Returning with honor to tell his story

  • Published
  • By Airman 1st Class Alex Echols
  • 325th Fighter Wing Public Affairs
The longest held enlisted prisoner of war in American history and one of three Air Force enlisted men to ever receive a direct commission from the president of the United States spoke to Airey NCO Academy students June 6, Tyndall Air Force Base, Fla.

In Vietnam, Capt. William Robinson was a crew chief in a unit that flew an HH-43 Huskie rescue helicopter, responding to downed aircraft.

"That's what we did, and we did it proudly," said Robinson.

On their last mission, Robinson's unit began to take fire. Their support aircraft took a hit in the rocket pod, which forced them to pull off.

"Things that could go wrong did go wrong, but we still had a mission," Robinson said.

With no defensive escorts, Robinson's rescue unit pressed on and located the downed pilot.

After recovering the downed pilot, Robinson's rescue aircraft took several severe hits during the return trip and plummeted to the ground, surrounded by enemies.

"We were looking at 100 Vietnamese with everything from machine guns to machetes," said Robinson.

The Americans did not have the fire power to mount a defense and were captured. They were initially paraded from village to village where they were abused.

"At one point, I was lined up in front of a freshly dug grave and given my last rights. As I knelt down in front of that grave, I could see someone standing over me with a weapon. I honestly thought my life was over," said Robinson .

He survived the encounter and arrived at his five by six foot holding cell in Hỏa Lò Prison, which was deemed the Hanoi Hilton by American POWs.

"As I stood there wondering what was next, a voice rang out, identifying himself as Col. Robbie Risner," said Robinson. "He said, 'Be prepared to die for your country. If we survive, we must return with honor.'"

That phrase constantly served as a source of courage and drive for Robinson .

"I like to say I lived on four faiths: faith in myself, faith in those around me, faith in my country and, most of all, faith in my god above," said Robinson.

To pass the time and keep in touch with his fellow POWs, Robinson learned a simple tap code that his captors were unable to decipher.

A few articles of clothing, some toiletries, a blanket and a mosquito net were his only possessions. The tap code would be his only source of stimulation.

"People ask me to give a short description of POW life," said Robinson. "I say it is simply:
"Hours ...
"And yes sometimes even years of boredom punctuated by terror."

In December of 1972, Operation Linebacker II occurred. During this 11-day military campaign, the U.S. bombed the Hanoi and Haiphong areas of North Vietnam.

In the months following the bombing, 591 Vietnam War prisoners, including Robinson, were released from captivity.

Robinson's aircraft was shot down on September 20, 1965. He was released February 12, 1973 for a total of seven years, four months and 21 days in a POW camp.

During his career in the Air Force, Robinson received a Silver Star, a Legion of Merit, a Bronze Star and two Purple Hearts. He was also the first enlisted member to earn the Air Force Cross.

According to Master Sgt. Himaiya Lowery, Airey NCO Academy Communications Division superintendant and instructor, Robinson has been coming to Tyndall consistently since June 2008 to share his story to inspire younger Airmen and to share his main message.

"The value Captain Robinson adds is Airmanship," Sergeant Lowery said. "As the longest held enlisted Prisoner of War, Captain Robinson was faithful to a proud heritage, tradition of honor and a legacy of valor. Telling his story of resiliency and how he bounced back might be exactly what the students need to hear. It could help them overcome if they ever find themselves in a tough situation, whether it be financial, marital or combat."

Throughout his story, Robinson returned to the message that helped him endure more than seven years in captivity.

"No matter the circumstances, you can still hold your head high," said Captain Robinson. "You can still do the best job possible and still essentially live up to the motto that we all cherish: return with honor and never ever give up."