|Brig. Gen. Robinson Risner,|
Born on Jan. 16, 1925, in Mammoth Springs near the Missouri state line in Fulton County, Risner was a two-time recipient of the Air Force Cross, the second-highest award next to the Medal of Honor, which he earned after being hit by enemy fire numerous times, and again for enduring seven years in the infamous Hanoi Hilton, the North Vietnamese Army’s prison, where he was tortured repeatedly, beaten often and held in solitary confinement along with dozens of other American servicemen.
He first made his name as a flying ace during the Korean War by shooting down eight Soviet-made MIG-15 jets fighting for the North.
When he was shot down in Vietnam in 1965, the North Vietnamese, having read a Time Magazine cover story on Risner’s bravery in battle, believed they’d hit the jackpot. He recalled an interrogator telling him that there were only three other people they’d prefer to have captured: President Lyndon Johnson, Defense Secretary Robert McNamara and Secretary of State Dean Rusk.
His fellow prisoners of war included James Stockdale, who was Ross Perot’s running mate in the 1992 presidential campaign; Air Force pilot Bud Day; Sen. John McCain; Air Force Col. Joseph Kittinger, and Major Gen. John Borling.
As a lieutenant colonel, Risner was the highest-ranking U.S. officer at the Hanoi Hilton, so he was expected to provide leadership as well as uphold the chain of command. (He was promoted to brigadier general in 1976 upon retiring.)
Risner would offer his men practical advice to help them survive the monstrous conditions. “Resist until you are tortured,” he said, “but do not take torture to the point where you lose the permanent use of your limbs.”
In February 1971, two years before he was freed, Risner, raised in the Assembly of God, defiantly led a religious service, although warned by guards that he’d be tortured for doing so. While being led away to solitary confinement yet again, 40 or more P.O.W.’s sang “The Star-Spangled Banner” to boost his spirits.
Recalling that moment he said, “I felt like I was 9 feet tall and could go bear hunting with a switch.” Today, a 9-foot statue of Risner stands at the Air Force Academy in Colorado Springs, Colo., to honor him.
Much has changed since Risner’s dogfighting days: Vietnam, though still communist, is now a U.S. ally that is wary of China’s rising military power, and drones are beginning to replace fighter pilots. The unmanned, lightweight aircraft can stealthily kill enemies cheaply and effectively without placing pilots in harm’s way.
Risner may be one of the last of his kind. He should be remembered as much for his bravery, endurance and religious convictions that he showed as a prisoner of war as he is for his heroism in the cockpit.