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Newest 'Freedom Flyer' takes final flight for his B-52 crew

Lt. Col. Joel Deboer (right), 560th Flying Training Squadron commander and Paul Granger (middle), present "Freedom Flight" patches to Thomas Klomann at Joint Base San Antonio-Randolph, Texas, March 3, 2016. Granger and Klomann were shot down in the same B-52 Stratofortress while on a combat mission near Hanoi in North Vietnam on December 20, 1972, in support of Operation Linebacker II.

Lt. Col. Joel Deboer, right, the 560th Flying Training Squadron commander, and former Capt. Paul Granger, middle, present Freedom Flight patches to Thomas Klomann at Joint Base San Antonio-Randolph, Texas, March 3, 2016. Granger and Klomann were shot down in the same B-52 Stratofortress while on a combat mission near Hanoi in North Vietnam on Dec. 20, 1972, in support of Operation Linebacker II. (U.S. Air Force photo/Joel Martinez)

Lt. Col. Joel Deboer (left), 560th Flying Training Squadron commander, and former Air Force Capt. Paul Granger, a B-52 Stratofortress pilot who flew during the Vietnam War, taxi out to the runway during "Freedom Flight 196" at Joint Base San Antonio-Randolph, Texas March 3, 2016. The Freedom Flyer program was born in 1973 when the 560 FTS began retraining former prisoners of war to fly again in the Air Force.

Lt. Col. Joel Deboer, left, the 560th Flying Training Squadron commander, and former Capt. Paul Granger, a B-52 Stratofortress pilot who flew during the Vietnam War, taxi out to the runway during “Freedom Flight 196" at Joint Base San Antonio-Randolph, Texas March 3, 2016. The Freedom Flyer program began in 1973 when the 560 FTS began retraining former prisoners of war to fly again in the Air Force. (U.S. Air Force photo/Joel Martinez)

Paul Granger, a former B-52 Stratofortress pilot during the Vietnam War, is welcomed back after his "Freedom Flight" at Joint Base San Antonio-Randolph, Texas March 3, 2016. Granger was shot down while on a combat mission near Hanoi in North Vietnam on December 20, 1972, in support of Operation Linebacker II.

Former Capt. Paul Granger, a B-52 Stratofortress pilot during the Vietnam War, is welcomed back after his Freedom Flight at Joint Base San Antonio-Randolph, Texas, March 3, 2016. Granger was shot down while on a combat mission near Hanoi in North Vietnam on Dec. 20, 1972, in support of Operation Linebacker II. (U.S. Air Force photo/Joel Martinez)

JOINT BASE SAN ANTONIO-RANDOLPH, Texas (AFNS) -- The events on Dec. 20, 1972, were clearly on the mind of former Air Force pilot Paul Granger as he exited a T-38C Talon following a special hourlong flight March 3 that began and ended on the east flightline at Joint Base San Antonio-Randolph.

Caught up in the emotional aftermath of his long-overdue “Freedom Flight,” Granger paid tribute to his B-52 Stratofortress aircrew that was shot down over North Vietnam that December night as he joined an elite fraternity of Air Force pilots known as the Freedom Flyers.

“Our trip is complete,” he said. “It was the best I ever had.”

Granger also greeted retired Capt. Tom Klomann, the only other known survivor of the six-man B-52 aircrew that participated in the air offensive of December 1972 known as Operation Linebacker II, and presented him with Freedom Flyer patches symbolizing his connection to the pilots imprisoned by the North Vietnamese.

It was Klomann, one of the navigators on that aircrew, who finally persuaded Granger to journey to San Antonio from his Coronado, California, home and become the 196th Freedom Flyer, the designation for the former prisoner-of-war Air Force pilots who’ve been given their Vietnam service fini flights by the 560th Flying Training Squadron over a period spanning five decades.

Granger’s induction into the Freedom Flyers -- complete with a champagne shower after his fini flight piloted by Lt. Col. Joel DeBoer, the 560th FTS commander -- was one of the highlights of the 43rd annual Freedom Flyer Reunion March 3-4.

Although Granger and Klomann were aircrew mates on that mission over North Vietnam, they didn’t actually meet each other until they attended a dinner hosted by President Richard Nixon on May 24, 1973, that honored nearly 600 Vietnam War POWs who had just been released.

“Tom was a substitute on the crew,” Granger recalled. “I didn’t even know he was the navigator until we got back to the States.”

Granger and Klomann met different fates after they ejected from their B-52 when it was struck by surface-to-air missiles.

Klomann doesn’t remember a thing that happened that night -- and for days to follow.

“The first month was a blank,” he said. “I was unconscious during much of that time.”

Klomann free-fell 20,000 feet when his parachute deployed and was taken to a North Vietnamese hospital where he remained unconscious for a week and semi-conscious for another two weeks, according to his biography. He sustained major injuries to his leg, arm and hip along with head trauma, a collapsed lung and open wounds.

After spending nearly two months in the North Vietnamese hospital, Klomann was among the first POWs to be returned to the U.S. on Feb. 16, 1973.

In contrast, Granger was captured by the North Vietnamese, suffering only minor injuries, and taken to the infamous “Hanoi Hilton” POW camp.

By the time Granger was imprisoned, the situation at the Hanoi Hilton had changed.

“There were daily interrogations and intimidation, but no torture was going on,” he said. “They would tell us we were criminals and that we would be executed.”

Bombing raids on North Vietnam were becoming more frequent, and the explosions were met with enthusiasm from the POWs, Granger said.

“Every time there was a strike, there was cheering,” he said.

Granger recalled one particular raid that hit the Cuban embassy.

“I was in an isolation room and an air raid siren went off,” he said. “A jet flew overhead and there was a loud explosion. Shutters blew off the windows and debris was flying everywhere. I heard loud cheers and applause. The guys were so elated that the bombing had started again.”

Granger was included in the last group of POWs who left Hanoi at the war’s end. He was reintegrated and assigned to the 454th FTS at Mather Air Force Base, California, and separated from the Air Force four years later. He was hired by Pacific Southwest Airlines, which was later purchased by U.S. Airways, and retired in 2005.

Klomann medically retired from the Air Force as a captain, earned a master’s degree in business administration and worked as a budget analyst at the Audie Murphy Veterans Administration Hospital in San Antonio for 23 years. Despite the serious injuries he received, Klomann remains active, playing 18 holes of golf on a regular basis.

“He’s really tough,” Granger said.

Klomann, who lives in San Antonio and frequently attends the Freedom Flyer reunions, has kept in touch with Granger over the years, encouraging him to become part of the Freedom Flyer tradition.

“I had already checked out and started with an airline, so the time frame never worked out,” said Granger, who was accompanied by his wife, Leslie, to the Freedom Flyer Reunion. “Tom has always wanted to get a Freedom Flyer number, but they aren’t given to navigators. I wasn’t going to come, but he asked me to come fly for the crew.”

Both men called their Vietnam experience life-changing.

For Klomann, it was learning that every day is a gift. For Granger, it wasn’t the experience at the Hanoi Hilton but the realization -- after losing four of his crewmates -- that life can be short.

“When things are going bad, I try to reflect and realize that things are not so bad after all,” he said. “Why I was spared, I don’t know. I hope there’s a reason I’m still here, so I try to reflect on that.”