Feature

J. Robinson Risner, 1925–2013

The ace pilot who led the Hanoi Hilton POWs

During his seven and a half years in North Vietnam’s Hoa Lo prison, J. Robinson Risner was starved, held for months in a dark cell crawling with rats, and tortured so brutally that his right arm was torn from its socket. Yet the U.S. Air Force ace who was shot down and captured in 1965 never lost his sense of defiance. In 1971, he organized a forbidden church service at the prison—called the Hanoi Hilton by inmates—knowing he’d be punished. As guards led him away to certain torture, his fellow prisoners sang “The Star-Spangled Banner.” Risner said the song made him feel like he was “9 feet tall and could go bear hunting with a switch.” In 2001, the Air Force Academy in Colorado Springs unveiled a statue of the retired brigadier general. It was 9 feet tall.

Born in Mammoth Spring, Ark., “Robbie” Risner joined the Air Force at age 18 and quickly “established himself as one of America’s top pilots,” said The New York Times. He shot down eight enemy MiG-15 fighters during the Korean War, and earned the Silver Star for using his plane to push his wingman’s disabled jet through hostile skies to a safer area 60 miles away. “In Vietnam, he was such a standout that his tanned, chiseled face made the cover of Time” in April 1965, said the Los Angeles Times. “It was a great honor,” Risner said. “But later, in prison, I would have much cause to regret that Time had ever heard of me.”

When he was captured that September, his North Vietnamese interrogators waved the magazine under his nose. “They thought I was more important than I ever was,” said Risner. He was singled out for punishment, but as the camp’s highest-ranking officer, he organized resistance, helping to “set up communication systems through tapping, scraping walls, and even coughing,” said The Washington Post.

He was released in 1973, and in later years attended many airmen reunions. In the 1990s, he met a Russian MiG-15 pilot who’d served in Korea and who wondered if they’d ever faced each other in combat. “No way,” Risner said. “You wouldn’t be here.”

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