Rolling Thunder

“Instinctively, my eyes found the patch we coveted the most … the bold, embroidered words read: ‘North Vietnam – 100 missions F-105.’ It was beautiful and signaled the finale I had dreamed about.” Capt. (later Brig. Gen.) Kenneth Bell on receiving the ceremonial 100-mission flight suit after completing his 100th mission over North Vietnam

The 100 Missions North Vietnam patch. (U.S. Air Force photo)

The 100 Missions North Vietnam patch. (U.S. Air Force photo)

Operation Rolling Thunder pilots had mixed emotions when President Lyndon B. Johnson called a halt to the bombing of North Vietnam in time for Christmas Eve in 1965. F-105 Thunderchief pilots at Korat and Takhli Royal Thai Air Bases in Thailand knew it would take longer for them to reach the milestone 100th mission the Air Force had determined would earn them a trip home from Southeast Asia. Still, the pilots of the 469th Tactical Fighter Squadron, deployed to Korat from McConnell Air Force Base, Kan., celebrated the no-flying Christmas Day with a party in Lt. Col. Bill Cooper’s trailer. Retired Col. Bob Krone assumed command of the 469th TFS on April 24, 1966 after Cooper was killed when his F-105 was shot down by a missile over the Phu Lang Thuong Bridge. Another pilot, 1st Lt. Jerry D. Driscoll, was captured and held as a prisoner of war in Hanoi for more than six years.

Two days after they arrived at Korat, the squadron lost its first pilot when Capt. Donald G. Green was killed on Nov. 15, 1965. In the early years of the war, F-105s had such a high loss rate that the squadron had a saying, the supreme optimist was “the F-105 pilot who stops smoking to prevent cancer,” Krone said. So reaching the 100th mission was on every pilot’s mind.

Col. Krone wearing the hat on display. Attached to the hat is a Royal Thai Air Force pilot's badge. (U.S. Air Force photo)

Col. Krone wearing the hat on display. Attached to the hat is a Royal Thai Air Force pilot’s badge. (U.S. Air Force photo)

“Pure joy is a rare wartime emotion,” Krone said. “But joy comes to an aviator after the solo flight, when doing a roll after penetrating an overcast into a sun-filled sky, and especially when landing with honor after the last combat mission.

“Those of us who reached the 100 counters were the lucky ones. Thirty-five percent of all the F-105D/F pilots and electronic warfare officers who flew in the Vietnam War between 1965 and 1968 did not reach the 100th mission.”

Rolling Thunder was a systematic, but frequently interrupted, bombing campaign designed to discourage Viet Cong aggression, to interdict the flow of supplies going south and provide a morale boost to South Vietnamese forces. The Air Force flew from bases in South Vietnam and Thailand and hit targets north of the demilitarized zone across North Vietnam. Although Rolling Thunder officially began 50 years ago on March 2, 1965, bombing missions in the North actually began in 1964. The F-105D and the Wild Weasel F-105F flew 85 percent of Air Force combat missions to North Vietnam. Eight of 16 Airmen on the Wild Weasel crews that flew out of Takhli Royal Thai Air Base were killed, wounded or taken as POWs.

Rolling Thunder Missions over the North. (U.S. Air Force Photo)

Rolling Thunder Missions over the North. (U.S. Air Force Photo)

“The (Wild Weasels) were the guys who had the highest risk of anybody because they would go in and search for missile sites and try to wipe them out,” Krone said. “They would be there before we got there, we would leave, and they would still be there trying to clean up things. They had terrible losses. I have a lot of good friends who were Weasels. They were a huge part of the Vietnam effort.”

The Air Force was the only service that adopted the 100 mission policy. In November 1965, the service established the length of a tour as either one year or 100 missions in Laos and North Vietnam, or a combination of the two, although by February 1966, only missions over North Vietnam counted toward completing a tour. However, to reach 100 missions, pilots faced MiG fighters, surface-to-air missiles and a combination of anti-aircraft artillery and automatic weapons.

