Former Vietnam POW speaks to future of military aviation

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Navy photograph by Ens. Simeon Fritz

Retired U.S. Air Force Capt. William “Bill” Robinson, a former prisoner of war in Vietnam, spoke to hundreds of Naval Aviation Schools Command students April 26.

Robinson grew up in eastern North Carolina and enlisted in the U.S. Air Force in 1961. He served several assignments within the United States and a year-long tour in Korea. At the rank of airman first class, Robinson transferred to Thailand to serve with an air rescue and recovery unit in the Spring of 1965. He conducted operations in support of the Vietnam War until his rescue helicopter, a Kaman HH43B “Huskie,” was shot down while attempting to recover a downed F-105D pilot. Surviving the crash with the rest of the crew, he was captured and held as a POW by the North Vietnamese at the infamous “Hanoi Hilton” for more than seven years.

As Robinson began to detail his time as a POW, it did not fail to dawn on the aviation students in attendance the importance of his story. The students – all training to become aviators, flight officers, air crewman, or rescue swimmers – realized the special risk their jobs would entail. The vast majority of the POWs in the Vietnam War were Navy, Air Force and Marine Corps aviators and flight officers.

“You all are the top one percent,” said Robinson. “We know we will go to SERE [Survival, Evasion, Resistance and Escape] School when we join aviation, but it’s much more real when we get a chance to hear from a guy who actually went through it.”

All aviators and flight officers are required to receive survival training, known as SERE.

The future flyers listened carefully as their veteran predecessor described his fate.

“They paraded us around like a prize trophy because we were Americans,” said Robinson.

In a mix of solitary confinement, torture and cramped living conditions with dozens of fellow POWs, Robinson recounted the names and stories of the heroes he served alongside.

“If we survived, we must return with honor,” said Robinson.

He went on to describe the way the Americans would tap the walls to communicate with a secret code never broken by the North Vietnamese.

“It helped that the pilots were not good spellers,” joked Robinson.

For the Americans condemned to deal with their imprisonment in solitary confinement, the tap code communication became a vital lifeblood in maintaining morale.

“Importantly, this was the way to know who they were so we could keep account and to all get out together,” said Robinson.

Robinson recounted that every new guy who showed up would come in saying we would all be home by Christmas.

But the war did not end at Christmas.

The war did not end until the Paris Peace Accords of 1973, when 591 American POWs were returned during Operation Homecoming. The battle did not end there, however, as Robinson described the poor treatment towards his fellow Vietnam veterans who were not POWs. Robinson detailed how POWs were treated with the respect that was denied to other Vietnam War veterans.

“We [POWs] came home to the full fanfare of victory. You might say we were treated with honor,” said Robinson. “My generation was unable to separate a war from the warrior, but in the present day we are able to. The warrior honors his country with his or her service. The war is irrelevant.”

Ending his speech to the next generation of aviation, Robinson summarized his perspective of what happened along with what did not happen.

“Only one out of five air crewmen shot down over Southeast Asia survived, so I can truly say I am one of the luckiest men alive,” said Robinson.

During his visit to NASC, Robinson also participated as a guest of honor in an air crew graduation ceremony and received a command tour.

NASC provides an educational foundation in technical training, character development, and professional leadership to prepare Navy, Marine Corps, Coast Guard and partner nation officers and enlisted students to be combat quality aviation professionals, and deliver them at the right time, in the right numbers, to be the forces their nation needs. The command currently trains more than 3,000 U.S. Navy, Marine Corps, Coast Guard and international students annually.