“Hell yeah!”—President Richard Nixon when asked to confirm Bill Robinson’s POW camp battlefield promotion from enlisted man to officer.
Leaning out of a HH-43B “Huskie” rescue helicopter, its intermeshing blades spinning inches above the tree tops, U.S. Airman First Class William A. Robinson swung a rescue cable toward the Air Force pilot nearly 100-feet below in the dense jungle. One hand gripped the cable and the other controlled the winch; he used a hot mic to direct the Huskie’s pilot. They were at “bingo fuel”; they had just enough to get back to base, but the crew wasn’t about to leave the pilot to the North Vietnamese swarming the area. Suddenly, flames erupted from one of the two accompanying A1-E Skyraider fighter support planes; it took a hit in a rocket pod. As smoke poured from the Skyraider, it turned and sped back to base. The other Skyraider followed it, leaving the Huskie unprotected. Bullets tore through the Huskie as Robinson finally succeeded in swinging the cable to the pilot. Just as Robinson started pulling the pilot up, the helicopter dipped, its blades ripped through the tree tops, and the helicopter plummeted to the ground.
The Rescue Mission
What happened next shaped the rest of Robinson’s life. He, along with Neil Black, who was also on that ill-fated rescue helicopter, were held by the North Vietnamese for 2,703 days, making them the longest-held enlisted Prisoners of War in U.S. military history, a fact that somewhat embarrasses Robinson because, as he says, “Some officers were held longer.” Over the course of two interviews, one in a pleasant diner in Vonore and one at his comfortable home in Madisonville, Tennessee, Robinson tells me about the rescue mission, his experiences as a POW, his reception when he came home, and his mission in life now. As the photos Robinson show me demonstrate, he has always been a large man, both in stature and personality; and his garrulous, witty, and optimistic nature are manifest as I ask him about his experiences. He is also self-deprecating. As Robinson tells it, he was just doing his duty. “I grew up with the mentality that as an able-bodied male, it was my responsibility to defend my country,” he says. “I saw my father do it; I saw people from the neighborhood do it. So, when I was 18, I walked into the post office and signed up with pride. I was telling my country, ‘If you need me I’m here’.”
Robinson was born on Aug. 28, 1943, in Roanoke Rapids, North Carolina, and grew up there. As soon as he turned 18, he joined the Air Force, and at Sheppard Air Force Base in Wichita Falls, Texas, he completed his technical training as a helicopter mechanic. After various assignments at bases in the United States and at Osan, South Korea, he was assigned to the First Division of the 38th Aerospace Rescue and Recovery Squadron based at Nakhon Phanom Royal Thai Air Force Base in Thailand, close to the Vietnamese border. He arrived on April 25, 1965.
A few months later, on Sept. 20, 1965, Capt. “Jerry” Curtis, First Lieutenant Duane W. Martin, Airman Third Class Arthur Neil Black, and Airman First Class Robinson learned that U.S. Air Force Captain Willis E. Forby had just been shot down near Ha Tinh in North Vietnam. His F-105D Thunderchief, a supersonic strike bomber, was hit while pulling out of a shallow dive after bombing a railroad bridge. Forby successfully ejected, and the jet crashed in the jungle. The pilot was stranded deep in hostile territory.
This was the 22-year-old Robinson’s third mission to recover a downed pilot; he was well aware of the danger. Years later, he was awarded the Air Force Cross for his heroic actions during this rescue mission, and the Silver Star for his actions during his second rescue mission, an extremely difficult extraction of a downed pilot performed under intensive hostile fire. These rescue missions were incredibly dangerous; a later Department of Defense report found that in Vietnam, one Air Rescue crewman and two rescue craft were lost for every 9.2 recoveries.
As they raced across the border into Vietnam toward Forby in their “Huskie,” they were accompanied by another Huskie that would serve as backup. Two A1-E Skyraiders “Spads,” propeller-driven fighter support planes, provided protection. After the helicopter was hit, it dropped, as Robinson says, “Like a 12,000-pound rock.” The intermeshing rotors destroyed themselves; huge metal chunks were flung through the jungle. Robinson hit the emergency fuel cutoff button to stop the rotors.
Seven-and-a-Half Years of Hell
Everyone survived, including Forby, the pilot they were sent to rescue. Robinson suffered two hairline fractures in his back and severely injured knees. They extracted themselves and fled into the jungle. They could see the other Huskie overhead searching for them, but they had no way to contact it. Curtis shot a flare that slipped through the rotors of the Huskie flying above, but its crew didn’t see it. The airmen hid within a small cave while Vietnamese combed the area. They hoped to slip out at nightfall and then back to the Laos border, some 80 or 90 miles away. However, they were soon discovered by a large group of Vietnamese, armed with machine guns, machetes, and pitchforks. Armed only with 38-caliber pistols, the aircrew knew there was no hope of escape. It was the beginning of Robinson’s seven-and-half years of hell.
They were transferred to the North Vietnamese army, but not before being subjected to mock executions in front of freshly dug graves. Robinson was forced to participate in a propagandistic photo op, in which a young Vietnamese woman, armed with a rifle, walks behind the bound Robinson, as if she had single-handily captured him. The “Guerilla Girl” photo became one of the most famous images from the Vietnam War, but it bore little resemblance to reality. As Robinson says, “I learned later on that it was a propaganda story on their part. Women joined the militia so the men could go off and fight the war, kind of like we did here in WWII when women went in and manned the factories. The whole point was to promote female service so that the men could go off for the cause.”