“As far as I know, there was never a policy like that before Vietnam, and I don’t think there has been one since,” Krone said. “The policy was we’re sending you there for a combat tour, but you will not have to go back involuntarily until everybody else with the same qualifications as a pilot has gone. That was a historic policy for the military.

Rescued pilot (right) with fellow USAF pilots who helped bring him out of North Vietnam. (U.S. Air Force photo)

Rescued pilot (right) with fellow USAF pilots who helped bring him out of North Vietnam. (U.S. Air Force photo)

“It was continually on people’s minds of getting to that 100. It didn’t deter anybody from flying a mission, but it was a cloud that hung over everybody all the time. It was a cloud that let you know when the sun would come out, and you would be going home.”

Under Krone’s command, the 469th TFS designed a 100 Mission Patch in 1966 and also initiated the “100 Mission Reception” for pilots returning from their 100th mission. They were greeted by fire engines and trucks loaded with crew chiefs firing flares to lead the aircraft as it taxied to the parking ramp, where they were met by commanders, pilots and maintenance specialists with congratulations and champagne on a red carpet. They then rode to operations to log their final mission on the mission board, followed by the “Ringing of the Bell” in the bar.

Krone also helped to produce an Air Force Aerospace Audio Visual Service film called “There is a Way” to remind pilots that it was possible for them to reach the 100-mission mark, and established a policy that every attempt would be made to make a pilot’s final three missions routine with low risk, or “a milk run.” His own 100th mission, when he became the first squadron commander to reach the plateau, was a milk run. His 99th was not, he said.

No other pilot was available on a huge joint mission to Nghe An Province, North Vietnamese President Ho Chi Minh’s hometown, a large military depot on the Red River Delta.

The 100-mission policy ended as Rolling Thunder began winding down in March 1968 without achieving any of the operation’s strategic objectives. After President Johnson ended all bombing north of the 20th Parallel, aircrews arriving after June served one-year tours, regardless of the number of combat missions.

Specialized RB-66s helped F-105s bomb in North Vietnam's frequently poor weather conditions. (U.S. Air Force photo)

Specialized RB-66s helped F-105s bomb in North Vietnam’s frequently poor weather conditions. (U.S. Air Force photo)

After his tour ended in June 1966, Krone was sent to personnel headquarters at Randolph Air Force Base, Texas, to set up a crew control shop that would manage the Air Force’s pilot and navigator resources stateside for Southeast Asia needs. He also spent 10 years advising the National Museum of the United States Air Force at Wright-Patterson Air Force Base, Ohio, on the planning for the “100 Mission Exhibit” that was opened in 2009.

During Operation Rolling Thunder, U.S. aircraft dropped 643,000 bombs and inflicted about $300 million of damage on North Vietnam; however, the military also lost 900 aircraft, and estimates put the cost of the bombing campaign at about $900 million.

During his career, which ended in 1975, Krone flew a total of 125 combat missions in Southeast Asia, received the Silver Star, Bronze Star, four Distinguished Flying Crosses and 11 Air Medals. He earned a doctorate degree as a colonel at UCLA in 1972 and has been an author, educator and consultant in advanced management theory and practice. He was involved in NASA research in 1980 while on the University of Southern California faculty, which eventually led him to become the president of the Kepler Space Institute in 2013.

Despite the controversy of the war back home, Krone believes the pilots who flew in Rolling Thunder, as well as the thousands of service members who served in Vietnam, made an important lasting contribution that historians are just beginning to fully realize.

The elements of a hunter-killer team: F-105F Wild Weasel with Shrikes and F-105D with bombs.

The elements of a hunter-killer team: F-105F Wild Weasel with Shrikes and F-105D with bombs. (U.S. Air Force photo)

“My conclusion for the meaning of the Vietnam War was the United States spent 11 years fighting communism in Vietnam and helped the demise of communism, because it tended to make them concentrate on what we were doing, rather than going elsewhere in Southeast Asia, which they were dedicated in doing,” Krone said in a presentation he gave on the meaning of Rolling Thunder and the war to the National Museum of the United States Air Force.

