Tony Marshall receives a Vietnam Aviators Salute (Jack Trimble)

The morning he flew his 266th mission over Vietnam, Air Force Capt. Tony Marshall only knew the pilot in the seat in front of him, Capt. Steve Cuthbert, by reputation. Tall and thin with a shock of sandy blond hair, Cuthbert never suffered a lack of confidence flying the F-4 Phantom.

“He told me he would never be captured when shot down,” Capt. Ross Detwiler, another pilot, later wrote, recalling a conversation the night before a malfunction sent Cuthbert’s plane to the ground in 1972.

Cuthbert was believed killed after capture, and Marshall, his weapon systems officer who handled the fighter-bomber’s air-to-air missiles and other ordnance, became a prisoner of war.

Decades later, Marshall and an old friend, retired Lt. Col. Jack Trimble, a fellow POW shot down in a separate incident, were at Joint Base San Antonio-Randolph on Thursday for the 44th annual Freedom Flyer Reunion, which solemnly salutes the return of 684 American prisoners from Vietnam in 1973, almost half of them airmen.

Their memories rushed back this week as they took in a preflight briefing in standard-issue flight suits, carrying helmets and making a bit of Air Force history as the 197th and 198th “Freedom Flights” given by the 560th Flying Training Squadron.
On Thursday, they became the first weapons officers captured in Vietnam to get a “fini flight” — a final, celebratory mission
capping their aviation careers.

Before them, only pilots had been given that honor. The two would earn their wings after being freed, but when they were based at Udorn Royal Thai Air Base in Thailand in the 13th Tactical Fighter Squadron, they flew in the back seats of the F-4.
As Cuthbert and Marshall flew fast and low over North Vietnam on July 3, 1972, a fuel tank’s nose cowling came off, and Cuthbert had to jettison the cockpit canopy with a sudden blast. Without the cone, the drag of the empty fuel tank under the plane made the F-4 pitch uncontrollably. At a higher altitude, Cuthbert might have recovered, but at just 3,500 feet, there was no chance.
Marshall and Cuthbert were blown out of the jet, stunned but conscious after hitting the wind at 633 mph. Marshall landed on a hillside and stood up, part of his parachute over one shoulder and Phantoms racing past him, sometimes lower than 1,000 feet.
The noise was deafening.

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