Veteran Salute: Ret. fighter pilot flew 350 missions and was taken as POW

Veteran Salute

CALDWELL, Kan. (KSNW) – A Caldwell veteran says the real heroes of the Vietnam War were regularly tortured.

The fighter pilot was one of those heroes, as a prisoner of war.

Retired Lieutenant Colonel Bill Schwertfeger says when he was shot down, he had four grenades strapped to him.

He says he asked his co-pilot ‘Duke’ if he should pull the pins and go out in a blaze of glory.

Schwertfeger said he decided discretion was the better part of valor, and they surrendered.

“The battle, you know, it was 47 years ago and it is still as fresh in my mind as can be,” Vietnam POW Bill Schwertfeger said.

There’s so much to recall, this Retired Lt. Col. flew 350 combat missions in Vietnam.

“We were high speed, F-4 aircraft, seeking out targets in high threat areas where the slow movers couldn’t survive,” Schwertfeger said.

He says some of the best missions were spent with the fighter pilots of the “Wolf Pack”.

“The best part was the comradery, that we had, with this group of seven crews, 14 guys, we were the elites of the elites, selected for that mission,” Schwertfeger said.

They took enemy fire all along the way. 

Schwertfeger, whose call sign was ‘Short Finger’ said inside F-4 he felt invincible.  

“They came so close to the airplane you could almost reach out and touch each one of them,” Schwertfeger said.

In one fierce fire fight the Lt. Colonel was shot down and had to eject.

He says as soon as they landed they were surrounded.

“The guy here on the left coming up the dike had his 9 millimeter pistol out, and he was firing at my feet, the water was dancing up,” Schwertfeger said.

Despite the life-threatening situation, he says he was thankful he wasn’t shot down over Laos, where he flew many of his missions.

“If you were captured, you would probably have your head chopped off with a machete, they just weren’t taking prisoners,” Schwertfeger said.

He was taken as a prisoner of war.

“I was tortured by the North Vietnamese, for information about a certain weapons system that I was familiar with rifle butts to the head, bouncing off concrete, rocky walls,” Schwertfeger said.

He says as bad as it was, some had it even worse than he did.

“Some guys were laid out flat and had a guy on each side of the fan belt, and they filleted him by beating him brutally,” Schwertfeger said.

He says the enemy tried desperately to break them.

“We were defiant in our resolve to not let the enemy defeat us,” Schwertfeger said.

He says they had a special system for checking on one another.

“We did that via knocking on the table, communicating through concrete walls, tapping,” Schwertfeger said. “We were texting in 1965.”

Schwertfeger, and the others survived, for more than 400 days.

“The comradery, the closeness, the bond, that the 591 men had, saved us,” Schwertfeger said.

They were finally freed as part of Operation Homecoming.

“When we saw that big red cross on that big C-141 our hearts lifted up,” Schwertfeger said.

He says when the commander stated they were no longer in Vietnamese airspace emotions erupted!

“The energy that was built within that airplane at that time was sufficient to fly that 141 without engines,” Schwertfeger said.

That plane was the second to last out of Vietnam, and Schwertfeger remembers what it was like to once again embrace his wife.

A year later he shared the story about the hand grenades with the real ‘duke’, John Wayne, while on a visit to the White House.

He says Wayne looked down at him and said discretion was the better part of valor, for you lived to fight another day.

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