“They didn’t go to Singapore, Indonesia or Thailand, and that was all in their design. I firmly believe that one of the main reasons the Cold War ended on our behalf was the fact that we spent that time and resources in Vietnam.”

Maj. William Robinson, pilot (l), and Maj. Peter Tsouprake, EWO (r), celebrate their 100th mission.

Maj. William Robinson, pilot (l), and Maj. Peter Tsouprake, EWO (r), celebrate their 100th mission. Earlier, on July 5, 1966, they flew lead on a large strike mission north of Hanoi. Disregarding their own safety, they braved intense ground fire and several SAMs to attack four SA-2 sites. Three were knocked out and the fourth was heavily damaged. For their valor, they were both awarded the Air Force Cross. (U.S. Air Force photo)

At the 50th anniversary of the beginning of Rolling Thunder, Krone and other pilots who survived their combat missions on North Vietnam will honor their comrades who didn’t make it home.


A Picture of Combat

Nearly a decade before he captured motion pictures of bombing missions over Nazi-controlled Europe, a 12-year-old aspiring photographer was in a tree house with his Kodak Brownie.

When retired Chief Master Sgt. Douglas W. Morrell was a boy growing up in Nebraska, he photographed family vacations. One day, a small-town attorney offered to pay him for a picture to help him fight a lawsuit. The lawyer believed the plaintiff wasn’t as hurt from an accident as he’d pretended, so he asked the boy to climb into a neighbor’s tree house until just the right moment.

“I heard the front door slam, and this guy comes out and takes off all of his harnesses, pads and braces,” Morrell said. “Then he gets his shovel and starts digging potatoes in his garden, and I’m catching all of this. That was the start of it all.” Morrell’s love of photography was rivaled only by an obsession to fly, so he joined the Army Air Corps just before World War II. He began a combat photography career that included 32 combat missions and four months as a prisoner-of-war in Romania.

Morrell, who received two Purple Hearts and the Bronze Star, bailed out of three airplanes during World War II and in Vietnam after they were hit by enemy fire. The first time he bailed out, he had to evade capture for 25 days.

“That particular mission was practically a milk run for me, compared to the others,” said Morrell, now 92 and living in Highland, Calif.

After high school, Morrell spent two years at Nebraska Wesleyan University before he moved to California. He studied cinematography and photography at the Arts Center in Los Angeles and eventually enlisted in the Army Air Corps on Oct. 3, 1939 at March Air Force Base, Calif.

He spent his first year on special observation status, which rotated him through four major movie studios in Hollywood. Morrell then made training films that specialized in field production and aerial documentation and spent a year in glider pilot training before his transfer to Africa and Italy in 1943. He flew in the B-24 Liberator in combat missions that supported Operation Tidal Wave, which focused on nine oil refineries around Ploesti, Romania to deny petroleum-based fuel to the Axis powers.

“This was very important because Ploesti was where Hitler was getting all of his oil,” Morrell said. “We were bombing that place to keep those oil barges down.”

During Morrell’s third combat mission in March 1944, his B-24 was disabled by anti-aircraft fire over the Iron Gates of Romania, forcing the crew to bail from the airplane.

Morrell and a fellow crewmember evaded capture for 25 days as they walked across Yugoslavia and northern Albania to the Adriatic Sea. They finally bribed a fisherman with a .45-caliber pistol and $100 in gold certificates to take them back to Italy. Morrell was returned to duty, and his green-brown visual color deficiency, which he disguised during his Army Air Corps entrance testing, enabled him to notice a fake Messerschmidt factory in Austria. He shot the area in infra-red stills, and intelligence was able to target the factory. The same result followed his pictures of a pair of camouflaged German submarines he shot near Venice.

But two months after his return to duty, Morrell was filming his fifth raid on the Ploesti oil refineries when anti-aircraft hit the B-24 and forced it to leave formation. An attack by several German ME-109 fighters set the B-24 afire at 18,000 feet. Morrell bailed out moments before the plane exploded and killed five crewmembers still on board.

