyway." He decided he wouldn't be able to take them all out -- there was no glory in trying it -- so he surrendered.

Colonel Schwertfeger had learned how to tap code three years earlier and tapped out a quick "Are you OK?" to the person imprisoned beside him, and got a response.

"Communication was our life line, and how we survived," he said. "I knew them better than my own wife, though I never met those in prison with me."

Colonel Schwertfeger spoke about the Code of Conduct. He recited the oath and said, "We held up our hand and took the oath to give our life, that should I have to, I would give my life. Be very proud of what you're doing. It makes us different from anybody else in the world."

He spoke at length about the rope torture he and fellow prisoners endured. They would give a little misleading information, just to get away from the torture. Softly and with strong conviction, he said, "We knew God. God was with us every step of the way. There will be a time when you want God with you. It is critical to have faith in your God, faith in your country and faith in your fellow man."

Colonel Schwertfeger talked about courage and leadership. He said prisoners were often brought out for press conferences and there were heroes who were steadfast in their defiance, and who refused to make it easy on the North Vietnamese. There was Admiral (Senator) Denton who blinked in code the word "torture," sending the first message that our men were being tortured. And Paul Galanti, who appeared in a photo on the cover of Time magazine, except the original photo was altered before going to press. The original photo conveyed a message with the middle finger.

"Where do we find these people?" he asked. "Right here in the United States of America. These men were true American heroes, great, great men, tortured and beaten but not broken."

Colonel Schwertfeger was released March 23, 1973, after spending 407 days in captivity.
"Homecoming was the greatest day of my life," he said of being reunited with his wife, Vonya.

The colonel retired from the Air Force June 1, 1988. Then as a civilian, he flew a Boeing 727 with American Airlines until he retired in 2005.

Now, he spends his life giving back. He and several other POWs give scholarships to ROTC students at Oklahoma State University and The University of Oklahoma.

"Never forget," Colonel Schwertfeger challenged the Airmen. "Remember those who gave the ultimate sacrifice, and remember those who have yet to come home, and may never return home."