Air Force navigator's stein defies time

  • Published
  • By Mr. Timothy Sandland
  • 102nd Intelligence Wing
Rituals, customs and traditions – virtually every military organization in the world has them, and the United States Air Force is no exception. For Air Force pilots, navigators and other aircrew there are occasions such as getting one’s call sign, getting hosed down upon completion of a ‘fini-flight’ and even the annual tradition of ‘mustache March’, during which scores of aviators pay reverence to Brig. Gen. Robin Olds.

Some of these traditions are manifested in physical form – and as mementos of an Airman’s service, are just as important. The squadron challenge coin, scarf and unit patch represent the culture of a flying squadron, and to the members of that organization, symbolize acceptance, professional confidence, trust and camaraderie.

One such totem is the personalized stein. Designed to hold various beverages, hot or cold, these bespoke vessels are cherished by their owners. Whether telling a tale of aerial action over a cold one, or having one-too-many coffees after returning from a long mission – the mug can be found never far from its owner.

Almost as comfortable in the hand as a control stick, these mugs are a point of pride and each has had at least one story told in the clutches of its owner. For some, the tales continue long after the actions of the Airmen who held them; and in this case, the story of an Air Force captain who lost his life in the line of duty.

Air Force Captain Paul L. Utz, a native of Hanover, Penn., was assigned to the 60th Fighter Interceptor Squadron, at the former Otis Air Force Base. As one of two crew members in the McDonnell F-101B Voodoo, Utz was an essential part of the defense of the Northeast Continental United States. Assigned to the Boston Air Defense Sector, the squadron directly contributed to the mission of Air Defense Command.

An Air Force veteran of 10 years, Utz received his commission through the ROTC program and subsequently trained as a navigator at Harlingen Air Force Base, Texas, and as a radar officer at Connally AFB, Texas.

During his time stationed at Otis AFB, Utz additionally served as public relations officer for the 60th Fighter Interceptor Squadron and wrote a weekly column for the "Otis Notice,” the official publication of the base on Cape Cod.

On March 21, 1968 , while returning to Otis from a routine mission, Utz and his pilot, Capt. Randall Toffle, were killed when their aircraft crashed into Cape Cod Bay on final approach.

Fast forward nearly five decades to Otis Air National Guard Base.

A renovation project began in 2016 on the facility that once served as home to the 102nd Operations Group. Prior to 2008, the building housed an outfit of F-15C pilots and was the focal point of flight operations at Otis. With the amount of work to be done, the entire facility was due to be gutted. Master Sgt. Robert Segrin, a security officer in the facility, was in what was once the squadron’s heritage room during the initial stages of demolition. Among the debris, Segrin spotted a large ceramic stein that was about to be destroyed.

“When the countertops were being removed and pulled up off the floor, it was found hidden in the corner,” Segrin said . “I say hidden… I don’t know if it was intentionally pushed back in the corner or had just been misplaced over the years or how exactly it got there.” 

Found in impeccable condition, the vessel was concealed in a spot under a countertop, pushed way back within the hand-built woodwork of a cabinet. 

Segrin continued, “Literally – the hammers, the saws, the demolition materials were all here – it was right in the way of going to the dumpster forever.”

Upon inspection, one side of the stein had the emblem of the 60th Fighter Interceptor Squadron and the call sign “Wyatt”; on the other side a set of wings above the name, Captain Paul L. Utz.

Not recognizing the name, Segrin asked around. He contacted every pilot he knew, including ones who may have had some association to Otis during its days as an active duty Air Force base. 

To no avail – no one recognized the stein or Captain Utz.

Recently, Segrin and fellow Airman, Master Sgt. Pat Ryan, were talking about aviation history around Otis and the topic of Captain Utz came up. Ryan was unfamiliar with the name but the conversation sparked a resurgence in trying to track down the owner of the stein. The two teamed up and began a campaign of research, following lead upon lead. 

Eventually, they had a breakthrough.

They discovered there was a Captain Paul L. Utz who was buried at Arlington National Cemetery. Not only that, but he had been memorialized at Otis Memorial Park – a park that serves as a memorial for all those lost in service to their country while assigned to units on Joint Base Cape Cod.

Now that Segrin and Ryan had tracked down the owner of the mug, there was only one clear next step – they needed to get it back to Captain Utz’s family.

Through a diligent search of public records, Segrin and Ryan made a significant discovery – they believed they had found one of Captain Utz’s children, his son David Utz Guyton. When Segrin finally got him on the phone, David confirmed that his father was Captain Paul L. Utz. 

He was ecstatic at the prospect of being able to regain one of his father’s mementos.

Captain Utz’s family had since relocated to Texas so the next challenge was getting the mug to them, safely and undamaged. With something of this importance, shipping it was out of the question. There had to be a way to hand deliver it to the family.

Enter retired Col. Martin Richard – an F-15 pilot and Segrin’s former commander who had retired from the wing several years earlier. After learning of the story, and the goal of returning the stein to Utz’s loved ones, Col. Richard was on board to assist with transport of the precious cargo.

Late this past December, Segrin met up with Col. Richard’s son, Rylan and handed him a small black ruggedized carry case – enclosed within a block of protective foam, the cherished stein began its journey. Rylan, an aviator himself, joined his father in Texas where the two traveled by car, making the trip to the family’s home on the day after Christmas.

“I was supposed to be in training in Denver,” said Col. Richard, regarding the way their plans miraculously came together. “They [United Airlines] changed my schedule at the last second which enabled me to get my son down to Texas to visit for the holidays. He also provided the best method to hand carry the mug to Texas.”

Col. Richard successfully transferred custody of the stein to David, who was there with Captain Utz’s widow, Jerri-Ann Guyton, and daughter, Jennifer Lee. The Captain’s grandsons were also present at the somber and touching gathering. The group spent the next couple of hours talking about the experience, Air Force culture and the community around Otis, both then and now – all while remembering Captain Paul L. Utz, the man who had brought them together at that moment. 

“We feel combat aviators are tied together in mission and in tradition,” said Richard. “When you see the incredible efforts to get Capt Utz's mug to his wife, it just proves and reinforces that our mission in the military is much, much more than a job.” 

As mugs go, this one tells the tale of a journey – a journey of a stein; hidden quietly for 50 years; waiting for a time when its owner’s story would be told. A story of reunification.

“I will never forget being able to raise this mug that traveled thousands of miles and endured decades, and saying, ‘To Wyatt!’ and having my family repeat, ‘To Wyatt!’ and then handing it to his widow,” said Richard .

Utz was laid to rest at Arlington National Cemetery on April 1, 1968, but his personalized stein helps to preserve his memory; not only for his family in Texas, but for his extended family here at the 102nd Intelligence Wing.

These totems, masquerading as vessels to carry coffee or ale, are often used in the telling of stories. In this case, like the proverbial message in a bottle, it was the vessel itself that carried the tale – the story of an Airman who lost his life, defending the ideals of democracy and freedom in a time when the Cold War was at its apex.