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Fightin’ Fifty-Fifth hero put to rest

ARLINGTON, Virginia --

His final journey began with the beat of a drum.  The sky was clear.  A light breeze was blowing as the hero’s family, friends and well-wishers followed the flag-draped coffin carried by the caisson pulled by six black horses. 

On July 27, retired Col. Freeman “Bruce” Olmstead was laid to rest with full military honors in our nation’s most hallowed cemetery. 

Many turned out to pay their respects to a man who will always be remembered for his many years of dedicated service and personal sacrifices that included spending more than 200 days as a prisoner of war in a Russian prison during the height of the Cold War.  

With his widow Gail seated and surrounded by others at the grave site, Chaplain (Capt.) Scott Foust took his place and began the eulogy.

“For over 150 years, since the Civil War, our nation has honored her fallen patriots right here at Arlington National Cemetery – this is sacred ground we’re on,” Foust began. “These hallowed marble stones that surround us stand as solemn memorials to those who answer our nation’s call to serve. Some served a few years, some served many years, some made the ultimate sacrifice, but each one served so that we may have the freedom we enjoy to this day. This morning we’ve gathered in this garden of stones to remember, and honor, one of our nation’s heroes. This morning we honor Col. Freeman Bruce Olmstead.”

The chaplain described how, on July 1, 1960, then-Capt. Bruce Olmstead, an RB-47 Stratojet co-pilot assigned to the 343rd Strategic Reconnaissance Squadron, 55th Strategic Reconnaissance Wing, and his crew, were shot down by a MiG-19 Soviet Fighter over international waters near the former Soviet Union.   

Out of the six-man crew, only Olmstead, Maj. Willard Palm, aircraft commander, and Capt. John McKone, navigator, were able to successfully eject from the aircraft. The Air Force conducted a search for the missing plane and crew, but no trace was found.

Palm died in the frigid water.  Olmstead and McKone were picked up by a Soviet fishing vessel and later  charged with espionage and imprisoned in Lubyanka prison in Moscow.

During his days in captivity, Olmstead overcame obstacles such as constant interrogations, sleep deprivation, and little to no food.   Resisting all efforts of exploitation, he and McKone were released from Russia and returned home in January 1961.

“Upon their return to the U.S., Bruce and his fellow crew member were greeted by President John F. Kennedy,” Foust said.

Olmstead was awarded the Silver Star, Distinguished Flying Cross and Purple Heart.

Olmstead was part of the 55th Wing’s inaugural hall of fame class in 1999 and the wing’s squadron of the year trophy bares his and McKone’s names.  To further honor him, a single RC-135V/W Rivet Joint from the 55th Wing, Offutt AFB, Nebraska, provided the fly over for the ceremony. 

“I am grateful we all came together for Colonel Olmstead and his family,” said U.S. Rep. Don Bacon, a retired Air Force brigadier general and former 55th Wing commander. “We are all proud the Fightin’ Fifty-Fifth has been fighting and winning our nation’s battles since World War II and Colonel Olmstead is one of our heroes who helped create our storied legacy.”

More than 40 years after his experience as a POW, his story ended when, on Oct. 14, 2016, Olmstead passed away at the age 81 in his home.

“You’ve gathered here today because Bruce was special to each of you. You’ve come to say your final farewells, and to thank God for all he meant to you,” the chaplain said. “Just across the Potomac River, near the World War II Memorial, stands a monument to another American hero. The inscription thereon reads, ‘In life he honored the flag, in death, the flag shall honor him.’ Bruce honored the flag with his service to our nation. Now it’s our privilege to present our nation’s flag in honor of Freeman Bruce Olmstead, Colonel, United States Air Force.”

Shots echoed across the gravestones and into the distance as the Honor Guard honored the fallen hero with a three-volley salute.  The bugler played taps.  In a fitting tribute, Brig. Gen. John Rauch the presiding officer and a former 55th Wing commander, presented the flag to Olmstead’s widow.

“On behalf of the President of the United States, the United States Air Force and a grateful nation, please accept this flag as a symbol of our appreciation for your loved one’s honorable and faithful service.”