Long before he retired as a much-decorated brigadier general, Robinson Risner was one of the most celebrated pilots in the Air Force. He was an ace in the Korean War, shooting down eight Russian-built MiG-15s and received the Silver Star for a daring midair maneuver to steer a fellow pilot to safety.
More than a decade later during the Vietnam War, he led the first flight of Operation Rolling Thunder, a high-intensity aerial bombing of North Vietnam. He received the Air Force Cross in April 1965 for leading air strikes against a strategic bridge in North Vietnam. Later that month, “Robbie” Risner was featured on the cover of Time magazine.
In one of his 55 missions over Vietnam, he had to eject to safety in the Tonkin Gulf. In five missions in a single week, he once recalled, his plane was hit by anti-aircraft fire four times.
“Fear is a luxury one can’t afford,” he said in the Time story.
But on Sept. 16, 1965, the luck of Risner ran out.
During a raid over North Vietnam, his F-105 Thunderchief was hit by groundfire. He was forced to bail out and was taken captive. Because of the Time cover story, he would become one of the highest profile U.S. prisoners of the Vietnam War.
He was held for more than seven years in Hoa Lo prison, mockingly called the Hanoi Hilton by U.S. captives, before his release in 1973.
Risner died Oct. 22 at his home in Bridgewater, Va. He was 88 and had complications from a recent stroke, his wife, Dorothy Risner, said.
He joined the Army Air Forces in 1943, when he was 18, and was stationed in Panama during World War II. After the war, he served in the Oklahoma Air National Guard until he was activated during the Korean War. He broke his arm shortly before being shipped overseas, but he hid the injury under a leather sleeve.
He flew reconnaissance missions before talking his way into a transfer to a fighter wing. In 108 missions as an F-86 Sabre jet pilot, he shot down eight MiG fighters, making him the 20th U.S. ace of the war.
In the 1990s, Risner met a Russian fighter pilot who had flown MiGs in Korea. The Russian wondered if they might have faced each other in the air.
“No way,” Risner replied. “You wouldn’t be here.”
In September 1952, Risner’s fighter unit was in a dogfight when he noticed that the plane of his wingman, Joe Logan, had been hit and was leaking fuel. They were 60 miles from friendly territory, and Risner knew that his fellow pilot would never make it.
Amid heavy flak from anti-aircraft fire, Risner maneuvered his jet behind Logan’s and, at a speed of more than 200 mph, placed the nose of his plane in the tailpipe of the damaged plane.
Through turbulence and with leaking oil splattering his cockpit canopy, Risner pushed Logan’s powerless plane until they were beyond enemy territory and within reach of U.S. troops. Logan bailed out over water but became tangled in his parachute lines and drowned before he could be rescued.
Risner received the first of two Silver Stars for his heroics and was one of only four airmen in history to receive more than one Air Force Cross, second only to the Medal of Honor for wartime heroism.
His second Air Force Cross wasn’t pinned to his chest until after he returned from prison camp, when it was awarded for his leadership as a POW. Risner was a lieutenant colonel when he was taken captive. He was, for a time, the highest ranking U.S. officer held prisoner.
Because of his position, he faced particularly harsh treatment. His captors, he said after his release, would “tie your wrists behind your back . . . and force your head and shoulders down until your feet or your toes were in your mouth, and leave you in this manner until you acquiesced in whatever they were trying to get you to do.
“I myself have screamed all night,” he said.
He was kept shackled for weeks at a time and spent more than three years in a darkened, solitary cell. He told other prisoners to “resist until you are tortured” but never to “lose your capability to think.”
Risner exercised as much as he could and “prayed by the hour,” he wrote in his 1973 memoir, “The Passing of the Night: Seven Years as a Prisoner of the North Vietnamese.”
“I did not ask God to take me out of it,” he wrote. “I prayed he would give me strength to endure it.”
As a leader of the POWs, Risner set up committees, assigned tasks and helped set up communication systems through tapping, scraping walls and even coughing. Some prisoners reconstructed an abbreviated version of the Bible from memory. Others were tortured and never seen again.
The North Vietnamese often told the captors about antiwar protests in the United States, hoping to break their spirit. In 1968, Risner made public statements against U.S. bombing of North Vietnam, which he later said were done against his will.
On Feb. 12, 1973, he was among the first group of prisoners to be released from North Vietnam. He said he would be ready to return to duty “after three good meals and a good night’s rest.”
Risner was born Jan. 16, 1925, in Mammoth Spring, Ark., and grew up in Tulsa, Okla. He was known as “Robbie” throughout his life.
After Vietnam, Risner returned to the pilot’s seat and commanded several fighter training programs before his retirement in 1976. In addition to his Air Force Crosses and Silver Stars, his decorations included the Distinguished Service Medal; three awards of the Distinguished Flying Cross; and two Bronze Star Medals.
His first marriage to the former Kathleen Shaw, ended in divorce. Survivors include his wife of 36 years, the former Dorothy Miller Williams, of Bridgewater; six children; a sister; and 14 grandchildren.
After his military career, Risner lived for many years in Texas, where he was executive director of an anti-drug program. He often spoke at gatherings for veterans and Air Force pilots.
He was also a close friend of the billionaire businessman and onetime presidential candidate H. Ross Perot, who commissioned a statue of Risner, which was installed at the U.S. Air Force Academy in Colorado Springs, Colo., in 2001.
It was a reminder of Risner’s leadership among the POWs, after he organized a forbidden church service in the Hanoi Hilton in 1971. When he was led away to face further punishment, more than 40 of his fellow prisoners spontaneously began to sing “The Star-Spangled Banner.”
Years later, Risner said, “I felt like I was 9 feet tall and could go bear hunting with a switch.”
The statue at the Air Force Academy stands 9 feet tall.