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Schwertfeger receives ‘River Rat of the Year’ honors

River Rats

Retired Air Force Lt. Col. Bill “Shortfinger” Schwertfeger was recently named River Rat of the Year by the Red River Valley Fighter Pilots Association, also known as the River Rats. (U.S. Air Force photo/ Senior Airman Corey Pettis)

POW/MIA Recognition Day ceremony

Retired Lt. Col. William R. Schwertfeger speaks at the POW/MIA Recognition Day ceremony Sept. 15 at the Vance Air Force Base flagpole. Schwertfeger, an F-4 pilot during the Vietnam War, was recently named "River Rat of the Year" by the Red River Valley Fighter Pilots Association, also known as the River Rats. (U.S. Air Force Photo/ Airman Zachary Heal)

VANCE AIR FORCE BASE, Okla. -- “We who came home must never forget those who could not.”

That is the motto of the Red River Valley Fighter Pilots Association, also known as the River Rats.

Retired Air Force Lt. Col. Bill “Shortfinger” Schwertfeger was named River Rat of the Year, an honor that has been passed along since 1984.

Schwertfeger works with student pilots at Vance, talking with the pilots of the 71st Student Squadron where he gives heritage briefings and is often the guest speaker at graduations.

The River Rats were started in 1966, when Col. Robin Olds, the commander of the 8th Tactical Fighter Wing, hosted a tactics conference at Ubon Air Force Base, Thailand. This conference was comprised of pilots and aircrew that flew combat operations over the Red River Valley in North Vietnam and they discussed ways to help their wingmen.

The River Rats’ original goal was to raise awareness for prisoners of war and aircrews missing in action or killed in action in Vietnam, and to support their families.

“In the 1965 to 1967 time frame, F-4s and F-105s were going north, and some guys didn’t come home,” said Schwertfeger. “So they put coffee cans on bars in Ubon, Udorn, Danang and other bases like that, and guys would put their spare cash in.”

This money was intended to go to the children of the pilots who went across enemy lines and didn’t make it back. 

“Of course, when you’re in combat, there’s not a lot to spend your money on other than stereos, booze or maybe when you go on rest and relaxation between deployments,” he said. “So we filled up those coffee cans.”

That practice continues today, with money being used for scholarships for the children of those who were lost while serving. Since 1970, more than 1,000 scholarships valued at more than $2.1 million have been awarded.

“Obviously now, it’s not going to Vietnam era kids, but to kids who have a parent that is lost while serving today,” said Schwertfeger. “It was initially based on that and keeping the comradery of fighter pilots, until 1972, when the B-52s came over. That’s why we expanded our membership to any aircrew. So we have a pretty large population in the River Rats.”

Each year, a reunion and convention is held, where previous year’s Rat of the Year winners get together to determine who they feel best exemplifies and portrays the mission of the River Rats.

Schwertfeger was selected as the 2017 Rat of the Year based on all he does giving back to the military community. Among many things, he provides leadership labs for reserve officer training corps students at Oklahoma State University, Oklahoma University, Kansas State University and Kansas University.

“I talk about the code of conduct and my time as a POW, so it gives them a good firm understanding of what they’re coming in to,” said Schwertfeger. “I also want to ensure they don’t step into the same pitfalls that I did, things I’ve learned through time.

“We feel that it is critical that we reach the earliest group of young pilots and give them some direction,” said Schwertfeger. “We are a ‘give back’ organization. These guys won’t give back right away, but 10 years from now, 20 years from now, they will be doing the same thing as me.”