Historical records matching Brig. Gen. Robinson "Robbie" Risner
About Brig. Gen. Robinson "Robbie" Risner
James Robinson "Robbie" Risner (born January 16, 1925) was a general officer and professional fighter pilot in the United States Air Force.
Risner is a double recipient of the Air Force Cross, the second highest military decoration for valor that can be awarded to a member of the United States Air Force. He was the first living recipient of the medal, awarded the first for valor in aerial combat during the Vietnam War, and the second for gallantry as a prisoner of war of the North Vietnamese for more than seven years.
Risner became an ace in the Korean War, and commanded a squadron of F-105 Thunderchiefs in the first missions of Operation Rolling Thunder in 1965. He flew a combined 163 combat missions, was shot down twice, and was credited with destroying eight MiG-15s. Risner retired as a brigadier general in 1976.
Risner was born in Mammoth Spring, Arkansas, but moved to Tulsa, Oklahoma in 1931. His father was originally a sharecropper, then during the Great Depression became a day laborer for the Works Progress Administration. By the time Risner entered high school, his father was self-employed, selling used cars. Risner worked numerous part-time jobs in his youth to help the family, including newspaper delivery, errand boy and soda jerk for a drug store, for the Tulsa Chamber of Commerce at age 16, as a welder, and for his father polishing cars.
Risner had a religious upbringing as a member of the 1st Assembly of God Church. He wrestled for Tulsa Central High School, where he graduated in 1942. In addition to a love of sports, Risner's interests were primarily in riding horses and motorcycles.
Army Air Forces and Air National Guard
Risner enlisted in the United States Army Air Forces as an aviation cadet in April, 1943, and attended flight training at Williams Field, Arizona, where he was awarded his pilot wings and a commission as 2nd Lieutenant in May 1944. He completed transition training in P-40 Warhawk and P-39 Airacobra fighters before being assigned to the 30th Fighter Squadron in Panama.
The 30th FS was based on a primitive airstrip without permanent facilities at Aguadulce, on the Gulf of Panama. Risner noted to a biographer that his tour under these conditions amounted to as much flying as he desired but a distinct lack of discipline on the ground. When the squadron was relocated to Howard Field in the Panama Canal Zone in January 1945 to transition to P-38 Lightning fighters, its pilots were soon banned from the Officers Club for rowdiness and vandalism.
While at Aguadulce, Risner was involved in an off-duty motorcycle accident in which he broke his wrist. Treated in an Army hospital, he met his future wife, Kathleen Shaw, a nurse from Ware Shoals, South Carolina. Both were released from military service in August 1946 and were married the next month.
In civilian life, Risner tried a succession of jobs, training as an auto mechanic, operating a gas station, and managing a service garage. he also joined the Oklahoma Air National Guard, becoming an F-51 Mustang pilot. He flew nearly every weekend, and on one occasion, became lost in the fringes of a hurricane on a flight to Brownsville, Texas. Forced to land on a dry lakebed, he found that he was in Mexico and encountered bandits, but successfully flew his Mustang to Brownsville after the storm had passed. He received an unofficial rebuke from the American embassy for flying an armed fighter into the sovereign territory of a foreign nation, but for diplomatic reasons the flight was officially ignored.
Risner was recalled to active duty in February 1951 while assigned to the 185th Tactical Fighter Squadron of the OKANG at Will Rogers Field in Oklahoma City, Oklahoma. He subsequently received training in the F-80 Shooting Star at Shaw Air Force Base, South Carolina.
Risner's determination to be assigned to a combat unit was nearly ended when on his last day before going overseas he broke his hand and wrist falling from a horse. Robinson deliberately concealed the injury, which would have grounded him, until able to convince a flight surgeon that the injury had healed. He actually had his cast removed to fly his first mission.
Risner arrived in Korea on May 10, 1952, assigned to the 15th Reconnaissance Squadron at Kimpo Air Base. In June, when the 336th Fighter-Interceptor Squadron, also at Kimpo, sought experienced pilots, he arranged a transfer to 4th Fighter Wing through the intervention of a former OKANG associate. Risner was often assigned to fly F-86E-10, AF serial no. 51-2824, nicknamed Ohio Mike and bearing a large cartoon rendition of Bugs Bunny as nose art, in which he achieved most of his aerial victories.