A German Luftwaffe major on a motorcycle was waiting for Morrell as he descended in his parachute. The major took Morrell to the Balkan headquarters of the Luftwaffe, where he was detained for nearly Morrell was then moved to the main American POW camp in Bucharest, where he stayed for three and a half months.

“We had steel, double-deck beds with straw mattresses and beat-up, old German blankets,” Morrell said. “We had all the good water we wanted, but we had hardly any food. They gave us the equivalent of party rye bread, about a half-inch thick of that a day. They’d sometimes bring some cabbages, six heads that they would use to make soup for 1,400 people. I went in at 165 to 170 pounds and came out at 97 pounds. It’s a very good diet.”

One day, Morrell almost escaped through a trap door in the mess hall ceiling. He sneaked through the trap door after the last person left the mess hall that night and walked out the next morning. He walked halfway through the city before a German army truck picked him up. Morrell told the German soldiers he was an Italian pilot who’d been shot down and was trying to make it back to Bulgaria. The lie worked until the truck reached the post near the Danube River.

“When we got to the post near the Danube, there was a kid there who spoke Italian, and I couldn’t understand him,” Morrell said. “He told the Germans I wasn’t an Italian, and they took me back.”

The POWs were liberated on Aug. 23, 1944, when the Romanians recapitulated. Romanians gave Morrell U.S. money, so he spent several days on the town in Bucharest. When the Soviet Army arrived a couple of days after the POWs were freed, Russian soldiers greeted the American POWs warmly, Morrell said.

“They were on every corner with a sub-machine gun,” he said. “They’d tear the Romanians apart, but they found out I was an ‘Americanski.’ They went in and just broke the hell out of casks of vodka. They got me in there, said, ‘We drink,’ and poured glasses of vodka. They’d toast, ‘Stalin. Roosevelt. Churchill.’

“Finally, I’m getting ready to go out and get something to eat, and here come a couple of more Russians. They’d say, ‘Americanski prisoner.’ Out comes the vodka again. I’ve never been that blasted in my life.”

When Morrell returned to the states, he spent four months in rehabilitation status in hotels in Santa Monica, Calif. He later photographed the atomic bomb tests in the Marshall Islands, guided missile tests in Africa and Alaska, and he left the Army Air Force in February 1947.

Morrell worked as a professional photographer in Montana for the next five years, but returned to the Air Force during the Korean War in March 1952. In 1968, he was an operations noncommissioned officer in charge of a photo flight at Koret, Thailand, when he had to bail out of his third damaged airplane. Morrell was documenting a sensor drop over the Ho Chi Minh trail in Laos when his O-2 Skymaster was hit by anti-aircraft fire that knocked off half of the left wing and set it on fire. Morrell bailed out with the pilot at 5,000 feet, and they faced anti-aircraft fire as they descended into the jungle. He landed in the middle of a truck servicing and parking complex that was guarded by six anti-aircraft guns. Morrell called in the rescue team with his survival radio and gave the positions of the Viet Cong guns. He was rescued by a Jolly Green Giant rescue helicopter nearly nine hours after he parachuted into the jungle, but his pilot was captured and held as a POW in Hanoi for four years.

After Morrell recovered in the hospital at Clark Air Base, Philippines, he was reassigned to Headquarters, Aerospace Audiovisual Service at Norton Air Force Base, Calif., where he was the aircrew standardization chief until he retired on June 30, 1974. Morrell spent the next 15 years conducting combat camera documentation seminars at AAVS units and wrote almost all combat camera operational regulations, including a comprehensive documentation techniques manual, the combat camera basic unit supplement and supplements to Department of Defense and Air Force regulations. He also managed the DOD’s Military Cinematographer of the Year competition and led the creation of Syracuse University’s Military Motion Media Studies Program in 1993. Morrell retired from his federal civilian career on Sept. 3, 1994.

He hasn’t lost his love of motion picture photography in his retirement years. He still enjoys creating multi-media presentations at his computer in his California home and talking about his combat photography career that began with a $10 photo from a tree house.

