Former POW, who was shot down and imprisoned, will be honored in Steamboat
Before his plane was shot down, before spending more than six years as a prisoner of war and before he was honored during his hometown’s Fourth of July parade, Col. Robert Waggoner called Steamboat Springs home.
“He was the youngest boy of eight children, and he grew up and went to school in Steamboat Springs,” said Sylvia Spangler, Waggoner’s niece.
Waggoner died June 21 in California. The U.S. Air Force colonel was 86 years old.
“He died watching a jet plane simulator on his computer,” Spangler said. “His wife went to fix lunch and came back, and a few minutes later, he was gone. In my view, he flew off in that jet.”
American Legion Post No. 44 and the Veterans of Foreign Wars Post No. 4264 in Steamboat will honor Waggoner at 6 p.m. Friday at the Steamboat Springs Cemetery as part of National POW/MIA Recognition Day, when Americans are asked to pause and reflect on the sacrifices made by the military men and women who are imprisoned or unaccounted for as a result of their military service.
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“These are people that made a major sacrifice and don’t have the privilege of being buried at home or in their hometown,” said Jim Stanko with American Legion Post No. 44. “Their relatives don’t even know exactly what happened to them. That’s what is important about the day. It gives us a chance to think about it — not only Vietnam but also those that are still missing in Korea and from World War II.”
Waggoner was born in Jensen, Utah, on June 2, 1935, and moved to Steamboat with his parents Ralf and Sylvia Spangler as a child. Spangler said her uncle grew up in the mountains and learned to love fishing and the outdoors. After graduating from Steamboat Springs High School in 1953, Spangler enlisted in the U.S. Air Force as an aviation cadet in the pilot training program. He received his commission and wings in July 1956.
“He was like most 17- or 18-year-old guys that were graduating from high school, and he was just looking for his direction,” Spangler said. “I don’t know that he has a passion to begin with. It just gave him an opportunity to get a better education and have a career.”
Waggoner became a pilot and trained other pilots until he was assigned to Thailand and flew combat missions into Vietnam. He was shot down and captured by North Vietnam on Sept. 12, 1966, during his 25th mission.
“My cousin, who was also one of the first ones who found out that (Waggoner) had been shot down, said, ‘We get our strength from our grandma Sylvia because she felt like he was alive from the first day,’” Spangler said. “We did not know for over two years whether he had survived or not.”
But then, some film and photographs of captured U.S. soldiers were released, and family members were sure Waggoner was still alive.
In a YouTube video by Chris Plakos, Waggoner described the early days after being shot down, life as a POW and the things that helped him survive.
“In the early years, you would live day to day. You would live one day to the next,” Waggoner said in the video.
After spending six and a half years in prison, Waggoner was released on March 4, 1973. That year, Waggoner was the grand marshal of Steamboat Springs’ Fourth of July Parade. He received a warm welcome from his friends and family during a time when many Vietnam War veterans where not viewed as heroes.
After a period of medical recuperation, Waggoner returned to the Air Force, where he served another 27 years before retiring as a colonel in 1981. Waggoner was the recipient of numerous military awardsm including the Silver Star, Legion of Merit, Distinguished Flying Cross, Bronze Star and Purple Heart.
After retiring, Waggoner settled in Mammoth Lakes, California. He met and married his second wife, Vicki, during that time. He also became a partner in Kittredge Sports, a sporting goods store that allowed him to work as a fishing guide. He was also involved in the VFW and American Legion.
“You know it was a big part of his life,” Spangler said. “He was very active in all of that and also in the National Wounded Warrior Center in Mammoth Lakes. He was instrumental in that.”
To reach John F. Russell, call 970-871-4209, email jrussell@SteamboatPilot.com or follow him on Twitter @Framp1966.
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Wednesday, Sept. 22, 2021