Celebrating with a prisoner of war on the 50th anniversary of repatriation

  • Published
  • By Airman 1st Class Christopher Ornelas Jr.
  • 71st Flying Training Wing Public Affairs

VANCE AIR FORCE BASE, Okla. – Enid native and retired fighter pilot, Air Force Lt. Col. Bill “Shortfinger” Schwertfeger, was a prisoner of war in Vietnam for 407 days. He was freed from captivity and returned to the United States March 28, 1973.

In celebration of the 50th anniversary of Schwertfeger’s repatriation, Team Vance hosted a variety of events March 31, to include the first base-wide roll call, a missing man formation flown by T-38C Talons from the 25th and 560th Flying Training Squadrons and a ceremonial piano burning.

A roll call is a tradition that dates to World War I. At the end of the day, the squadron commander would summon all pilots and take roll for accountability. Those not in attendance were considered missing in action or killed in combat.

To ease the loss, many pilots would share drinks, songs and stories about their fallen comrades. Today, roll call is less about accountability, and more about fostering camaraderie.

During the celebration of the 50th anniversary of Schwertfeger’s repatriation, a Vance flying unit flew the missing man formation. 

“The missing man formation is an aerial salute that recognizes the loss of a wingman,” said Maj. Michael Wurth, the executive officer at the 71st Flying Training Wing, and the organizer of the repatriation ceremony.

“The formation reminds us of the dangers of combat aviation and the sacrifices that every pilot is asked to make in order to protect our freedom,” said Wurth.

The evening’s events honored those who never made it home from war and celebrated a hometown hero who did, said Wurth.

“I hope our instructor and student pilots are inspired to serve honorably and fight for their country, while recognizing our war heroes and taking the opportunity to meet these gentlemen and learn from the best,” said Wurth.

Dr. Daniel LeClaire, the 71st Flying Training Wing historian at Vance, said the origins of the piano burning are lost in history. According to LeClaire, whose doctorate degree is in British military history of the 19th century, the tradition to honor fallen pilots likely began with the Royal Air Force during World War II. 

A pilot, whose name will forever remain a mystery, was a very skilled piano player, said LeClaire. And after every mission the unit would meet at a club where he would play a few songs and toast beers for fallen comrades.

At some point the piano player was killed in combat, and to prevent anybody less talented from playing that piano, his fellow pilots took it outside and burned it in his memory. At that time, the fledgling Army Air Corps worked closely with the Royal Air Force, so many of their traditions became the traditions of today’s Air Force.

Since Schwertfeger’s graduation from pilot training at Vance in 1968, the buildings have changed, but the product that they produce is still the world’s greatest pilots, he said.

“When I look at our flag, I see the red stripes that remind me of the blood others have shed in defense of our great nation,” said Schwertfeger. “Should we be asked, we are willing to make the ultimate sacrifice and give our lives so that others might live in freedom.

“The past 12 years that I have been working with Team Vance, have given me the opportunity to mentor and mold our future Airmen to be all they can be,” said Schwertfeger.