His first two months of combat saw little contact with MiGs, and although a flight leader, he took a three-day leave to Japan in early August. The day after his arrival he returned to Korea when he learned that MiGs were operational. Arriving at Kimpo in the middle of the night, he joined his flight which was on alert status. The flight of four F-86 Sabres launched and encountered 14 MiG-15s. In a brief dogfight Risner shot down one to score his first "kill", on August 5, 1952. By September 21 he had shot down four more, becoming the 20th "jet ace".
On September 15, using the call sign "John Red Lead", Risner's flight escorted F-84 Thunderjet fighter-bombers attacking a chemical plant on the Yalu River near the East China Sea. During their defense of the bombers, Risner's flight overflew the MiG base at Antung, China. Fighting one MiG at nearly supersonic speeds at ground level, Risner pursued it down a dry riverbed and across low hills to an airfield 35 miles inside China. Scoring numerous hits on the MiG, shooting off its canopy, and setting it on fire, Risner chased it between hangars of the Communist airbase, where he shot it down into parked fighters.
On the return flight, Risner's wingman, 1st Lt. Joseph Logan, was struck in his fuel tanks by anti-aircraft fire over Antung. In an effort to help him reach Kimpo, Risner attempted to push Logan's aircraft by having him shut down his engine and inserting the nose of his own jet into the tailpipe of Logan's, an unprecedented and untried maneuver. The idea was to push the plane to reach the United Nations rescue base of Cho Do. Jet fuel and hydraulic fluid spewed out from the wounded Sabre. He radioed Joe to shut down his engine. The turbulence kept bouncing and separating the two jets, but Risner was able to re-establish contact and guide the powerless plane out over the sea. After two attempts, Risner was forced to discontinue when leaking fuel and hydraulic fluid covered his canopy and threatened to stall his own engine. Near Cho Do, Lt. Logan bailed out, after radioing to Risner, "I'll see you at the base tonight." Risner stayed in radio contact with the rescue helicopter. Joe, a strong swimmer, landed close to shore, and the chopper tried to blow him in with the rotors. Tragically, Joe Logan didn't make it; he became tangled in his parachute lines and drowned. Risner shut down his own engine an attempt to save fuel, but eventually his engine flamed out and he glided to a deadstick landing at Kimpo.
In October 1952 Risner was promoted to major and named operations officer of the 336th FIS. Risner flew 108 missions in Korea and was credited with the destruction of eight MiG-15s, his final victory occurring January 21, 1953.
Regular Air Force career
Risner was commissioned into the Regular Air Force and assigned to the 50th Fighter-Bomber Wing at Clovis Air Force Base, New Mexico, in March 1953, where he became operations officer of the 81st Fighter Bomber Squadron. He flew F-86s with the 50th Wing to activate Hahn Air Base, West Germany, where he became commander of the 81st Fighter-Bomber Squadron in November 1954.
In July 1956, he was transferred to George Air Force Base, California as operations officer of the 413th Fighter Wing. Subsequently he served as commander of the 34th Fighter-Day Squadron, also at George Air Force Base.
During his tour of duty at George Air Force Base, Risner was selected to fly the Charles A. Lindbergh Commemoration Flight from New York to Paris. Ferrying a two-seat F-100F Super Sabre nicknamed Spirit of St. Louis II to Europe on the same route as Lindbergh, he set a transatlantic speed record, covering the distance in 6 hours and 37 minutes.
From August 1960 to July 1961, he attended the Air War College at Maxwell Air Force Base, Alabama. He next served on the joint staff of Commander-in-Chief, Pacific (CINCPAC) in Hawaii.
In August 1964, Lieutenant Colonel Risner took command of the 67th Tactical Fighter Squadron, an F-105D Thunderchief fighter-bomber unit based at Kadena AB, Okinawa, as part of the 18th Tactical Fighter Wing. On February 18, 1965, as part of an escalation in air attacks directed by President Lyndon B. Johnson that resulted in the commencement of Operation Rolling Thunder, the 67th TFS began a tour of temporary at Korat RTAFB, Thailand, under the control of the 2nd Air Division.