20 Years Later

The colonel in the olive drab flight suit picks up a remote control lying on his desk, aims it at the television mounted to his office wall and pushes play. The screen flickers on to a crude black and white video overlaid with numbers and symbols — some fixed to the screen, others tilting with the horizon. A man’s breathing, raspy and ragged, pours from the speakers. On the screen, from this bird’s-eye view, jets careen through a magnificent fireworks display as Roman candles and bottle rockets race up from below. The horizon tilts sharply as just ahead, a rocket finds its target. “Stroke One took a hit! Stroke One took a hit!” exclaims a voice that transports the colonel in the flight suit back 20 years into the cockpit of his F-16 fighter jet. A moment later, another missile finds its mark.

“That’s me getting shot,” the colonel says softly, matter-of-factly.

Then-Capt. Mike Roberts arrived at his new duty station at U.S. Air Base Torrejon, near Madrid, Spain, in June 1990, with his pregnant wife and two stepchildren, 14 and 10 years old, in tow. Assigned to the 614th Tactical Fighter Squadron there, he had been training for the unit’s nuclear alert mission for about two months when, on Aug. 2, Iraqi dictator Saddam Hussein’s military forces invaded Kuwait — Iraq’s oil-rich neighbor to the south — and his mission abruptly changed.

By the end of August, Roberts’ squadron had deployed to Qatar, and after tying up some loose ends at Torrejon, he joined them in the beginning of October. The squadron spent the fall patrolling and defending Saudi Arabia’s northern border with Iraq and conducting training missions to prepare for what appeared to be almost certain war with Iraq. Although the United States and Soviet Union were nearing the end of their Cold War, the rivalry had long shaped how the American military trained for war.

“We had always thought that the next war was going to be in Germany in the Fulda Gap, and everything would be low altitude, trying to stay below the Soviet SAMs [surface-to-air missiles] and Soviet radar. That was how the Air Force was built. That was our training program,” Roberts said. “When we got to the desert, we recognized that the real threat down low was going to be triple-A [anti-aircraft artillery], just a huge mass of triple-A that they had.”

With a relatively short amount of time to adapt, they immediately adjusted their training to prepare for this new reality. They began incorporating high-altitude release bombs and medium-altitude ingress plans at about 20,000 feet, as opposed to the low-altitude — about 500 feet — plans they had previously trained on.

In November, two months out, the plan for the first few days of the air war was set. Although the air tasking operation document was classified secret and kept in a safe, the pilots were allowed access. The squadron’s first two days of missions were “nothing big,” Roberts said — airfields in Talil and Basra. However, the plan for day three — the Republican Guard headquarters building, air defense headquarters building and an oil refinery, all in Baghdad — gave them pause.

“I remember thinking, ‘Wow, day three, downtown Baghdad in the daytime. They’ll change that by the time we get there,’” he said. “But sure enough, day three came and no changes. Everybody was pretty nervous about it. A lot of guys were writing the letter home to leave in their helmet box when they left. I said, ‘I’m not doing that; that’s bad luck to be doing that.’ So I didn’t write a letter.”

On day three, Jan. 19, 1991, a fleet of 48 F-16 Fighting Falcons — including the 16 from Torrejon — along with eight F-4G Wild Weasels, eight F-15 Eagles and two EF-111 Ravens, pushed north into Iraq. The first 32 airplanes successfully bombed their target — a nuclear plant about 17 kilometers southeast of Baghdad — then peeled off south, while Roberts’ group continued north over downtown Baghdad.

Intermittent clouds partially obscured the city, and because the rules of engagement dictated pilots could not bomb targets in cities unless they could visually identify them, they were forced to call off the mission. Just as they received the abort order, their warning systems sounded, alerting them to the enemy SAMs racing up from below. Roberts successfully defeated the first missile when an airplane behind him called out another SAM launch. He rolled his F-16 to look for it and saw it coming up beneath him. He maneuvered to avoid it and felt a slight bump in his airplane as the missile exploded. At first, he thought he was safe.

