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Former POW living in Caldwell to be honored for his service

  • The Wichita Eagle
  • Published Sunday, Nov. 10, 2013, at 9:17 p.m.
  • Updated Sunday, Nov. 17, 2013, at 9:16 a.m.

Veterans Day parade in downtown Wichita

Wichitans celebrated Veterans Day with a parade Saturday in downtown Wichita. Video by Deb Gruver/The Wichita Eagle. Nov. 9, 2013

Veterans Day events

Monday

Wichita

• Southwestern College branch campus, 2040 S. Rock Road, will offer doughnuts, coffee and juice from 9 to 11 a.m. to veterans, who are invited to share stories and sign holiday cards that will be mailed to deployed troops.

• Wreath-laying service, 11 a.m., Veterans Memorial Park, 339 N. Greenway, followed by an open house of the park until 1 p.m. Wreaths will be laid at all memorials in the park.

• Ribbon cutting and dedication ceremony, 10 a.m., Dole VA Medical Center Peace Garden, 5500 E. Kellogg.

• “A Salute to Veterans” by Wichita Chapter of the American Guild of Organists, 7 p.m., First United Methodist Church, 330 N. Broadway. The program also is a benefit for Kansas Honor Flight, which sends veterans to Washington, D.C., to visit war memorials.

• Veterans and military members will be admitted free to the Museum of World Treasures, 835 E. First St. The museum will display a World War II-era Nazi flag signed by U.S. soldiers and sent home from France. At 3 p.m., Sgt. Cyril Leuelling will tell the story behind the flag.

Derby

• Derby Area Veterans Memorial Walk of Freedom and Ceremony, 2 p.m., Garrett Park, 1100 E. Chet Smith. If the weather is bad, the event will be at Woodlawn United Methodist Church, 431 S. Woodlawn, Derby.

Douglass

• Sisk Middle School will host a program honoring veterans, firefighters, law enforcement personnel, emergency medical technicians and American Red Cross volunteers at 10 a.m. at the Douglass Sports Complex. Guests are invited to the middle school gym at 9:30 a.m. for cookies, coffee and fellowship.

Emporia

• Parade, downtown Emporia, 9:30 a.m. Kansans provided the inspiration in 1953 for Veterans Day observations nationally. Emporia residents started a grassroots effort to observe the day honoring veterans of all wars. In 1954, President Eisenhower signed legislation recognizing Nov. 11 as a federal holiday. Before then, it was known as Armistice Day.

Kansas City

• National World War I Museum, 100 W. 26th St., will be open free to the public. Ceremony at 10 a.m. World War I re-enactors will greet visitors and distribute poppies. The museum will also unveil an exhibit of a stationary train car modeled after the Pullman sleeper cars of the 1940s, allowing visitors to experience the sights, sounds and emotions of leaving home for war.

Hutchinson

• Kansas Cosmosphere and Space Center will offer free admission to veterans with a paying companion for any show or exhibit.

Topeka

• Veterans Day parade, 11 a.m., downtown. Route begins at Fourth Street, heads south on Kansas Avenue, turns right on 12th Street, heads north on Jackson Avenue and ends at Sixth Street.

Overland Park

• Johnson County’s Veterans Day Observance includes the dedication of a new panel added to the city’s Korean War Veterans Memorial honoring Chaplain Emil Kapaun, a Pilsen native who was posthumously awarded the Medal of Honor. The ceremony is at 11 a.m. at the corner of 119th and Lowell.

Free meals for veterans

These are among the area restaurants that plan to offer free or reduced-price meals as a thank-you to veterans and active duty military personnel on Veterans Day. Guests will need to provide proof of service.

Jimmie’s Diners, 3111 N. Rock Road and 1519 S. George Washington Blvd: 25 percent off meals to military members with an ID, both active and retired.

Oliver’s Little Italy, 1930 S. Oliver: 15 percent off the bill for all military members, EMS personnel, firefighters and Wichita police.

Paradise Donuts, 3107 W. Central: Free doughnut and small coffee for any active and retired military members from 5 a.m. to noon.

Curly’s American Diner, 1530 S. Webb Road: Free meal for active duty military, National Guard and veterans from a special menu.

Applebee’s, many Wichita locations: Free meal from special menu.

Carrabba’s, 3409 N. Rock Road: Free appetizer Saturday through Monday.

Chili’s, several Wichita locations: Free meal from special menu.

Longhorn Steakhouse, 2720 N. Maize Road and 440 S. Towne East Mall Drive: Free Tonion appetizer.

Texas Roadhouse, 6707 W. Kellogg: Free lunch from a special menu for active-duty, former or retired military members.

Red Robin, 9990 E. 13th St. North: One free Tavern double burger to veterans or active duty military members with ID or in uniform.

