RISNER, JAMES ROBINSON "ROBBIE"
Name: James Robinson "Robbie" Risner
Rank/Branch: O5/US Air Force
Unit: 67th TFS
Date of Birth: (ca 1924)
Home City of Record: Tulsa OK (resided Oklahoma City OK)
Date of Loss: 16 September 1965
Country of Loss: North Vietnam
Loss Coordinates: 195700N 1055300E (WG959949)
Status (in 1973): Released POW
NOTE: Risner was a Korean War "Ace" flying the F-86 with 110 missions
Source: Compiled from one or more of the following: raw data from U.S.
Government agency sources, correspondence with POW/MIA families,
published sources, interviews. Updated by the P.O.W. NETWORK in 2017.
Personnel In Incident: April 3 1965: Herschel S. Morgan; Raymond A. Vohden
(released POWs); George C. Smith (missing). April 4, 1965: Walter F.
Draeger; James A. Magnusson (missing); Carlyle S. Harris (released POW);
September 16, 1965: J. Robinson Risner (released POW); May 31, 1966: Bobbie
J. Alberton; William R. Edmondson; Emmett McDonald; Armon Shingledecker;
Philip J. Stickney; (missing from the C-130E); Thomas Case; Harold J. Zook;
Elroy Harworth (remains returned from the C130E). Dayton Ragland; Ned
Herrold (missing on an F-4C)
REMARKS: 730212 RELSD BY DRV
SYNOPSIS: The Thanh Hoa Railroad and Highway Bridge, spanning the Song Ma
River, is located three miles north of Thanh Hoa, the capital of Annam
Province, North Vietnam. It is a replacement for the original French-built
bridge destroyed by the Viet Minh in 1945 - they simply loaded two
locomotives with explosives and ran them together in the middle of the
In 1957, the North Vietnamese rebuilt the bridge. The new bridge, completed
in 1964, was 540 feet long, 56 feet wide, and about 50 feet above the river.
The Vietnamese called it Ham Rong (the Dragon's Jaw), and Ho Chi Minh
himself attended its dedication. The bridge had two steel thru-truss spans
which rested in the center on a massive reinforced concrete pier 16 feet in
diameter, and on concrete abutments at the other ends. Hills on both sides
of the river provided solid bracing for the structure. Between 1965 and
1972, eight concrete piers were added near the approaches to give additional
resistance to bomb damage. A one-meter guage single railway track ran down
the 12 foot wide center and 22 foot wide concrete highways were cantilevered
on each side. This giant would prove to be one of the single most
challenging targets for American air power in Veitnam. 104 American pilots
were shot down over a 75 square mile area around the Dragon during the war.
(Only the accounts of those specifically known to be involved in major
strikes against the bridge are given here. Some losses were aircraft
involved in operations against other targets. Note also, that because
aircraft came in on this target from a wide geographic area, some personnel
lost outside the 75 mile range may have been inadvertently overlooked in
In March 1965 the decision to interdict the North Vietnamese rail system
south of the 20th parallel led immediately to the April 3, 1965 strike
against the Thanh Hoa Bridge. Lt.Col. Robinson Risner was designated overall
mission coordinator for the attack. He assembled a force consisting of 79
aircraft - 46 F105's, 21 F100's, 2 RF101's and 10 KC135 tankers. The F100's
came from bases in South Vietnam, while the rest of the aircraft were from
squadrons TDY at various Thailand bases.
Sixteen of the 46 "Thuds" (F105) were loaded with pairs of Bullpup missiles,
and each of the remaining 30 carried eight 750 lb. general purpose bombs.
The aircraft that carried the missiles and half of the bombers were
scheduled to strike the bridge; the remaining 15 would provide flak
suppression. The plan called for individual flights of four F105's from
Koran and Takhli which would be air refueled over the Mekong River before
tracking across Laos to an initial point (IP) three minutes south of the
bridge. After weapon release, the plan called for all aircraft to continue
east until over the Gulf of Tonkin where rejoin would take place and a Navy
destroyer would be available to recover anyone who had to eject due to
battle damage or other causes. After rejoin, all aircraft would return to
their bases, hopefully to the tune of "The Ham Rong Bridge if falling down."