“I remember trying to light the burner on the airplane to get some air speed back, and instead of feeling that kick in the pants from the burner lighting, I felt the motor just dying underneath me,” he said. “We have what we call ‘Bitching Betty’ in the airplane — a voice warning system that starts talking to you when things are going bad — and Betty’s bitching and lights are lighting up everywhere and the motor had quit running, the flight controls weren’t responding. I was in sort of a negative-G pitch over and I couldn’t pick the nose of the airplane back up. Nothing was working.”

He glanced back over his left shoulder and saw smoke pouring from beneath the airplane. He tried once more to restart the motor, but nothing happened. It was time to get out.

Roberts felt all of his 195 pounds being pushed up off the seat, watched the canopy eject away, and began falling face-first toward the ground. Just as he started to worry about his rapidly-decreasing altitude, his parachute deployed. As he floated down, breaking through the clouds, he saw Baghdad off to his left and a four-lane highway running south out of the city. He used the wind to maneuver away from the city, but as he got closer to the ground, he could see the tracers from rounds being fired at him.

“I’m just thinking about getting skinny, living through the next fifteen seconds at a time,” Roberts said. “I could see these cars on the median and the side of the road as I got close, kind of forming up a little welcoming party for me.”

After landing about 500 yards east of the highway, he dropped his parachute, grabbed his survival kit and began running away from the highway until a mob of AK-47 assault rifle-toting civilians blocked his path, firing off warning rounds. He surrendered, and the mob stripped him of everything they could, leaving him with his flight suit and survival vest only because they couldn’t figure out how the zippers worked.

“Fortunately, within just a few minutes, these military folks came up and they ran off the civilians,” he said. “And I say ‘fortunately’ because the civilians were getting a little rowdy, and I don’t know what they were planning, but it wasn’t anything good, I don’t think.”

The Iraqi troops loaded Roberts into the back of a station wagon and drove him to a building about a half mile down the highway, where they blindfolded him and cuffed his hands behind his back. Inside, they began what was to be the first of many interrogations. At first, the young pilot feigned amnesia.

“That worked pretty well for about the first 7 1/2 seconds of it,” Roberts said. “After that, if they felt I wasn’t answering quick enough or giving the correct answers to the questions, two helpers would just start wailing with some kind of baton or something — hands, fists — you know, just add a little encouragement to the interrogation.”

Over the next few days, Roberts was moved several times and interrogated again at each new stop. On the third day, his captors took him to a facility where they had begun consolidating the downed pilots, who were now being held as prisoners of war. Although he remained blindfolded, he could feel and hear other POWs being taken past him into an interrogation room. He could also hear their screams.

When it was Roberts’ turn, the Iraqi soldiers escorted him into the room, removed his blindfold and handcuffs and told him they were allowing him to make a video to show his friends and family that he was alive and well. At first, the soldier giving the instructions simply wanted him to identify himself, his unit and his aircraft.

“Then he started on this thing of ‘Repeat after me. The innocent people of Iraq are being wrongfully harmed by the people in power in America,’” Roberts said. “Like everybody else in front of me, I said ‘Well, I’m not going to say that.’ And then the fun and games started again.”

After another beating, the soldier who appeared to be running things told the others to take Roberts outside and cut off his leg. They dragged him off, blindfolded and handcuffed him again, knocked him down and beat him even more severely.

“I just remember curling up, my hands behind me, in the fetal position and everybody there just laying in with boots on me, and one guy had a baton and was beating on the back of my head and neck,” he said. “For lack of anything better to say, I just said ‘Why do you want me to do this? Why do you want me to do this video?’ And this guy just wailed on me and said ‘Because of this!’ It was getting pretty serious and I said ‘Ok, let’s go do the video.’”

Back in the United States and on the U.S. air base in Torrejon, little was known about Roberts’ fate. Only one pilot that afternoon thought he might have seen Roberts eject from his airplane, and although Roberts tried to call out on his radio just before he ejected, no message was relayed.

