James Robinson "Robbie" Risner, R.I.P.
CHARLES G. BOYD
Published on January 24, 2014
January 16, 1925 – October 22, 2013
Though I had long known of Robbie Risner, fighter pilot extraordinaire, Korean War ace, first living recipient of the Air Force Cross recently featured on the cover of Time magazine, I did not actually know him. But when I heard his whispered voice under a rusty steel door in a prison cellblock called “Heartbreak Hotel,” I knew instantly who it was, and I felt, at some mystical level, oddly comforted. Yesterday, standing beside his casket at Arlington National Cemetery to pay my final respects, though sad, I again felt comforted. There was something about this man’s presence, even in death, that was reassuring.
James Robinson Risner was a man of humble origins, son of an Arkansas sharecropper, educated at secondary school level, not particularly ambitious, a common man save for two things: He could fly the hell out of an airplane; and, under terribly difficult circumstances as a prisoner of war in North Vietnam, he rose to a level of heroic leadership matched by few men in American military history.
Raised in a religious family, Risner made his first critical life choice between attending Bible College or joining the Army Air Forces during World War II. When he passed the tough entrance exam for pilot training by one point, he took it as a vector from God, and his future aloft was set. Flying came easily to the gifted trainee, which led to a coveted assignment flying fighters after graduation. But Robbie’s repeated requests for combat duty were ignored by the Army’s personnel system, and he spent the rest of the war defending the Panama Canal.
Postwar peace and return to civilian life brought mundane employment for Risner as an auto mechanic, a service station manager and a short stint running a service garage. What mattered to him was the chance to fly P-51s with the Oklahoma Air National Guard, a path that would continue leading toward his destiny.
It was the Korean War that put Robbie Risner’s name on the map of aerial warriors of that era, and became what he described decades later as the most gratifying period of his life. He finagled his way out of his recalled Guard unit into a front line air combat Group equipped with the best aircraft of the period, and paid back the favor by shooting down 8 MIGs. He also pulled off other incredible feats of airmanship. He once pushed the damaged and fuel-starved plane of his wingman with the nose of his own aircraft out of hostile skies into friendly territory for a safe bailout. That is the stuff of which legends are made.
While the Korean War may have been Risner’s favorite period, it was by no means the most consequential in the lives of others. It would take another war, and an extraordinary set of circumstances for that to occur.
As storm clouds gathered over Southeast Asia in 1964, Risner arrived in the region, as if on cue, to take command of a fighter-bomber squadron in preparation for the larger war nearly everyone saw coming. Air warfare over North Vietnam began in earnest in February 1965, and for Risner ended on September 16 of that same year. Between those dates he flew 55 combat missions wreaking havoc on targets the length and breadth of the country. He was shot down by ground fire once (but not captured), received the Air Force Cross and made the cover of Time. He became in the eyes of others in the business one of two things: the perfect role model, or just plain crazy. All, however, held him in awe.
Then, in the most unlikely circumstances, came true greatness. Sometimes in history a man emerges whom no one saw coming, one who rises to the awful challenge of crisis leadership when others are faltering, and provides exactly the right strength of character, calming influence, and credible guidance out of the morass. But first he must earn the respect and commitment of his subordinates by demonstrating a personal willingness to assume any risk, physical or moral, that he might later ask of his followers.
Joshua Lawrence Chamberlain was one such a man. A shy young professor with a speech impediment who taught modern languages at Bowdoin College before volunteering for Union service in the Civil War, who lacked even basic military knowledge. But he schooled himself quickly to a remarkable level of competency, helping to raise and later command the 20th Maine. Fate placed Chamberlain and the 20th Maine on Gettysburg’s crucial high ground on July 2, 1863, ground that both sides needed for victory on the following day. Against long odds, the Maine regiment repelled multiple assaults by Confederate forces. Then, out of ammunition, with only bayonets left, a wounded Chamberlain with saber swinging inspired the counterattack that saved Little Round Top, making possible the next day’s Union victory—and, eventually, victory in the war itself.
Ernest Shackleton also comes to mind. A competent British seaman with a taste for adventure, but with no prior demonstration of compelling leadership, Shackleton’s handling of a disaster-ridden Antarctic expedition in the early 20th century unquestionably rises to a level of near-incredible leadership. With half of his expedition stranded on one side of the continent, and the other half imprisoned on a tiny barren island after their ship was crushed by massive ice convulsions, rescue seemed out of the question. Unwilling to give up or to let his crew do so, Shackleton set out in a 20-foot wooden life boat salvaged from the doomed mother ship across 800 miles of violent seas to a whaling station on South Georgia Island. Fifteen days later, after surviving hurricane force seas that sank a 500-ton ship in his vicinity, he reached his objective, then organized and led rescue operations to save his men in both locations.
Robinson Risner earned a place along side these and other unexpected giants of history. Following being shot down a second time and then captured, his arrival in the old French dungeons of Hanoi began the trial of his life, but also the leadership role that would be his legacy. It didn’t take long for his captors to realize who they had, for they obviously read Time magazine, too. They told Risner there were only three people they would rather have as a captive: Lyndon Johnson, Robert McNamara or Dean Rusk. For the next 7½ years Robbie absorbed levels of torture and abuse those three could likely never have grasped, let alone endured.
At the time of Robbie’s capture there were 27 other Americans incarcerated in Hanoi, separated from each other, all doing their best to abide by the Code of Conduct for American Fighting Men. Once Risner determined that he was the Senior Ranking Office, he began to put structure and guidance into the POWs’ lives, a sense of order and community, the very thing their captors were trying desperately to prevent. He would pay a terrible price for that leadership when the guards would catch him communicating, but they couldn’t stop him. No matter how brutal the beatings, the next day he would be at it again.
In the early days he was generally held in that small cell block mentioned earlier, and since most new prisoners were held there temporarily, after initial interrogation and torture sessions, Risner used brief moments of guard absence to “induct” new men into his POW command. His message to me as I lay on the floor of my cell, straining to hear his every word, remain burned into my brain even now, almost 48 years later: He told me his name, and asked mine and my rank. Then he said: “You must learn the tap code, and here’s how it works..memorize it, and practice it, it’s vital.” And he added: “Eat everything they give you, no matter how disgusting; it’ll keep you alive. You’ve just been tortured, and that’s not the end of it; resist to the limits of your sanity, or to permanent physical damage. You’ll know when you get there.” And he concluded: “And pray; if you haven’t been, start. We’re going to get through this, and I’ll see you when it’s over.”
Later on as the POW organization grew, and prisoners were taken to other prisons throughout the country, Risner’s guidance would expand and continue to spread. Always it would make sense, be crisp and to the point. It was never threatening, always gentle and optimistic, like a loving father giving guidance to his son. Yet all he did remained in a military framework, based on the core principle that we were fighting men with a code of honor that must be upheld.
Risner became the inspiration for all of us confused and scared young men in a very hostile environment. He was a guiding presence, a behavior yardstick, and he managed to achieve this without direct contact. He somehow conveyed in a bizarre, tap code communication system what was the right thing to do in order to survive with dignity and honor. None of us quite measured up to his standard, most likely. But there is no doubt in my mind that every last one of us stood taller in his shadow, tougher in our resistance, and came home better men as a result.
May God bless you Robbie Risner, and may you rest in peace.
Charles G. Boyd (Gen. USAF-Ret.), POW, 22 April 1966 - 12 Feb. 1973