Shortly after noon on April 3, aircraft of Rolling Thunder Mission 9-Alpha
climbed into Southeast Asia skies on their journey to the Thanh Hoa Bridge.
The sun glinting through the haze was making the target somewhat difficult
to acquire, but Risner led the way "down the chute" and 250 pound missiles
were soon exploding on the target. Since only one Bullpup missile could be
fired at a time, each pilot had to make two firing passes.
On his second pass, LtCol. Risner's aircraft took a hit just as the Bullpup
hit the bridge. Fighting a serious fuel leak and a smoke-filled cockpit in
addition to anti-aircraft fire from the enemy, he nursed his crippled
aircraft to Da Nang and to safety. The Dragon would not be so kind on
The first two flights had already left the target when Capt. Bill Meyerholt,
number three man in the third flight, rolled his Thunderchief into a dive
and sqeezed off a Bullpup. The missile streaked toward the bridge, and as
smoke cleared from the previous attacks, Capt. Meyerholt was shocked to see
no visible damage to the bridge. The Bullpups were merely charring the heavy
steel and concrete structure. The remaining missile attacks confirmed that
firing Bullpups at the Dragon was about as effective as shooting BB pellets
at a Sherman tank.
The bombers, undaunted, came in for their attack, only to see their payload
drift to the far bank because of a very strong southwest wind. 1Lt. George
C. Smith's F100D was shot down near the target point as he suppressed flak.
The anti-aircraft resistance was much stronger than anticipated. No radio
contact could be made with Smith, nor could other aircraft locate him. 1Lt.
Smith was listed Missing In Action, and no further word has been heard of
The last flight of the day, led by Capt. Carlyle S. "Smitty" Harris,
adjusted their aiming points and scored several good hits on the roadway and
super structure. Smitty tried to assess bomb damage, but could not because
of the smoke coming from the Dragon's Jaw. The smoke would prove to be an
ominous warning of things to come.
LtCdr. Raymond A. Vohden was north of the Dragon when his A4C bomber was
shot down. Ray was captured by the North Vietnamese and held in various POW
camps in and near Hanoi until his release in February 1973. (It is not
entirely clear that this U.S. Navy Lt.Cdr. had a direct role in the attack
on the bridge, but was probably "knocked out" by the same anti-aircraft
Capt. Herschel S. Morgan's RF101 was hit and went down some 75 miles
southwest of the target area, seriously injuring the pilot. Capt. Morgan was
captured and held in and around Hanoi until his release in February 1973.
When the smoke cleared, observer aircraft found that the bridge still
spanned the river. Thirty-two Bullpups and ten dozen 750 pound bombs had
been aimed at the bridge and numerous hits had charred every part of the
structure, yet it showed no sign of going down. A restrike was ordered for
the next day.
The following day, flights with call signs "Steel", "Iron", "Copper",
"Moon", "Carbon", "Zinc", "Argon", "Graphite", "Esso", "Mobil", "Shell",
"Petrol", and the "Cadillac" BDA (bomb damage assessment) flight, assembled
at IP to try once again to knock out the Dragon. On this day, Capt. Carlyle
"Smitty" Harris was flying as call sign "Steel 3". Steel 3 took the lead and
oriented himself for his run on a 300 degree heading. He reported that his
bombs had impacted on the target on the eastern end of the bridge. Steel 3
was on fire as soon as he left the target. Radio contact was garbled, and
Steel Lead, Steel 2 and Steel 4 watched helplessly as Smitty's aircraft,
emitting flame for 20 feet behind, headed due west of the target. All flight
members had him in sight until the fire died out, but observed no parachute,
nor did they see the aircraft impact the ground. Smitty's aircraft had been
hit by a MiG whose pilot later recounted the incident in "Vietnam Courier"
on April 15, 1965. It was not until much later that it would be learned that
Smitty had been captured by the North Vietnamese. Smitty was held prisoner
for 8 years and released in 1973. Fellow POWs credit Smitty with introducing
the "tap code" which enabled them to communicate with each other.