Three days after his F-16 went down over Baghdad, an 8 ½-months-pregnant Patty Roberts sat at the hospital on U.S. Air Base Torrejon awaiting a prenatal checkup. Her fighter pilot husband, Capt. Harry “Mike” Roberts, was listed as DUSTWUN: duty status and whereabouts unknown. She watched the television, tuned to CNN, hungry for news of her husband, when suddenly, he materialized on the screen. He appeared tense and haggard, but he was alive.

“I guess that was my good fortune out of all of that,” Roberts said. “Now that the bad guys had showed their hand, all of us — at least that they had videos on — now they had to account for everybody.”

After the POWs recorded their videotaped messages, they were loaded onto a bus and taken to a temporary prison facility where they stayed for about a week and a half. It wasn’t too bad, Roberts recalled. They were fed and the young Iraqi troops who were guarding them left in the evenings, allowing the POWs to talk among themselves and take an accurate roll call.

“They would bring around in the morning a piece of bread, and in the afternoon, a bowl of rice covered in some boiled onions or something. At nighttime, just before sunset, they would bring around a big bucket that had a bunch of boiled goat meat or something,” Roberts said. “I don’t know what it was, not great stuff, but enough to keep you alive.”

Soon after, on Jan. 31, the prisoners were moved to a prison in the Ba’ath Party intelligence headquarters. “That was not a good place,” Roberts said.

The prisoners were kept in solitary confinement and unable to communicate. They were not being fed and the interrogations and beatings began anew. Keeping track of time became a way to occupy his mind, and he found a rock on his cell floor and used it to scratch a calendar on his wall and mark off the days. When he began thinking about Vietnam veterans, wondering if he, too, could be kept five, six, seven years, he forced his mind to other topics, and he did a lot of praying.

In early February, a guard told Roberts the ground war had begun, and 70,000 Americans had been killed during the invasion. He knew it was a lie. For three weeks, the prisoners had listened to bombs devastating the city night after night, and as time went on, heard Iraqi counterfire less and less. “By the end, you could tell they were getting pounded, and there was just nothing they could do about it,” he said.

But eventually, those bombs found him. On Feb. 23, three coalition F-117 Stealth bombers dropped four 2,000-pound bombs on the headquarters building. When the first bomb hit, the Iraqis scattered, leaving the prisoners to fend for themselves. It was the first time Roberts thought he might not survive the experience. “It was like being on a boat in the ocean; the building was just rocking,” he said. “I was ready to go then. I thought for sure I was done.”

When the bombs stopped, the city was eerily quiet. The impact had badly damaged many of the cells, blowing the walls out of some, freeing those occupants while trapping others, including Roberts, in their cells. Miraculously, none of the prisoners were seriously hurt, Roberts said. The bombs had impacted the opposite end of the building from where they were being held.

Several prisoners made their way out into the hallways. They thought about escape, but the night was so black, they couldn’t see to move through the rubble. Even if they could, their yellow prison suits and western countenances made them easy targets. They began shouting to one another, exchanging names and stories. They had been in solitary confinement for three weeks and finally had a chance to connect and find out who was there.

“A couple doors down from me I hear, ‘I’m Bob Simon, CBS News.’ You know, the ’60-Minutes’ dude,” Roberts said. Simon and his crew had been picked up on the Kuwait-Iraq border, accused of spying and held with the POWs.

Across the hall from Simon was downed A-10 Thunderbolt pilot Richard Dale Storr, who had been unable to get out a radio call before he ejected. Because his wingman had not seen him eject, Storr was initially categorized as killed in action. His fellow Airmen even held a memorial service for him at their base in Saudi Arabia. When Storr realized a CBS correspondent was there, he got excited.

“He said ‘Oh yeah! Bob Simon, CBS News — you gotta get my name! This is Dale Storr, I’m Dale Storr! You gotta get my name out; nobody knows I’m here!” Roberts said. “And Bob Simon says, ‘Sorry dude, but I’m right here with you.’”

A few hours later, the guards came back and started collecting the prisoners from the rubble. Several remained pinned inside, including Roberts, and were left there until morning. When they finally walked out into the daylight, they saw just how fortunate they had been — most of their multi-story building had collapsed down on top of itself.

