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Blue skies and tailwinds, Lt. Col. Bill Gauntt, American Airman, POW

  • Published
  • By Master Sgt. Jeremy Roman
  • 301st Fighter Wing Public Affairs

Through a crisp morning sky, two F-16 Fighting Falcon aircraft from the 301st Fighter Wing’s 457th Fighter Squadron, Naval Air Station Joint Reserve Base Fort Worth, Texas, soared over the U.S. Air Force Academy to honor the legacy of William “Bill” Aaron Gauntt (U.S. Air Force, Lt. Col., ret.), Monday, April 18.

“It truly was an honor to be invited to perform this flyover,” said Capt. Landon Santori, 457 FS F-16 pilot. “His distinguished career, his perseverance and his character serves as an inspiration and example for every military member to follow.”

Gauntt was born in Greenville, Texas, on May 15, 1945 and called Mt. Pleasant, Texas, home before graduating from USAFA in 1968. After graduation, he entered pilot training at Reese Air Force Base, Texas, and eventually completed a tour at Tyndall AFB, Fla., as an instructor pilot in the Lockheed T-33 Shooting Star subsonic American jet trainer. He became a McDonnell Douglas RF-4C Phantom II pilot at Shaw AFB, S.C., and began flying in Southeast Asia at Udorn Royal Thai Air Force Base, Thailand, in October 1971. Nearly completing this tour and on his 121st mission, (then) Capt. Gauntt, and his systems officer 1st Lt. Francis W. Townsend, were shot down by anti-aircraft artillery and captured by the enemy about 10 miles southwest of Vinh Linh in the Quang Binh Province, North Vietnam, on August 13, 1972. Forced to walk 300 miles with no boots to the prisoner of war camp in Hanoi, Gauntt would be a POW there for 9 months until his release.

“My imprisonment was relatively short compared to those men who spent several years of their lives in captivity,” Gauntt recalled. “My faith in my family and my country was greatly enhanced by my association with these men of strong determination and will the spirit of men, such as these, has helped to mold our country and sustain her during times of strife.”

On March 27, 1973, he was among 591 Americans released from POW camps in Vietnam. Townsend was not*.

“I feel the trust fund for scholarships for [the] children of those men who made the greatest sacrifice, their life, is only a small part of what we owe them,” said Gauntt during a later interview. “I certainly hope we have learned a great lesson from this war and that we will not soon forget its cost, both at home and abroad.”

Gauntt was a pilot through and through. He accomplished his future plan, which was returning to fly his RF-4C, and flew 10 more missions to bring his total to 131 sorties.

Before retiring from the Air Force in 1990, Gauntt earned numerous accolades, to include three Distinguished Flying Crosses, the Bronze Star with a V for Valor, two Purple Hearts, four Meritorious Service Medals, nine Air Medals, two Air Force Commendation Medals, the POW Medal, the National Defense Medal and the Vietnam Service Medal.
He continued to serve after military life as an environmental engineer and his final career would be in home healthcare where he would care for and spend time with the elderly.

Bill passed away on February 24, 2022, surrounded by his family and his beloved dog, Gracie.

Gen. B.B. Bell (U.S. Army, ret.), chairman of the National Medal of Honor Heritage Center Advisory Board on which Bill served, said, “We’ve lost the very best of the best. He was a fearless pilot with three Distinguished Flying Crosses, 130 combat missions against a determined enemy, and a survivor of brutal enemy prisoner of war treatment. Bill Gauntt was the epitome of an American Combat Warrior. I thank God for this man and pray our LORD will bless and keep his family.”

The 301 FW is the Air Force Reserve Command’s only F-16 unit in the state of Texas. Their mission is to train and deploy combat-ready Airmen. Another Air Force Reserve Command unit, the 507th Air Refueling Wing's 465th Air Refueling Squadron, Tinker Air Force Base, Okla., also provided KC-135 support to make this funeral flyover possible. The 507 ARW's mission is to organize, train and equip Combat-Ready Citizen Airmen to provide strategic deterrence and global capabilities.

* Whether Francis W. Townsend, a USAFA class of 1970 graduate, survived to be captured, was executed, or is among those thought to be still alive is unknown. What is certain, however, is that as long as there is even one American held against [their] will, we owe [them] our very best efforts to bring [them] to freedom. Source: Compiled by Homecoming II Project 01 April 1990 with the assistance of one or more of the following: raw data from U.S. Government agency sources, correspondence with POW/MIA families, published sources, interviews. Updated by the P.O.W. NETWORK. 2022.