Skip to comments.'Lucky' POW describes years in captivity in North Vietnam
Posted on 11/03/2001 6:43:51 AM PST by real saxophonist
'Lucky' POW describes years in captivity in North Vietnam
By Debbie Rhyne
Telegraph Staff Writer
ROBINS AIR FORCE BASE - William A. Robinson calls himself one of the lucky ones.
Despite being held captive in North Vietnam for nearly eight years, the retired Air Force captain said he was able to get eight precious letters from home and was on the first plane back to the United States upon his release.
"I was shot down, captured, tortured, put on display like a prized trophy," Robinson said of his captivity.
Friday afternoon, Robinson was the guest speaker at Robins Air Force Base's annual POW/MIA Recognition Ceremony, held to honor the sacrifices of those who were held captive and the memory of those who never returned. The event was postponed from September.
"Some call them POWs and MIAs, but we call them family," said Chief Master Sgt. Charles Farmer, a reservist and RAFB employee who chairs the POW/MIA committee.
Robinson said his life changed forever Sept. 20, 1965, when his helicopter crew was shot down over North Vietnam while trying to rescue another downed pilot. Robinson - who later learned he'd broken his back in the crash - and the other crew members were all taken captive.
"The first message I received from a senior ranking officer was be prepared to die for your country," Robinson said. "As a 22-year-old that wasn't what I wanted to hear. That did set the tone for the next 2,700 days."
He spent time in and out of solitary confinement, sometimes in cells so small he could not stretch out. For the first five years of his captivity, he was allowed two sparse meals a day and 15 minutes of outside time.
"We were given only a cup-and-a-half of water a day," Robinson said. "I cannot pass a water fountain today without making sure it works."
He and other captives were often tortured and forced to write statements condemning the U.S. government's actions in Vietnam.
"Torture was part of our daily life," Robinson said. "It was either you or your neighbor."
The one thing that kept the soldiers going was communication among themselves. They developed a system of knocks and used any other means available, including food and toilet paper, to pass information back and forth.
"No matter what they did, they could never stop our communication," Robinson said. "We always looked for positive signs to ensure we were alive and well."
In late 1972, an agreement was reached to allow incremental releases of Americans being held captive in Vietnam. He said the troops that picked them up had stretchers and straitjackets on board because no one knew what condition they would be in.
Feb. 12, 1973, Robinson left Hanoi for Clark Air Force Base in the Philippines. There he was given a physical examination, debriefed and allowed to contact his family. He was then placed on the first plane to the United States.
"As I stepped on American soil, it was a dream come true," Robinson said. "I was free."
After his return, Robinson stayed in the Air Force, serving a total of 23 years in active duty before retiring in 1984. He had served 11 years enlisted and the other 12 as an officer.
"I'd gone through the hard part," Robinson said of why he stayed in the service after his return. "I still felt like I had something else to contribute."
Robinson was the first enlisted person to receive the Air Force Cross. The designation has only been given to 18 other enlisted men and is second only to the Medal of Honor. Robinson also received two Purple Hearts, a Silver Star and a Bronze Star.
Robinson offered words of encouragement to military personnel involved in the war on terrorism.
"Your cause is just and your victory will be great," he said.
Robinson's account capped a memorial event that included the posting of the colors, a tribute to all branches of the military service and recognition of other POWs in attendance.
JoAnne Shirley, a Macon native who serves as chairman of the National League of Families of American Prisoners and Missing in Southeast Asia, said the public needs to continue to demand a full accounting of all the missing.
Shirley's brother has been missing since Nov. 28, 1972, and her group works to keep the plight of POWs and MIAs in the public and congressional eye.
She said the passage of time makes it harder to keep the recovery effort funded and makes finding remains more difficult.
"Even in a few years with known grave sites, we may not be able to recover anything," Shirley said. "I'm still not convinced that there aren't live Americans still being held in Southeast Asia."
Nearly 2,000 men are still missing or unaccounted for in that area, according to the Department of Defense.
Maj. Gen. Dennis Haines, Warner Robins Air Logistics Center commander, said Friday's event was held to honor the heroism of POWs and MIAs as well as their families.
"To you I say thank you for your service, thank you for your sacrifice but most of all thank you for the example ...," Haines said. "We will never forget the ones who endured captivity so that we might be free."
- To contact Debbie Rhyne, call 953-6628 or e-mail firstname.lastname@example.org.
He is also one of the modest ones...as are the other pow's.
Here's a link to another amazing first hand account given by an American who was a POW in Vietnam. (posted here on FR)
I wonder everyday how liberals today deal with what communism did to Cambodia---the ends justify the means--terrorism--torture...you have to crack eggs to make omelets??
Cup and half of water in a tropical climate!