The ground war began just a few days later, and for the next couple of weeks the prisoners were moved frequently. Then one day, an Iraqi guard walked from cell to cell and told them the war was over and they’d be going home soon.

“I’m thinking, ‘Yeah, right, whatever. Just another line of B.S. that some guy’s feeding me,’” Roberts said. But that night, for the first time, he heard no bombs. The next morning, the prisoners were moved one last time.

“This Iraqi opens up my cell door and kind of turns his nose up at me, you know, like a ‘You stink’ kind of look and threw in a new prison suit,” Roberts said. “I’d been wearing the previous one for about 40 days.”

They also finally brought the prisoners some food. Roberts, who carried 195 pounds on his 6-foot frame when the war started, had dropped to 160 pounds during his month and a half of captivity. “My only possession during most of this was my one blanket and like a Rubbermaid tub or pail that looked like some Iraqi had been soaking his feet in it for the past few years,” he said. “Anytime they would bring a little bit of food or some water, they would just dump it in that thing. But this time, they bring in — on a porcelain plate — a hard-boiled egg, a slice of toast with a little pat of butter and a sprig of parsley sitting on the side.”

The guards told the prisoners to clean themselves up and put them all together, allowing them to see and communicate with one another.

“They lined us all up in the hallway to get us on a bus, and as we were going out the door, I remember this one guy spraying us with a bottle of perfume as we were walking out,” Roberts said with a laugh.

Their Iraqi captors put them on a bus, took them to a hotel in downtown Baghdad, turned them over to the International Committee of the Red Cross and drove away. Their ordeal was nearly over. Because a sandstorm grounded their flight out, the prisoners spent one final night at the hotel in Baghdad. The next day, two Swissair C-9 Nightingales dropped off about 300 Iraqi POWs as part of an initial prisoner exchange. “You could tell they were not real happy about being back home,” Roberts said. “But they got off the airplane, we got on, and we flew out, and that was that.”

Twenty years later, Roberts’ thoughts turn again to Baghdad and captivity. He has just returned from Pensacola, Fla., where he attended his 20-year POW reunion. His group has held them at the one-, five-, 10- and now 20-year marks. Not all could make it, but about a dozen showed up this year. He enjoyed the camaraderie and bonding that formed during and as a result of the experience, but downplays the impact it had on his life afterward.

“It was only six weeks, such a short period of time,” he says. “Comparing that to what guys went through in Vietnam that went before me … I mean, how much can you be changed in six weeks? We didn’t go through the same absolutely brutal torture and abuse that those guys did.”

Physically, he has recovered. His burst eardrums, chipped teeth, bumps, scrapes and bruises have all healed or been repaired. He doesn’t suffer nightmares. He tries to look at the big picture and not “sweat the small stuff.” He tries to remember that things could be a lot worse than they are here, free, in America.

After his release, Roberts stayed on at Torrejon until it closed in 1992. Following three-year stints as an instructor pilot at MacDill Air Force Base, Fla., and Luke Air Force Base, Ariz., he went to the Ohio Air National Guard’s 178th Fighter Wing in Springfield. In 1997, he returned to southwest Asia and Iraq with the 178th, supporting Operation Northern Watch enforcing the no-fly zone over northern Iraq. “I was a little nervous, admittedly, when I first was going back into Iraq, just hoping I didn’t have engine failure or something that put me back in there again,” he said.

Roberts, who plans to retire this year, has been with the 178th since landing there 15 years ago, serving as wing commander since January 2008. The unit took on a new mission nearly a year ago. The F-16s are gone now, making way for a new high-tech mission with the MQ-1 Predator unmanned drone. Perhaps it is just as well for the man who entered the Air Force Academy at 17 and only ever wanted to fly airplanes. His retirement paperwork has been filed, the date has been set. It’s time to move on.

The colonel in the olive drab flight suit turns back to the television and the grainy, black-and-white images and powers it down. Watching and remembering, he says simply, is better than being there.