Risner's squadron led the first Rolling Thunder strike, bombing an ammunition dump approximately ten miles north of the Demilitarized Zone between the two Vietnams. The strike force consisted of more than 100 F-105, F-100, and B-57 aircraft, and in the congested airspace, heavy anti-aircraft artillery (AAA) fire seriously disrupted its coordination and radio communications. Risner's wingman was shot down in the opening pass, and the mission was in danger of collapsing when Risner took charge. After the last strike had been delivered, Risner and the two surviving members of his flight remained in the area, directing the Search and Rescue mission that rescued his wingman. Risner, low on fuel and in a battle damaged aircraft, diverted to Danang air base for landing.
On March 22, 1965, flying F-105D 62-4233, Risner was hit by ground fire while leading two flights of F-105s attacking a radar site near Vinh Son. He directed his aircraft over the Gulf of Tonkin, ejected, and was rescued.
On April 3 and 4, 1965, Risner acted as mission commander on two large missions attacking the Thanh Hoa Bridge in North Vietnam. On the afternoon of April 3, the strike package of Rolling Thunder Mission 9 Alpha consisted of 79 aircraft, including 46 F-105s. 16 of those carried AGM-12 Bullpup missiles, while another 30 carried eight 750-pound bombs each, half of which were designated for the railroad and highway bridge. The force had clear conditions but encountered a severe glare in the target area that made the bridge difficult to acquire for attacks with the Bullpups. Only one Bullpup could be guided at a time, and on his second pass, Risner's aircraft took a hit just as the missile struck the bridge. Fighting a serious fuel leak and a smoke-filled cockpit in addition to anti-aircraft fire from the ground, he again nursed his crippled aircraft to Danang. The use of Bullpups against the bridge had been completely ineffectual, resulting in the scheduling of a second mission the next day with 48 F-105s attacking the bridge without destroying it. The missions saw the first interception of U.S. air attacks by North Vietnamese MiG-17 fighters, resulting in the loss of two of Risner's F-105s on April 4.
Risner's exploits earned him an awarding of the Air Force Cross and resulted in his being featured as the cover portrait of the April 23, 1965 issue of Time Magazine. The 67th TFS ended its first duty at Korat on April 26 but returned from Okinawa on August 16 for a second tour of combat duty over North Vietnam.
Shootdown and capture
On August 12, 1965, U.S. Air Force and Navy air units received authorization to attack surface-to-air missile sites supplied to the North Vietnamese by the Soviet Union. Initial attempts to locate and destroy the SA-2 Guideline sites, known as Iron Hand missions, were both unsuccessful and costly. Tactics were revised in which "Hunter-Killer Teams" were created. Employed at low altitudes, the "hunters" located the missiles and attacked their radar control vans with canisters of napalm, both to knock out the SAM's missile guidance and to mark the target for the "killers", which followed up the initial attack using 750-pound bombs to destroy the site.
On the morning of September 16, 1965, on an Iron Hand mission, Risner flew F-105D 61-0217 as the "hunter" element of a Hunter-Killer Team searching for a SAM site in the vicinity of Tuong Loc, 80 miles south of Hanoi and 10 miles northeast of the Thanh Hoa Bridge. Risner's aircraft was at very low altitude flying at approximately 600 mph, approaching a site that was likely a decoy luring aircraft into a concentration of AAA. Heavy ground fire struck Risner's F-105 in its air intakes when he popped up over a hill to make his attack. Again he attempted to fly to the Gulf of Tonkin, but ejected when the aircraft, on fire, pitched up out of control. He was captured by North Vietnamese while still trying to extricate himself from his parachute. He was on his 55th combat mission at the time.
Prisoner of war
"We were lucky to have Risner. With (Captain James) Stockdale we had wisdom. With Risner we had spirituality."
Commander Everett Alvarez, Jr. - 1st U.S. pilot held as a Prisoner of War in Southeast Asia
After several days of travel on foot and by truck, Risner was imprisoned in Hoa Lo Prison, known as the Hanoi Hilton to American POWs. However after two weeks he was moved to Cu Loc Prison, known as "The Zoo", where he was confronted during interrogations with his Time Magazine cover and told that his capture had been highly coveted by the North Vietnamese. Returned to Hoa Loa Prison as punishment for disseminating behavior guidelines to the POWs under his nominal command, Risner was severely tortured for 32 days, culminating in his coerced signing of an apologetic confession for war crimes.