The North Vietnamese created a whole series of postage stamps based on that image. Thirty years later, in 1995, Robinson traveled back to Vietnam to participate in a Japanese-produced documentary about the effects of the Vietnam War; there he met Nguyen Kim Lai, a woman who claimed to be the 17-year-old girl in the photo and on the postage stamp. The producers reached out to Robinson and arranged a meeting with her in Vietnam. “Her story was that I was heavily armed and walking down a Vietnamese road and, rather than shoot her, I surrendered to her,” Robinson says. “Nahhhh, it wasn’t quite that way.” The producers of the documentary were surprised; all they knew was the propaganda, which had made its way into the Vietnamese history books. “But the producers were able to contact some of the other prisoners, and they confirmed my story,” Robinson says. “She was claiming what she was told to claim, but she softened up a little bit. They almost called it off because the stories didn’t match.”
Soon after, the prisoners were handed over to the North Vietnamese Army. The abuse that POWs suffered is well documented. For Robinson, it was seven-and-a- half years of intermittent torture and near starvation, an ordeal that tested the resolve, faith, and character of all the POWs. They had their arms bound behind them so severely their shoulders were nearly dislocated, and their elbows were hyper-extended; it caused excruciating pain for hours on end. They were beaten, they were forced to kneel for hours on narrow strips of metal until the bone of their kneecaps were exposed, and they suffered many other tortures. Robinson was held at a number of prison camps, including the “Hanoi Hilton,” the “Zoo,” and the “Briar Patch.” “I didn’t choose to be there, but I could have been a collaborator and been home in a couple of weeks,” Robinson says. “But my choice was to serve my country with honor. And so, it cost me seven-and-a-half years of my life. [John] McCain was offered a free trip home; I was too. We all turned it down, except for a few.”
The POWs, often held in isolation or in small groups, used a tapping code and other means to communicate. Through these means, they kept themselves abreast of the arrival of new prisoners, of the treatment received during interrogation and torture sessions, of news of the outside word. These furtive communications also allowed them to maintain a chain of command. After several years, POW officers decided to award battlefield commissions to Robinson, Neil Black, and Art Cormier, the three enlisted men held together with a group of officers at that time. The “in-cell Officer Candidate School” lasted months; every officer wanted to participate in the training, and, Robinson says, “They wanted the candidate training to be as complete as possible. We were in this big pot of soup together. And I think that each and every one of them wanted to make sure that I, Black, and Cormier knew that there was no dividing line between us, that we were all Americans, and that we would all smell the same when we got home.” Robinson was now a second lieutenant.
The war progressed. On Sept. 2, 1969, North Vietnamese President and communistic revolutionary Ho Chi Minh died. In general, conditions improved in the prison camps. The Paris Peace Accords, signed on Jan. 27, 1973, led to the release of Vietnamese POWs. On Feb. 12, Robinson was released and quickly arrived at Clark Air Base in the Philippines. Two days later he was at Travis Air Force, just outside of San Francisco. From there, the POWs were sent to bases closest to their hometowns; on the way home Robinson’s group stopped at Scott Air Force Base near Belleville, Ill.; there was a large group of supporters outside the plane, and Robinson, though he knew none of them, quickly joined them, enthusiastically embracing everyone; the famed newscaster Walter Cronkite, upon learning that Robinson didn’t actually have any family or friends at Scott Air Force Base, dubbed him the “Kissing Carolinian.” The outpouring of support across the nation was immense; celebrations were held all across the nation, and Robinson participated in quite a few. In Roanoke Rapids, he was cheered by crowds on the steps of City Hall and was given the key to the city by the mayor. When President Richard Nixon was briefed on the battlefield commissions, he reportedly said, “Hell yeah!”
Robinson retired from the Air Force in 1984 at the rank of Captain. In addition to receiving the Silver Star and the Air Force Cross for heroism during his second and third rescue missions, he has received many other medals, but he is characteristically modest about them (I only learned about them through research). He and his wife Ora Mae have lived in Madisonville, Tennessee, for a number of years. About ten years ago, he took on a new mission: to keep the memory of the Vietnam War alive. To that end, he constantly speaks at military bases, community organizations, and schools; Robinson estimates that he has about 100 speaking engagements a year. “We should not forget the sacrifices of others: 58,00 dead; over 300,00 permanently injured; 20,000 kids grew up without a father. Untold sacrifices.” Robinson fears that Vietnam is becoming a “lost war,” in much the same way as the Korean War is sometimes considered. With his resolve and the deep resources of his character, Robinson works to make sure that never happens.
Writer’s Note: For more information on William Robinson’s experiences, check out military historian Glenn Robins’ The Longest Rescue: The Life and Legacy of Vietnam POW William A. Robinson. For Captain Curtis’s story, check out Carole Engle Avriett’s Under the Cover of Light. Both books were consulted in the writing of this article.
Accolade: Trent Eades is a teacher and photographer living in Knoxville.