MiG's had been seen on previous missions, but for the first time in the war,
the Russian-made MiGs attacked American aircraft. Zinc 2, an F105D flown by
Capt. James A. Magnusson, had its flight bounced by MiG 17's. As Zinc Lead
was breaking to shake a MiG on his tail, Zinc 2 was hit and radioed that he
was heading for the Gulf if he could maintain control of his aircraft. The
other aircraft were busy evading the MiGs, and Magnusson radioed several
times before Steel Lead responded and instructed him to tune his radio to
rescue frequency. Magnusson's aircraft finally ditched over the Gulf of
Tonkin near the island of Hon Me, and he was not seen or heard from again.
He was listed Missing In Action.
Capt. Walter F. Draeger's A1H (probably an escort for rescue teams) was shot
down over the Gulf of Tonkin just northeast of the Dragon that day.
Draeger's aircraft was seen to crash in flames, but no parachute was
observed. Draeger was listed Missing In Action.
The remaining aircraft returned to their bases, discouraged. Although over
300 bombs scored hits on this second strike, the bridge still stood.
From April to September 1965, 19 more pilots were shot down in the general
vicinity of the Dragon, including many who were captured and released,
including Howie Rutledge, Gerald Coffee, Paul Galanti, Jeremiah Denton, Bill
Tschudy and James Stockdale. Then on September 16, 1965, Col. Robbie
Risner's F105D was shot down a few miles north of the bridge he had tried to
destroy the previous April. As he landed, Risner tore his knee painfully, a
condition which contributed to his ultimate capture by the North Vietnamese.
Risner was held in and around Hanoi until his release in 1973, but while a
POW, he was held in solitary confinement for 4 1/2 years. Besides the normal
malaise and illnesses common to POWs, Risner also suffered from kidney
stones, which severely debilitated him in the spring and summer of 1967.
By September 1965, an innovative concept had taken shape - mass-focusing the
energy of certain high explosive weapons. The Air Force quickly saw its
application against the old Dragon and devised a plan to destroy the bridge
using the new weapon. They would call the operation "Carolina Moon".
The plan necessitated two C130 aircraft dropping the weapon, a rather large
pancake-shaped affair 8 feet in diameter and 2 1/2 feet thick and weighing
5,000 pounds. The C130's would fly below 500 feet to evade radar along a 43
mile route (which meant the C130 would be vulnerable to enemy attack for
about 17 minutes), and drop the bombs, which would float down the Song Ma
River where it would pass under the Dragon's Jaw, and detonate when sensors
in the bomb detected the metal of the bridge structure.
Because the slow-moving C130's would need protection, F4 Phantoms would fly
diversionary attack to the south, using flares and bombs on the highway just
before the C130 was to drop its ordnance. The F4s were to enter their target
area at 300', attack at 50' and pull off the target back to 300' for
subsequent attacks. Additionally, an EB66 was tasked to jam the radar in the
area during the attack period. Since Risner had been shot down in September,
15 more pilots had been downed in the bridge region. Everyone knew it was
The first C130 was to be flown by Maj. Richard T. Remers and the second by
Maj. Thomas F. Case, both of whom had been through extensive training for
this mission at Elgin AFB, Florida and had been deployed to Vietnam only 2
weeks before. Ten mass-focus weapons were provided, allowing for a second
mission should the first fail to accomplish the desired results.
Last minute changes to coincide with up-to-date intelligence included one
that would be very significant in the next days. Maj. Remers felt that the
aircraft was tough enough to survive moderate anti-aircraft artillery hits
and gain enough altitude should bail-out be necessary. Maj. Case agreed that
the aircraft could take the hits, but the low-level flight would preclude a
controlled bail-out situation. With these conflicting philosophies, and the
fact that either parachutes or flak vests could be worn - but not both -
Maj. Remers decided that his crew would wear parachutes and stack their flak
vests on the floor of the aircraft. Maj. Case decided that his crew would
wear only flak vests and store the parachutes.
