Page 116 - Cityview Magazine - July/August 2017
P. 116

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.
On Sept. 21, 1965, the day after William A. Robinson was shot down while performing a rescue of a downed pilot, his family received a telegram informing them that Robinson was missing. The family received its first letter from Robinson in February of 1966. (Photo courtesy of William A. Robinson)
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

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