Vietnam War combat pilot takes training ride in T-38

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  • 71st Flying Training Wing Public Affairs

VANCE AIR FORCE BASE, Okla. -- The commander of the 25th Flying Training Squadron took Bill Schwertfeger for a ride in T-38A Talon twin-engine training jet Feb. 14, 2019, at Vance Air Force Base, Oklahoma.

The T-38 ride, piloted by Lt. Col. Eric Schmidt, was to mark the 47th anniversary of the beginning of Schwertfeger’s 407 days as a prisoner during the Vietnam War.

This Valentine’s Day, friends, admirers, student pilots and members of Team Vance greeted the man, known as “Shortfinger” to fellow aviators, with cheers and smiling faces on the parking ramp at Vance.

A very different greeting met Schwertfeger and his weapon systems officer when their F-4 Phantom II fighter jet was shot down by a Russian surface-to-air missile Feb. 16, 1972. They parachuted safely to the jungle floor, where they were met by hostile North Vietnamese Army soldiers.

They were taken to the infamous “Hanoi Hilton,” a prisoner of war camp where American pilots and air crews were held.

It would be March of 1973 before Schwertfeger returned to the United States, one of the 591 POWs brought home during Operation Homecoming.

Schwertfeger’s Air Force career continued with assignments flying the F-15 Strike Eagle fighter jet and as an instructor at the Fighter Weapons School at Nellis Air Force Base, Nevada. He retired from active duty as a lieutenant colonel in 1988.

The day after his T-38 flight at Vance, Schwertfeger attended a civic leaders luncheon at the Greven Crosswinds Club on base. The luncheon was in honor of Under Secretary of the Air Force Matthew Donovan’s visit to Vance. He was the guest speaker at the Specialized Undergraduate Pilot Training Class 19-06 graduation ceremony.

During the luncheon, Donovan recalled the first time he met Schwertfeger.

After graduating pilot training at Vance and upgrade training in the F-15 Eagle fighter aircraft at Luke Air Force Base, Arizona, Donovan was sent to his first assignment at Holloman Air Force Base, New Mexico.

“I walked into the building and there was my mentor, Bill Schwertfeger, a Vietnam War combat pilot and POW. He was an absolute god to us second lieutenants,” said Donovan. “It was really great to see him again today.”

His time as a prisoner of war, according to Schwertfeger, gave him a desire to give back through presentations to military and civilian groups about his faith, pride in country, sense of service and determination to succeed.

Schwertfeger has taught leadership classes at several universities and takes time out to visit with student pilots who are learning to fly at Vance, discussing with them the value of the military Code of Conduct.