On the night of May 30, Maj. Remers and his crew, including navigators Capt.
Norman G. Clanton and 1Lt. William "Rocky" Edmondson, departed Da Nang at 25
minutes past midnight and headed north under radio silence. Although the
"Herky-bird" encountered no resistance at the beginning of its approach,
heavy, (although luckily, inaccurate) ground fire was encountered after it
was too late to turn back. The 5 weapons were dropped successfully in the
river and Maj. Remers made for the safety of the Gulf of Tonkin. The
operation had gone flawlessly, and the C130 was safe. Although the
diversionary attack had drawn fire, both F-4's returned to Thailand
Unfortunately, the excitement of the crew was shortlived, because recon
photos taken at dawn showed that there was no noticeable damage to the
bridge, nor was any trace of the bombs found. A second mission was planned
for the night of May 31. The plan for Maj. Case's crew was basically the
same with the exception of a minor time change and slight modification to
the flight route. A crew change was made when Maj. Case asked 1Lt.
Edmondson, the navigator from the previous night's mission, to go along on
this one because of his experience from the night before. The rest of the
crew included Capt. Emmett R. McDonald, 1Lt. Armon D. Shingledecker, 1Lt.
Harold J. Zook, SSgt. Bobby J. Alberton, AM1 Elroy E. Harworth and AM1
Philip J. Stickney. The C130 departed DaNang at 1:10 a.m.
The crew aboard one of the F4's to fly diversionary included Col. Dayton
Ragland. Ragland was no stranger to conflict when he went to Vietnam. He had
been shot down over Korea in November 1951 and had served two years as a
prisoner of war. Having flown 97 combat missions on his tour in Vietnam,
Ragland was packed and ready to go home. He would fly as "backseater" to
1Lt. Ned R. Herrold on the mission to give the younger man more combat
flight time while he operated the sophisticated technical navigational and
bombing equipment. The F4's left Thailand and headed for the area south of
At about two minutes prior to the scheduled C130 drop time, the F4's were
making their diversionary attack when crew members saw anti-aircraft fire
and a large ground flash in the bridge vicinity. Maj. Case and his crew were
never seen or heard from again. During the F4 attack, Herrold and Ragland's
aircraft was hit. On its final pass, the aircraft did not pull up, but went
out to sea, and reported that the aircraft had taken heavy weapons fire. A
ball of fire was seen as the plane went into the sea.
Reconnaissance crews and search and rescue scoured the target area and the
Gulf of Tonkin the next morning, finding no sign at all of the C130 or its
crew. Rescue planes spotted a dinghy in the area in which Herrold and
Ragland's aircraft had gone down, but saw no signs of life. The dinghy was
sunk to prevent it falling into enemy hands. The bridge still stood.
In March 1967, the U.S. Navy attacked the Thanh Hoa Bridge using the new
"Walleye" missiles, but failed to knock out the bridge. Before the war
ended, 54 more Americans fell in the Dragon's Jaw area.
In late 1986 the remains of Harworth, Zook and Case were returned and buried
with the honor befitting an American fighting man who has died for his
country. Ragland, Herrold, Alberton, McDonald, Edmondson, Shingledecker,
Stickney, Smith, Draeger and Magnussen are still Missing in Action.
SOURCE: WE CAME HOME copyright 1977
Captain and Mrs. Frederic A Wyatt (USNR Ret), Barbara Powers Wyatt, Editor
P.O.W. Publications, 10250 Moorpark St., Toluca Lake, CA 91602
Text is reproduced as found in the original publication (including date and
Colonel - United States Air Force
Shot Down: September 16, 1965
Released: February 12, 1973
I am 48 years old, married, and have five boys-the oldest is 25 and the
youngest 12. My oldest son delayed his wedding for two years until I could be
his best man. He was married on Armed Forces Day 1973.