Outback Steakhouse, 2020 N. Rock Road and 233 S. Ridge Road: Free Bloomin’ Onion and a beverage.

Hooters, 3151 N. Rock Road: Free meal up to $10.99 with any drink purchase.

Golden Corral, 616 S. Ridge Road Circle and 11006 E. Kellogg: Free meal from 4 to 9 p.m.

Olive Garden, 323 N. Rock Road and 2641 N. Maize Road: Free meal from a special menu plus 10 percent off for family members dining with veterans. Current members of the military and dependents get 10 percent off throughout November.

Red Lobster, 555 S. West St. and 333 S. Towne East Mall Drive: Free appetizer from special menu Monday through Thursday.

Krispy Kreme, 7777 E. Central: Free doughnut and small coffee to military with ID or those in uniform.

On the Border, 2347 N. Maize Road and 1930 N. Rock Road: Free Create Your Own Combo meal.

TGI Friday’s, 2441 N. Maize Road: Free lunch from 11 a.m. to 3 p.m.

There were a few things that kept Lt. Col. William “Bill” Schwertfeger company in the 13 months he was held as a prisoner of war in Vietnam.

Duty.

Honor.

Country.

“We took an oath to serve and defend the Constitution of the United States, and that was against all enemies foreign and domestic,” Schwertfeger said. “And that still holds true today for the youngest pup walking through the door. That was the core to how we all survived. Then came leadership. We maintained the military organization ... and although the North Vietnamese were very intent on destroying that line of leadership through torture, the next officer in line always stood up on down the line.”

Schwertfeger, now 68, retired and living in Caldwell, is scheduled to be honored Saturday when he becomes one of 10 men to be inducted into the Oklahoma Military Hall of Fame.

He was 26 and had flown 352 combat missions in Vietnam when, on Feb. 18, 1972, the F-4 he was piloting was shot down.

He was held for 407 days as a prisoner of war in the infamous “Hanoi Hilton.”

His wife, Vonya, remembers feeling panic when she was notified he’d been shot down.

“I can remember telling my dad he had to be alive because we had so much we had to do. We wanted a family,” she said.

They were childhood sweethearts. He grew up on a farm near Medford, just over the Oklahoma state line. She grew up near Caldwell, 17 miles away.

“We’ve known each other since we were knee-high,” Bill Schwertfeger said. “We dated since 1963 and were married in 1969.”

During the 13 months he was held prisoner, he received no mail from home.

His wife received three letters.

“Most letters were cryptic,” Bill Schwertfeger said, often encoded with information on who was the latest to arrive at the prisoner of war camp or about the health of others.

“We had to send those in to headquarters to see if there was any hidden message,” Vonya Schwertfeger said. “He always said he was doing fine. The letters never really said anything, and what you were reading didn’t make sense. You had to ask, ‘OK, what is he really trying to tell them?’ At least with every letter, I knew he was still alive, still there.”

Rope torture of the prisoners was routine.

“It’s a very brutal torture that dislocates your shoulders and cuts off the blood supply to every part of your body,” Bill Schwertfeger said. “They would leave you like that for a period of time, maybe hours. And when that blood supply was cut off, you’d lose all feeling in every limb you have.”

Then, when the ropes were released and the blood would begin to circulate again, Schwertfeger said, “it was like hitting the crazy bone, just as painful when the blood was coming back as when the blood supply was cut off.”

He was one of the last Vietnam War prisoners to be released.

Vonya Schwertfeger remembers holding her breath, hoping nothing would go wrong with his release.

“It was a very tense time, but I never doubted in all that time whether he was still alive. He’s tougher than that,” she said, and jokes “maybe not now, but he was then.”

When he finally came home, Vonya and Bill’s mother met him at Sheppard Air Force Base near Wichita Falls, Texas.

“He was thin but good,” Vonya Schwertfeger said. “He looked like he always did only thinner. He never seemed any different when he came home.”

Schwertfeger is a recipient of three Silver Stars, four Distinguished Flying Crosses, a Bronze Star, two Purple Hearts, three Meritorious Service Medals, 34 Air Medals, an Air Force Commendation Medal and a Prisoner of War medal.

But the toll of his time as a prisoner of war still wears on him, Bill Schwertfeger said.

As he’s aged, his joints ache from the torture he endured. And, after the couple’s son died in 1998, Bill Schwertfeger began to suffer from flashbacks and nightmares.

“You try to support your husband the best you can even though you are going through your own thing on the other side of it,” Vonya Schwertfeger said. “But we’ve come through it. We’ve stayed together. We’re soulmates.”

Reach Beccy Tanner at 316-268-6336 or btanner@wichitaeagle.com. Follow her on Twitter: @beccytanner.

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