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A Giant Dies in Bridgewater

Risner in early 1965 (Time magazine cover) , in 1973 (USAF photo), and in the 2010s (POWnetwork.org). Composite: WMRA News (tw)

In the fall of 2013, veterans were in the news a lot. First, vets were in the headlines when denied access to the National World War II Memorial during the Government Shutdown of 2013. Shortly afterward, during Veterans Day activities, televised tributes to vets poured in. Between these peaks of veteran-awareness, a giant of military history (and also of sheer human willpower) quietly passed away in Bridgewater, Virginia: General James "Robbie" Risner, age 88.
Risner (16 Jan 1925 - 22 Oct 2013) was the first living recipient of the Air Force's second-highest award, the Air Force Cross ,which ranks just below the Medal of Honor. The previous awardees had all been honored posthumously. He was among only four people ever to have been awarded the medal more than once.  His World War II aviation record was quiet, but in the Jet Age, he became an epic figure. Within a year of arrival in Korea, Risner became the USA's 20th "jet ace" and was among the first to be in combat against the then-new MiG fighters.

There was a combat sortee which turned into an audacious mid-air rescue attempt --perhaps an aviation first. On a mission deep inside North Korea, flak had crippled Risner's wingman's fighter jet. As fuel and hydraulic fluid streamed out of his companion's faltering aircraft, bailing out over thickly-patrolled enemy territory seemed like the only option. The nearest "safe" jump site, Cho Do island (where there was a US air rescue base), was too far away. The wingman had only around five minutes worth of fuel. Risner hastily improvised a plan: he told his friend to cut the engine and glide for a bit while Risner would plug his own jet's nose into the rear and try to push. Like a locomotive pushing a freight car, jets (!) would be briefly coupled together. In practice, they could maintain contact for just a few minutes at a time before turbulence shook them apart. Repeating such precise and dangerous moves (happening at around 200 miles-per-hour while the pusher's windshield was sprayed with leaking flammable fluids), Risner actually did manage to push the wingman within parachute range of Cho Do. (More detail about the jet-pushing incident is in AFA Magazine's article called "When Push Came to Shove" ["Valor" series, Frisbee et al, May 1998, v81,n5; portions reprinted in POWnetwork.org].)

After the Korean War, the Air Force selected Risner to pilot the mission meant to celebrate the 30th anniversary of Charles Lindbergh’s historic flight. During this Spirit of St Louis II mission, Risner "set a new unofficial coast-to-coast speed record of three hours and 38 minutes," and the transatlantic leg of the flight shaved around 27 hours off of Lindbergh's crossing time. (See Air Force Magazine's article, "Nine Feet Tall" [Correll, Feb 2012, v95,n2].)

As the Vietnam War heated up, he was such a well-known pilot that his name and portrait made the cover of Time magazine's  "Who's Fighting in Viet Nam" issue (image). That moment of fame would later prove harmful.

He flew and flew. He fought and fought. He earned medals and was shot down. He was rescued and fought more. The second (and last) time he was shot down, it was enemy forces that got to his parachute landing site first. He was captured and packed off to the dreaded "Hanoi Hilton" Prisoner Of War (POW) camp.  The detainees were subjected to unsanitary conditions, mistreatment, and torture. Risner, however, was singled out for additional harsh treatment because he was "famous" --thanks to the Time magazine cover.   "They thought I was much more important than I ever was," said Risner, "I would have much cause to regret that Time had ever heard of me" (ibid). A fellow POW said "Robbie was by far the most abused POW there because of who they thought he was.... the Vietnamese regarded Robbie as their No. 1 one prized prisoner" (ibid).  To "break" Robbie Risner would be a propaganda victory and surely would persuade other prisoners to collaborate.

"He had been beaten up and starved, thrown for months into a dark cell crawling with rats, held immobile with his legs pinned in stocks, and strapped with ropes so tightly that his right arm was torn from its socket," said a Risner memorial article in the LA Times. "When he passed out from pain, the ropes were briefly loosened until the ordeal could start yet again," the article continued.  

When he was pressured to broadcast propaganda messages, he spent days on end trying to destroy his own voice: judo chops to the voice box, ingesting lye paste. When he could no longer physically resist, he did give a statement --unforgettably so-- in a campy German accent and peppered with mispronunciations. These "unmistakable signals of defiance ... further infuriated his captors but even more deeply endeared him" to his fellow POWs, the article said.

At first he didn't expect a long prison camp stay: "I had been told that Secretary of Defense Robert McNamara had passed the word down: ‘Do not make any long-range plans...The war will be over by June 1966’," Risner was quoted in the article. Unfortunately the war ground on and Risner remained under guard for over seven years. Risner continued encouraging defiance and survival. "Using coded messages that could be passed with the flash of a hand or the whisk of a broom, Risner encouraged the several hundred fellow Americans ...to hang tough," said the LA Times article.

Risner organized a covert church service --against the rules and at risk of torture. A fellow POW remembered, "It was a big day in our lives.... we had never done anything this rebellious before," the LA  Times article said. The article said that guards broke up the worship service and dragged Risner and two fellow leaders "to certain torture," but the cellblock's prisoners commenced loudly singing the US National Anthem. Soon the camp's other cellblocks --hundreds of POWs-- were belting out "The Star Spangled Banner," with the sound echoing down the streets of Hanoi. The article said Risner later was asked how he felt while hearing the singing: "I felt like I was 9 feet tall and could go bear hunting with a switch."

It was Risner's (sometimes life-saving) morale-boosting and encouragement of his fellow POWs which earned the second award of the Air Force Cross.  Both by rank and by moral authority, he was the Leader of The Hanoi Hilton POWs. After release in 1973, US officials wanted to send him to a safe desk assignment, but he wanted to keep flying fighters. His last fighter flight was circa 1990. In 2001, H. Ross Perot sponsored creation of a Risner statue (image). It was installed at the Air Force Academy. It was carefully set upon a base so that, from the ground to the top, it would measure --of course-- nine feet tall.

He was a giant.

Who would have known that this grandfatherly fellow who retired to the Shenandoah Valley had such a story?  At least Risner did write his story down and Random House published his book,  The Passing of the Night: My Seven Years as a Prisoner of the North Vietnamese.


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