I entered the Air Force in 1943 as an Aviation Cadet and flew fighters during
World War II, but saw no combat. I was very active in the Oklahoma Air
National Guard from the time I left active duty in 1946 until I was recalled
in 1951 for the Korean crisis. In Korea I flew F-86's against the communist
MIGS-bagging eight of them.
I was shot down twice over North Vietnam. The second time I was captured and
interned from 16 September 1965 until 12 February 1973.
During my imprisonment the things that sustained me to the greatest extent
were my faith in God, the American people, my Commander-in-Chief, my fellow
POW's, and my wonderful wife. I never lost hope, and never did I despair of
coming back alive. I believe, as do all of the other men who were imprisoned
in North Vietnam, that we came back stronger, better men. I think we consider
ourselves better in that we are now more perceptive. We have a greater degree
of compassion and understanding, and hopefully, we are kinder and more
thoughtful in our daily encounters with our fellowmen.
One of our biggest morale boosters while imprisoned was word that the American
people had demanded that the North Vietnamese treat us as human beings. I
believe that it is a definite fact that the beneficial change in our
treatment, which started in October of 1969 and steadily improved until our
release, was due to the efforts of the American people.
We will never know how much VIVA did for us and our families. We can only say
in all humility, sincerity, and with thanksgiving, "God bless you - the Ross
Perots, the Bob Hopes, and all of the others who hung tough and put their
shoulder to the wheel for us when the chips were down."
Editor's Note: A book entitled "The Passing of the Night" describing Colonel
Risner's experiences, has been published by Random House.
Robinson Risner retired from the United States Air Force as a Brig. General.
He and his wife Dot reside in Texas.
May 1998, Vol. 81, No. 5
By John L. Frisbee, Contributing Editor
When Push Came to Shove
Deep over North Korea, Robbie Risner's wingman was hit by flak that disabled
his F-86. Getting him to safety called for heroic measures. Brig. Gen.
Robinson Risner's heroism during seven and a half years of imprisonment and
torture in North Vietnam is legendary. Less known is the fact that he was a
jet ace in Korea with eight confirmed victories. Few are aware, at least in
detail, of an incredible feat of flying performed over North Korea by Robbie
Risner in an attempt to save the life of another= pilot. That
courageous act is dismissed with a couple of sentences in Risner's book The
Passing of the Night.
Risner's career as a fighter pilot began in Panama, where he whiled away the
World War II years. When peace came, he joined the Oklahoma Air Guard. His
squadron was called to active duty during Korea and began transitioning from
P-51s to F-80s but with no immediate prospects of getting into the war. With
the bare required minimum of 100 hours of jet time, Risner volunteered for
combat duty as a photorecce pilot, arriving in Korea on May 10, 1952. Three
weeks later, he wangled his way into the famous 4th Fighter Wing at Kimpo
and into F-86s, the world's best fighter at that time. On Sept. 21, the
fast-learning Captain Risner became our 20th jet ace.
A few weeks later while escorting fighter-bombers in an attack on
a chemical plant along the Yalu River, Risner tangled with what he describes
as the finest fighter pilot he ever encountered. From 30,000 feet to the
deck they went, with Risner scoring several solid hits, then across the Yalu
into forbidden territory and down the runway of a Chinese airfield where the
damaged MiG-15 crashed. All the while, Robbie's wingman, Lt. Joe Logan,
stayed with the fight, protecting his leader.
As they climbed back across the Yalu near Antung, Logan's F-86 took a burst
of flak. Fuel and hydraulic fluid poured out the belly of his aircraft. With
only five minutes' fuel left, he would, it seemed, have to bail out in enemy
territory. But Robbie Risner was not about to lose a fine wingman who was
also a close friend.
"A typical fighter pilot," says General Risner, "thinks less about risk than
about his objective," and Risner's objective was to keep Joe Logan out of
enemy hands. Jet ace Risner immediately embarked on an undeniably high-risk
venture to achieve that objective. The Air Force had a rescue detachment at
Cho Do Island, about 60 miles to the south-and with plenty of flak en route.
Risner decided to try something that, to his knowledge, had never been done
successfully before. He would push the damaged F-86 to Cho Do, where Logan
could bail out safely.
