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.
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 hed 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.
Weve 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 didnt 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.
Its 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, youd 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. Hes tougher than that, she said, and jokes maybe not now, but he was then.
When he finally came home, Vonya and Bills 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 hes aged, his joints ache from the torture he endured. And, after the couples 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 weve come through it. Weve stayed together. Were soulmates.