Schwertfeger grew up near Medford and graduated from Oklahoma State in 1967. Like many other young Oklahoma men even during the Vietnam War era, he participated in his university’s ROTC program. This garnered him a Second Lieutenant commission in the Air Force. After a year of graduate pilot training at Vance Air Base in Enid, Schwertfeger began two tours of Vietnam combat duty in mid-1969.
He fared well until February 1972, when a Russian SA2 surface-to-air missile crippled his F-4 Phantom interceptor-fighter bomber as he circled an enemy location. He safely ejected into traditionally safe territory immediately north of the demilitarized zone between North and South Vietnam. However, North Vietnamese soldiers were just then secretly advancing through it during their 1972 Easter Offensive against South Vietnam.
Local militia captured Schwertfeger and his Weapons System Officer and they began more than a year of captivity in the notorious “Hanoi Hilton” prison. While there, the Oklahoman was tortured by Communist Cuban interrogators seeking intelligence on the USAF’s Laser Guided Bombs. They used rope torture, a cruel practice according to the National Museum of the USAF website: “Prison guards bound POWs’ arms and legs with tight ropes and then dislocated them, and left men in iron foot stocks for days or weeks. Extreme beatings were common, many times resulting in POW deaths.”
Yet, Schwertfeger’s Christian faith flourished during this hellish ordeal. In fact, it may have saved his life. “During my time in Hanoi, my love and knowledge of God increased greatly,” he remembered. “During my stay, God was there at my side to hold my hand and lead the way so we all could ‘Return with Honor’!”
President Nixon’s 1973 peace treaty with the North Vietnamese enabled Schwertfeger and many other American POWs to return home. He subsequently flew the F-15 and taught pilots at the USAF Fighter Weapons School. He retired from the Air Force in 1988, then flew for American Airlines until 2005. “Now,” he said, “I give back to those that helped me get to where I was, and give back to those kids who are following in my footsteps.”
He has long taught college leadership classes across Oklahoma and Kansas, spoken to student pilots at Vance about the military code of conduct, and delivered presentations to military and civilian groups regarding his faith, pride in America, sense of duty, and determination to succeed. He credits all of those with helping him survive the “Hanoi Hilton.” And he personally funds scholarships to ROTC students at OSU, OU, the University of Kansas, and Kansas State University.
Bill Schwertfeger, married to his beloved wife Vonya since 1969, remains one of the most decorated American veterans of the Vietnam War. He won three Silver Stars, three Distinguished Flying Crosses, the Bronze Star, two Purple Hearts, and 35 Air Medals.
The above article is a bonus to the fascinating historical content found within our book
Oklahomans Vol 2 :
Statehood - 2020s
which can be purchased HERE.
View the inspiring 2-minute preview video HERE.