Risner told Logan to shut down his engine, now almost out of fuel. Then he
gently inserted the upper lip of his air intake into the tailpipe of Logan's
F-86. "It stayed sort of locked there as long as we both maintained stable
flight, but the turbulence created by Joe's aircraft made stable flight for
me very difficult. There was a point at which I was between the updraft and
the downdraft. A change of a few inches ejected me either up or down,"
Risner, now retired and living in Austin, Texas, recalls.
Each time Risner re-established contact between the battered nose of
his F-86 and Logan's aircraft was a potential disaster that was made even
more likely by the film of hydraulic fluid and jet fuel that covered his
windscreen and obscured his vision. It was, one imagines, something like
pushing a car at 80 miles an hour down a corduroy road in a heavy fog.
Miraculously, Risner nudged Joe Logan's F-86 all the way to Cho Do,
maintaining an airspeed of 190 knots and enough altitude to stay out of
range of automatic weapons. Near the island, Logan bailed out, landing in
the water near shore. Ironically, Risner's heroic effort ended in
tragedy. Although Logan was a strong swimmer, he became tangled in his chute
lines and drowned before rescuers could reach him. But the measure of a
heroic act lies not in success. It lies in the doing.
After Korea, Robbie Risner's Air Force career continued to be marked by acts
of physical and moral courage, culminating in his leadership of American
POWs during those long years in Hanoi's prisons.
The standards of valor, loyalty, and dedication he set for himself, and met
superbly throughout his years in uniform, have established a goal to be
sought by generations of airmen yet to come.
There have been many requests over the years to rerun some of author
Frisbee's earliest "Valor" pieces. This one was published in December 1983.
Published May 1998. For presentation on this web site, some Valor articles
have been amended for accuracy.
Sunday, November 18, 2001
Former POW honored at Air Force Academy
By COLLEEN SLEVIN
The Associated Press
The senior ranking U.S. officer held at the notorious North Vietnamese POW
camp known as the "Hanoi Hilton" is honored at the Air Force Academy. A
retired general who united and inspired fellow prisoners of war in Vietnam's
"Hanoi Hilton" for more than seven years was honored with a statue Friday on
the Air Force Academy's grounds in Colorado.....
COLORADO SPRINGS, Colo. (AFPN) -- A war hero, flying ace and survivor of
seven and-a-half years as a prisoner of war in Vietnam was recognized with a
permanent statue in his honor here Nov. 16.
Retired Brig. Gen. Robinson Risner, who flew in World War II, the Korean
War and the Vietnam conflict, said the special attention leaves him
"I'm a bit embarrassed to have been chosen for the statue here that
represents all POWs," he said. "It still leaves me in awe."
H. Ross Perot donated the 9-foot statue, which is on display in the Air
"All men who served with him in Vietnam in the prison camps, when they came
home and talked to me, would point to him (Risner) and say, 'He's the only
reason I survived,'" Perot said.
As the former POWs told stories about Risner, one story kept coming up,
In violation of Vietnamese POW rules, Risner, who was the senior officer
within the camp, set up church services complete with hymns prisoners wrote
on toilet tissue. In the middle of a hymn, the Vietnamese came in and
grabbed Risner to take him back to solitary confinement. As he was led
away, fellow POWs stood and sang a "strictly forbidden song," Perot said.
"That song was the 'Star Spangled Banner.'"
Risner told Perot years later that, at that moment, pride in his men made
him "feel nine feet tall and as though he could have gone bear hunting with
Placement of the statue here will remind cadets what an Air Force officer is
supposed to be, Perot said.
==========================================================Oct 22, 2013
"Today about noon Eastern time, Robbie Risner died.
According to Deborah, Robbie's stepdaughter, he had had several small
strokes but recovered from each, until this last one, a major stroke last
Saturday, and he died today in his sleep.
Nothing is known yet about services...Arlington is assumed but there is a
All our prayers are with the Risner Family. This is a great loss to our nation.
