Then-Maj. James Robinson 'Robbie' Risner poses with F-86 Sabre in South Korea. Brig. Gen. Risner enlisted in the U.S. Army Air Corps during World War II. He flew more than 108 combat missions in the Korean War, shot down eight MiGs, and became the 20th jet ace of that war. Risner passed away Oct. 22. (Air Force)
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Retired Brig. Gen. James Robinson “Robbie” Risner, who was the senior ranking prisoner of war in Vietnam for five years, died Oct. 22 at the age of 88, according to the Air Force.
During his career, Risner was awarded the Silver Star twice, the Air Force Cross twice and the Air Force Distinguished Service Medal. On one mission in 1952, his wingman’s plane was hit and started to leak fuel, so Risner tried to use his plane to push his wingman home, according to his first Silver Star citation.
Ultimately, Risner flew more than 108 combat missions in the Korean War, becoming an ace with eight kills, Chief of Staff Gen. Mark Welsh wrote in a tribute to Risner. During Vietnam, Risner was shot down twice: First in March 1965, when he was rescued after bailing out over the Tonkin Gulf. A month later, Time magazine featured him on the cover.
“On Sept. 16, he was shot down again, and this time, was captured,” Welsh wrote in the Oct. 24 tribute. “To make things worse, his captors had the Time article, and made him their ‘prized prisoner,’ which meant more abuse.”
During his time in the Hoa Lo Prison, Risner endured years of solitary confinement, torture and other abuse, but he stood out as a leader among the POWs, such as when he helped organize a church service in 1971, even though it meant he would be punished.
“As their captors led Risner away, Col. ‘Bud’ Day and the more than 40 other POWs in the room began singing ‘The Star Spangled Banner’ to show their support,” Welsh wrote. “Hearing the defiant singing, Risner walked away with his back straight, head held high, full of pride.
“When asked later how he felt at that moment, Risner said, ‘I felt like I was 9 feet tall and could go bear hunting with a switch.’ That moment and his words are reflected by a statue, exactly 9 feet high, that now stands at the U.S. Air Force Academy. Bud Day spoke at the unveiling of the statue, saying, ‘We knew he was in fact 9 feet tall. This is a life-size statue.’”
U.S. Sen. John McCain, R-Ariz., who was also a POW during the Vietnam War, issued a statement Thursday in honor of Risner.
“I am deeply saddened by the passing of my dear friend and fellow POW Air Force Brig. Gen. James Robinson ‘Robbie’ Risner,” McCain said in the statement. “From the first moment of his imprisonment to his last, Robbie was an exemplary senior officer, an inveterate communicator, an inspiration to the men he commanded, and a genuine American hero. My thoughts and prayers are with his family — he will be dearly missed.”
On Friday, Defense Secretary Chuck Hagel, a Vietnam veteran, said his heart goes out to Risner’s wife Dorothy and the entire Risner family.
“I have known and admired Robbie for many years, and was always moved by his unwavering spirit and love of country,” Hagel said in a statement. “He served in the U.S. Air Force for more than 30 years — seven of which he endured as a prisoner of war in Vietnam, facing relentless torture and extended periods of solitary confinement at the so-called Hanoi Hilton.
“Robbie's constant resistance in the face of his captors served as an inspiration not only to his fellow prisoners of war, but millions of Americans around the country. While our nation has lost a great hero, Robbie —like all American prisoners of war — will never be forgotten.”