Risner spent more than three years in solitary confinement. Even so, as the officer of rank with the responsibility of maintaining order, from 1965 to 1973 he helped lead American resistance in the North Vietnamese prison complex through the use of improvised messaging techniques ("tap code"), endearing himself to fellow prisoners with his faith and optimism. It was largely thanks to the leadership of Risner and his Navy counterpart, Commander (later Vice Admiral) James Stockdale, that the POWs organized themselves to present maximum resistance. While held prisoner in Hoa Loa, Risner served first as Senior Ranking Officer and later as Vice Commander of the provisional 4th Allied Prisoner of War Wing. He was a POW for seven years, four months, and 27 days.
His story of being imprisoned drew wide acclaim after that war's end. His autobiography, The Passing of the Night: My Seven Years as a Prisoner of the North Vietnamese, describes seven years of torture and mistreatment by the North Vietnamese. In his book, Risner attributes faith in God and prayer as being instrumental to his surviving the Hanoi prison experience. In his words:
To make it, I prayed by the hour. It was automatic, almost subconscious. I did not ask God to take me out of it. I prayed he would give me strength to endure it. When it would get so bad that I did not think I could stand it, I would ask God to ease it and somehow I would make it. He kept me.
Further on he added,
I could not have existed if I had not been able to pray. To be able to mention the names of my wife, children, friends or relatives, or one of my fellow POWs who I knew was being tortured or mistreated, brought us together. The thousands of miles, the walls of my cell, the guards, were all transcended by this dimension of communication.
Publication of Risner's book led to a flap with American author and Vietnam war critic Mary McCarthy in 1974. The two had met, apparently at McCarthy's request, when McCarthy visited Hanoi in April 1968. The meeting, described as "stilted", resulted in an unflattering portrait of McCarthy in Risner's book, primarily because she failed to note scars and other evidence of torture he had made plain to her. After publication of the book, McCarthy strenuously attacked both Risner (deeming him "unlikeable") and Risner's credibility in a review. Risner made no rebuttal at the time, but when interviewed 20 years later, termed it "character assassination", a charge supported by several of McCarthy's liberal peers.
Risner was released in Operation Homecoming on 12 February 1973 and returned to the United States. In July 1973 assigned to the 1st Tactical Fighter Wing at MacDill Air Force Base, Florida, where he became combat ready in the F-4 Phantom II. Risner was later transferred to Cannon Air Force Base, New Mexico as Commander of the 832d Air Division in February 1974 and flew the F-111 fighter-bomber. He was promoted to the grade of Brigadier General in May 1974. On 1 August 1975, he became Vice Commander of the USAF Tactical Fighter Weapons Center at Nellis Air Force Base, Nevada and retired from the Air Force on 1 August 1976.
Risner is one of only four airmen with multiple awards of the Air Force Cross, a combat decoration second only to the Medal of Honor. He is also the first living recipient of this decoration.
The Risner Award, created September 24, 1976, was donated by H. Ross Perot as a tribute to Risner and all Vietnam era Prisoners of War, and is administered by the Tactical Air Command (now by Air Combat Command). The award is presented annually to the outstanding graduate of the USAF Weapons School, with the first recipient being Capt. Timothy A. Kinnan in 1977. The Risner Award is a six and one-half foot trophy consisting of a sculpture of Risner in flight suit and helmet on a marble base, weighing approximately four tons. The trophy is permanently displayed at the United States Air Force Academy, with each winner’s name inscribed. A miniature replica, also donated by Perot, is presented to each year’s recipient as a personal memento. An identical casting, measuring four feet and weighing 300 pounds, was installed in the foyer of the USAF Weapons School at Nellis Air Force Base in October 1984.
A nine foot bronze statue of Risner, sculpted by Lawrence Ludtke and mounted on a five foot pedestal of black granite, was commissioned by Perot and dedicated in the Air Gardens at the Air Force Academy on November 16, 2001. In addition to replicating the Risner Award, the statue commemorates Risner and other POWs who were punished for holding religious services in their room at the Hanoi Hilton on February 7, 1971, in defiance of North Vietnamese authorities. The statue was made nine feet tall in memory of Risner's statement, commenting on his comrades singing The Star Spangled Banner and God Bless America, that "I felt like I was nine feet tall and could go bear hunting with a switch."
Perot helped Risner later become the Executive Director of the Texans' War on Drugs, and Risner was consequently appointed by President Ronald Reagan as a United States Delegate to the fortieth session of the United Nations General Assembly.
Awards and decorations