Mary Schantag, Chairman
This is a great piece by Chuck Boyd on Robbie Risner. Chuck told me that
it would be in today's American Interest.
Chuck, himself, is a true American
He is also a member of that infamous Air War College Class of 1977.
Robbie Risner, R.I.P.
Published on January 24, 2014
January 16, 1925 – October 22, 2013
Though I had long known of Robbie Risner, fighter pilot
extraordinaire, Korean War ace, first living recipient of the Air Force
Cross recently featured on the cover of Time magazine, I did not
actually know him. But when I heard his whispered voice under a rusty
steel door in a prison cellblock called “Heartbreak Hotel,” I knew
instantly who it was, and I felt, at some mystical level, oddly
comforted. Yesterday, standing beside his casket at Arlington National
Cemetery to pay my final respects, though sad, I again felt comforted.
There was something about this man’s presence, even in death, that was
James Robinson Risner was a man of humble origins, son of an Arkansas
sharecropper, educated at secondary school level, not particularly
ambitious, a common man save for two things: He could fly the hell out
of an airplane; and, under terribly difficult circumstances as a
prisoner of war in North Vietnam, he rose to a level of heroic
leadership matched by few men in American military history.
Raised in a religious family, Risner made his first critical life choice
between attending Bible College or joining the Army Air Forces during
World War II. When he passed the tough entrance exam for pilot training
by one point, he took it as a vector from God, and his future aloft was
Flying came easily to the gifted trainee, which led to a coveted
assignment flying fighters after graduation. But Robbie’s repeated
requests for combat duty were ignored by the Army’s personnel system,
and he spent the rest of the war defending the Panama Canal.
Postwar peace and return to civilian life brought mundane employment for
Risner as an auto mechanic, a service station manager and a short stint
running a service garage. What mattered to him was the chance to fly
P-51s with the Oklahoma Air National Guard, a path that would continue
leading toward his destiny.
It was the Korean War that put Robbie Risner’s name on the map of aerial
warriors of that era, and became what he described decades later as the
most gratifying period of his life. He finagled his way out of his
recalled Guard unit into a front line air combat Group equipped with the
best aircraft of the period, and paid back the favor by shooting down 8
MIGs. He also pulled off other incredible feats of airmanship. He once
pushed the damaged and fuel-starved plane of his wingman with the nose
of his own aircraft out of hostile skies into friendly territory for a
safe bailout. That is the stuff of which legends are made.
While the Korean War may have been Risner’s favorite period, it was by
no means the most consequential in the lives of others. It would take
another war, and an extraordinary set of circumstances for that to
As storm clouds gathered over Southeast Asia in 1964, Risner
arrived in the region, as if on cue, to take command of a fighter-bomber
squadron in preparation for the larger war nearly everyone saw coming.
Air warfare over North Vietnam began in earnest in February 1965, and
for Risner ended on September 16 of that same year. Between those dates
he flew 55 combat missions wreaking havoc on targets the length and
breadth of the country. He was shot down by ground fire once (but not
captured), received the Air Force Cross and made the cover of Time.
He became in the eyes of others in the business one of two things: the
perfect role model, or just plain crazy. All, however, held him in awe.
Then, in the most unlikely circumstances, came true greatness. Sometimes
in history a man emerges whom no one saw coming, one who rises to the
awful challenge of crisis leadership when others are faltering, and
provides exactly the right strength of character, calming influence, and
credible guidance out of the morass. But first he must earn the respect
and commitment of his subordinates by demonstrating a personal
willingness to assume any risk, physical or moral, that he might later
ask of his followers.
Joshua Lawrence Chamberlain was one such a man. A shy young professor
with a speech impediment who taught modern languages at Bowdoin College
before volunteering for Union service in the Civil War, who lacked even
basic military knowledge. But he schooled himself quickly to a
remarkable level of competency, helping to raise and later command the
Fate placed Chamberlain and the 20th Maine
on Gettysburg’s crucial high ground on July 2, 1863, ground that both
sides needed for victory on the following day. Against long odds, the
Maine regiment repelled multiple assaults by Confederate forces. Then,
out of ammunition, with only bayonets left, a wounded Chamberlain with
saber swinging inspired the counterattack that saved Little Round Top,
making possible the next day’s Union victory—and, eventually, victory in
the war itself.
