In 1973, Americans welcomed home their returning Vietnam Prisoners of War. Among those heroes walked "Robbie" Risner, a man revered by those who served with him during North Vietnamese confinement. Brigadier General Risner began his career at the height of World War II when he joined the Army Air Force in 1943. He completed pilot training and eagerly anticipated a combat posting; however, to his great disappointment, Lieutenant Risner flew P-38 and P-39 aircraft in Panama. Following the war, he served in the Oklahoma Air National Guard until his recall to active duty during the Korean Conflict. He initially volunteered for combat duty as a photo-recce pilot, but after his arrival in Korea on 10 May 1952, Captain Risner wrangled an assignment in the new F-86 Sabrejet with the famous 4th Fighter Wing.
In a brief 4-month period, he became America's 20th jet ace. While in Korea, his combat leadership and initiative were demonstrated following an intense engagement with a MiG-15 north of the Yalu River. As the enemy fighter crashed, Risner pulled away and saw his wingman take numerous hits from flak. With his wingman's engine shut down, Risner inserted the nose of his F-86 into the crippled aircraft's tailpipe and nudged it forward. Despite turbulence and blinding hydraulic fluid, he pushed his wingman 60 miles to Cho Do Island where he ejected near a friendly rescue unit--unfortunately, his wingman drowned before being picked up. Risner left Korea in 1953 with eight aerial victories and returned to peacetime duties. In 1965, Lieutenant Colonel Risner was assigned to Thailand as commander of the 67th Tactical Fighter Squadron. Having flown fighters for 22 years, he was now leading F-105 strikes against targets in North Vietnam--a role that resulted in him being featured on the cover of TIME magazine.
This national publicity would become a curse for him in the near future, for, while flying a Rolling Thunder mission on 16 September 1965, he was shot down and taken prisoner. His captors knew they held an important American officer, and they were determined to break him by torture and solitary confinement. Throughout his 7 1/2-year ordeal, "Robbie" Risner's personal valor, loyalty, and faith in God and country became rallying points for his fellow prisoners and an inspiration for all Americans. Brigadier General Risner retired from the Air Force in 1976 and served as the Executive Director of the Texans' War on Drugs Committee.
In the summer of 1965, the daring combat leadership of Lieutenant Colonel "Robbie" Risner made him the first living recipient of the Air Force Cross. As part of the Rolling Thunder bombing campaign, his unit was ordered to make a maximum effort against three heavily defended railroad and highway bridges in North Vietnam. The primary target was cancelled prior to takeoff, so he led his flight of F-105Ds to their secondary targets--two of the three bridges. Risner coordinated the attack and was able to destroy both bridges with only half his ordnance. Seizing the initiative, he then gained in-flight permission to also attack the primary target deep in North Vietnam. The accuracy of the F- 105 pilots again took its toll, and, as Risner returned safely home, he knew they were "three-for-three" for the day.