In 1973, Americans welcomed home their returning Vietnam prisoners of war. Among those heroes walked Lieutenant Colonel Robinson "Robbie" Risner. During 33 years of service, he fought in three wars and on two separate occasions received the Air Force's highest award, the Air Force Cross. Joining the U.S. Army Air Forces during World War II, he completed pilot training in 1943 and eagerly awaited a combat posting. Disappointed, he was assigned to Panama flying the Lockheed P-38 Lightning and the Bell P-39 Airacobra. Following WWII, he served in the Oklahoma Air National Guard flying the North American F-51 Mustang until his recall to active duty during the Korean War.
Eager to contribute, Risner volunteered for duty as a photo-reconnaissance pilot, but after arriving in Korea, he wangled an assignment in the North American F-86 Sabre with the famous 4th Fighter Wing. Following a victory over a MiG-15 above the Yalu River, he saw his wingman's fuel tanks being damaged by flak. Resourcefully, with his wingman out of fuel, Risner inserted the nose of his F-86 into the crippled aircraft's tailpipe and pushed it 60 miles to Cho Do Island, where a rescue unit waited for his wingman to bail out. By the end of the Korean War, Risner had accumulated eight aerial victories and earned the title-Ace.
In 1957, Risner set a transatlantic speed record in his North American F-100 Super Sabre flying from New York to Paris in 6 hours and 37 minutes. Later, in 1965, Risner entered his third war as he took command of the 67th Tactical Fighter Squadron in Okinawa, Japan. A 22-year fighter veteran, he now was leading Republic F-105 Thunderchief strikes out of Thailand against targets in North Vietnam, which resulted in his appearance on the cover of TIME magazine. While flying a ROLLING THUNDER mission on 16 September 1965, he was shot down and taken prisoner. Because of the TIME magazine article, the North Vietnamese believed they had an important American officer, whom they were determined to break through torture and solitary confinement.
Throughout his seven and one-half year ordeal, Risner's personal valor, loyalty, adherence to the Code of Conduct, and faith in God and country were rallying points for him and his fellow prisoners. Following repatriation in 1973, he qualified as combat ready in the McDonnell Douglas F-4 Phantom II and was later assigned as Commander, 832rd Air Division flying the McDonnell Douglas F-111 Aardvark at Cannon AFB, New Mexico. He chronicled his combat and captivity experiences in his book, The Passing of the Night, which he dedicated to the youth of America. Retiring from the Air Force in 1976 as a Brigadier General, he lives with his wife, Dot, in Texas.
In 1973, after seven and one-half years of torture, loneliness, and deprivation, "Robbie" Risner emerged from the Hanoi Hilton as a national hero. Throughout his captivity, including four and one-half years of solitary confinement, Risner's valor, loyalty, adherence to the Code of Conduct, and faith in God and country became rallying points for fellow prisoners. A nine-foot tall statue of Risner was erected on the central plaza of the United States Air Force Academy to serve as an inspiration and a reminder of his uncompromising courage.