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50th FTS commemorates Vietnam POW with painting

  • Published
  • By Airman 1st Class Davis Donaldson
  • 14th Flying Training Wing Public Affairs

COLUMBUS AIR FORCE BASE, Miss.-- The 50th Flying Training Squadron at Columbus Air Force Base, Mississippi, paid homage to Retired U.S. Air Force Lt. Col. Richard “Gene” Smith, Vietnam prisoner of war and former 50th FTS commander, by placing a symbol of their squadron’s heritage on November 13, 2020.

The symbol is a painting of an F-4 Phantom performing a roll over the infamous Hoa Lo Prison, in Vietnam, otherwise known to American POWs as “The Hanoi Hilton” during the Vietnam War.

For Smith, the story behind the painting is that while being held captive at the prison, he and other POWs had not heard from the outside world in nearly two and half years. Their hope was at a low and they had no idea what was happening in the war, Smith said.

“You can’t imagine sitting there not knowing war was happening month after month after month,” he said. “We had no idea when the end was coming.”

One day, while the prisoners were in their cells, they heard a loud rumbling noise, which sounded all too familiar to the pilots.

When the pilots looked from their cell windows, they saw an American F-4 Phantom doing a low pass, or roll, over the prison. The act boosted the morale of the POWs tremendously and gave them hope that the Americans knew the POWs were there, Smith said.

Years later, coincidentally, Smith would come in to contact with the pilot that performed the roll. The pilot’s name was John Chancellor.

Smith also found out that Chancellor and his wingman’s flight plan that day had nothing to do with flying over the prison.

“When they finished their flying mission for the day, John Chancellor radioed his number two man and said ‘we’re gonna go back and make a pass over the Hanoi’”, Smith said. “He then said ‘we’re gonna do a roll to let those POWs know that we’re still here’. That’s what is important about that painting, they gave us hope and showed courage by coming back and flying over.”

Smith and Chancellor are still friends to this day. Smith said a couple years ago Chancellor’s name came up in a conversation among a group of friends. While talking about the roll over the prison, an idea sparked in Smith’s head and he mentioned it would be great to have a picture painted called “Roll over the Hilton”.

The painting came into fruition and multiple copies were made.

Smith then contacted Lt. Col. Nathaniel Wilds, the current 50th FTS commander, and said the original copy of the painting should be placed at the 50th FTS, where Smith was once the commander.

“We were honored that he contacted us,” said Wilds.

Wilds accepted the offer and members of the 50th FTS held an unveiling ceremony for Smith. Together, Smith and Wilds unveiled the symbol of hope and courage.

The painting is placed at the entrance of the squadron for all the students to see before they enter the schoolhouse.

“You cannot walk into the building or dress for a sortie without passing this painting,” Wilds said. “This display and its story sets the tone, sets the seriousness of what we do and what we will do. This painting is a reminder of what it means to be an Airman, a reminder of the sacrifices made by so many before us whose shoulders we humbly and proudly stand upon.”