Ernest Shackleton also comes to mind. A competent British seaman with a
taste for adventure, but with no prior demonstration of compelling
leadership, Shackleton’s handling of a disaster-ridden Antarctic
expedition in the early 20th century
unquestionably rises to a level of near-incredible leadership. With half
of his expedition stranded on one side of the continent, and the other
half imprisoned on a tiny barren island after their ship was crushed by
massive ice convulsions, rescue seemed out of the question. Unwilling to
give up or to let his crew do so, Shackleton set out in a 20-foot wooden
life boat salvaged from the doomed mother ship across 800 miles of
violent seas to a whaling station on South Georgia Island. Fifteen days
later, after surviving hurricane force seas that sank a 500-ton ship in
his vicinity, he reached his objective, then organized and led rescue
operations to save his men in both locations.
Robinson Risner earned a place along side these and other unexpected
giants of history. Following being shot down a second time and then
captured, his arrival in the old French dungeons of Hanoi began the
trial of his life, but also the leadership role that would be his
legacy. It didn’t take long for his captors to realize who they had, for
they obviously read Time magazine, too. They told Risner there
were only three people they would rather have as a captive: Lyndon
Johnson, Robert McNamara or Dean Rusk. For the next 7½ years Robbie
absorbed levels of torture and abuse those three could likely never have
grasped, let alone endured.
At the time of Robbie’s capture there were 27 other Americans
incarcerated in Hanoi, separated from each other, all doing their best
to abide by the Code of Conduct for American Fighting Men. Once Risner
determined that he was the Senior Ranking Office, he began to put
structure and guidance into the POWs’ lives, a sense of order and
community, the very thing their captors were trying desperately to
prevent. He would pay a terrible price for that leadership when the
guards would catch him communicating, but they couldn’t stop him. No
matter how brutal the beatings, the next day he would be at it again.
In the early days he was generally held in that small cell block
mentioned earlier, and since most new prisoners were held there
temporarily, after initial interrogation and torture sessions, Risner
used brief moments of guard absence to “induct” new men into his POW
command. His message to me as I lay on the floor of my cell, straining
to hear his every word, remain burned into my brain even now, almost 48
years later: He told me his name, and asked mine and my rank. Then he
said: “You must learn the tap code, and here’s how it works…..memorize
it, and practice it, it’s vital.” And he added: “Eat everything they
give you, no matter how disgusting; it’ll keep you alive. You’ve just
been tortured, and that’s not the end of it; resist to the limits of
your sanity, or to permanent physical damage. You’ll know when you get
there.” And he concluded: “And pray; if you haven’t been, start. We’re
going to get through this, and I’ll see you when it’s over.”
Later on as the POW organization grew, and prisoners were taken to other
prisons throughout the country, Risner’s guidance would expand and
continue to spread. Always it would make sense, be crisp and to the
point. It was never threatening, always gentle and optimistic, like a
loving father giving guidance to his son. Yet all he did remained in a
military framework, based on the core principle that we were fighting
men with a code of honor that must be upheld.
Risner became the inspiration for all of us confused and scared young
men in a very hostile environment. He was a guiding presence, a behavior
yardstick, and he managed to achieve this without direct contact. He
somehow conveyed in a bizarre, tap code communication system what was
the right thing to do in order to survive with dignity and honor. None
of us quite measured up to his standard, most likely. But there is no
doubt in my mind that every last one of us stood taller in his shadow,
tougher in our resistance, and came home better men as a result.
May God bless you Robbie Risner, and may you rest in peace.
BG James Robinson "Robbie" Risner has been selected for Induction into the
OMHF. Induction will take place on 8 Nov 2014 in Oklahoma City, OK.
Oklahoma Military Hall of Fame
Oklahoma Military Heritage Foundation