Air Force pilot welcomed home (Gary Thornton)

After an emotional speech, former prisoner-of-war Gary L. Thornton looked at the flag-draped casket holding the remains of his friend and mentor, Thunderbirds pilot Russell C. Goodman, and snapped a salute.

“Welcome home to the hero, professional and patriot,” Thornton said. “Welcome home, Major Russell Clayton Goodman, United States Air Force.”

In the Thunderbirds hangar Thursday at Nellis Air Force Base, Thornton and Goodman’s family and members of the Air Force aerial demonstration team paid tribute to the pilot whose F-4B Phantom jet was shot down over coastal Vietnam almost 43 years ago. Recently a laboratory in Hawaii positively identified Goodman’s bone fragments that had been excavated from a grave in a village south of Hanoi.

Thornton managed to eject before the jet crashed. But Vietnamese militia took him prisoner minutes after he slammed into a rice paddy with a broken back. He was held captive for six years at the infamous Hanoi Hilton prison until his release in 1973 near the end of the Vietnam War.

The 68-year-old Thornton said he had been in denial that Goodman had been killed that day, Feb. 20, 1967, while they tried to bomb a railroad yard after taking off from the USS Enterprise.

“I knew when I ejected from the airplane, he was still in it and the airplane was pointed down and going fast and we were low,” said Thornton, a Navy lieutenant at the time.

As a radar intercept officer, he sat behind Goodman, a former Thunderbirds pilot and narrator flying the jet as part of a Navy-Air Force exchange program.

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