Retired Brig. Gen. Robinson “Robbie” Risner, a celebrated Korean War jet fighter ace and Vietnam prisoner of war, died Oct. 22 at Bridgewater Retirement Community, Bridgewater, Va. He was 88 years old.
Born in Mammoth Spring, Ark. in 1925, Risner enlisted in the U.S. Army Air Corps in April 1943. He attended flight training at Williams Field, Ariz., where he was awarded his pilot wings and a commission as a second lieutenant in May 1944. He applied for combat duty, but was sent instead to Panama, where he flew the P-38 Lightning twin-engine fighter-bomber and the P-39 Airacobra pursuit aircraft. In 1946, he transitioned from active duty to the Oklahoma Air National Guard in where he became a P-51 Mustang pilot.
Risner was recalled to active duty in February 1951 and was assigned to the 185th Tactical Fighter Squadron in Oklahoma City, Okla. He learned to fly the RF-80 Shooting Star at Shaw Air Force Base, S.C. After his unit was called up for the Korean War, Risner applied for and was accepted for combat duty in Korea as a photo reconnaissance pilot. He soon negotiated an assignment to fly the new F-86 Sabrejet fighter with the 336th Fighter Interceptor Squadron, 4th Fighter Wing. Flying with the 336th FIS, he became an ace with a few months. In all, he flew 108 combat missions in Korea and was credited with destroying eight MiG-15s. He became the 20th jet ace during the Korean War.
“Korea was probably the high point of my whole career as far as real gratification is concerned,” Risner said in an interview last year for Air Force Magazine.
It was in 1957 during a tour of duty at George Air Force Base, Calif. that Risner was selected to fly the Charles A. Lindberg Commemoration Flight from New York to Paris. He set a record when he flew a F-100F Super Sabre “Spirit of St. Louis II” across the Atlantic to Paris over the same route used by Charles Lindbergh 30 years prior. Risner made the 3,680 mile flight in 6 hours, 38 minutes, while Lindbergh required 33 hours, 30 minutes. His flight originated at McGuire Air Force Base in N.J., and was officially timed from Floyd Bennett Field, NY, to Le Bourget Field, Paris, France.
In August 1964, Riser took command of the 67th Tactical Fighter Squadron, Kadena Air Base on Okinawa, where he flew the F-105 Thunderchief. While on a temporary duty assignment with the 67th TFS at Korat Royal Thai Air Force Base in Thailand, he led the first “Rolling Thunder” air strike against North Vietnam. Risner flew a mission a day over North Vietnam, often against heavy enemy fire. On March 16, 1965, his aircraft was hit and sustained heavy damage over North Vietnam. He made it to the Tonkin Gulf, where he ejected and was rescued.
Risner told Air Force Magazine that during one week he was hit on four missions out of five. For his bravery, Risner was awarded the Silver Star for gallantry in action against an enemy of the United States.
TIME magazine featured Risner on the cover of its April 23, 1965 publication. The cover story, “The Fighting American,” featured 10 U.S. military members in Vietnam, with fighter pilot Risner – a rising star in the Air Force – foremost among them. Years later, he remarked that although the TIME cover was an honor, he later came to regret the attention it brought to him.
While flying a Rolling Thunder mission on September 16, 1965, Risner was shot down and taken prisoner. The North Vietnamese had seen the TIME magazine article before his capture. They knew they had captured a Korean War ace and an F-105 squadron commander who had led 18 missions against them. Throughout his seven and a half year ordeal, Risner endured torture and solitary confinement at the infamous “Hanoi Hilton.”
After his capture, Risner was promoted to full colonel with a date of rank of Nov. 8, 1965, but it would be some time before he knew it. Even in his previous grade, he was the senior ranking officer among the POWs and, on their behalf, complained about the squalid condition in which they were held. He maintained a current list of the POWs held in Hanoi and established committees and assigned tasks to maintain discipline and fellowship.
The Vietnamese did not want any military organization among the prisoners, and they aggressively suppressed attempts to communicate. Risner’s tenacity to establish an honorable standard for other POWs to follow often resulted in torture and long periods in solitary confinement.
When asked what kept him going throughout his imprisonment, Risner said in a 2004 interview on CNN Larry King Live that his survival was due to exercise and his “faith in God and love of country.”
“General Risner was a very religious man and a very devoted American warrior,” said retired Col. George “Bud” Day about his friend and fellow prisoner of war. Day passed away July 27, 2013. “He was a courageous, talented pilot and a marvelous commander. He endured a lot of mistreatment at the (Hanoi) camp and he stood up to it very well. He continued to be an inspiration to everyone.”
After seven and a half years as a POW, Risner was repatriated in February 1973. In July 1973, he was assigned to the 1st Tactical Wing at MacDill Air Force Base in Florida, where he became combat ready in the F-4 Phantom II.
He went to Cannon Air Force Base in New Mexico and took command of the 832nd Air Division. After being promoted to brigadier general, he was reassigned and became the vice commander of the Air Force Fighter Weapons Center at Nellis Air Force Base, Nev. In 1975, he became the commander of the Red Flag combat training program. He retired in August 1976.
His military decorations and awards include the Air Force Cross with one oak leaf cluster, Distinguished Service Medal, Silver Star with one oak leaf cluster, Distinguished Flying Cross with two oak leaf clusters, Bronze Star Medal with V device and one oak leaf cluster, Air Medal with seven oak leaf clusters, Joint Service Commendation Medal, Purple Heart with three oak leaf clusters, Presidential Unit Citation Emblem, Air Force Outstanding Unit Award Ribbon with two combat V devices and the Republic of Korea Presidential Unit Citation Ribbon.
Risner was initiated into the Oklahoma Hall of Fame in November 1974 for his many military achievements. After his retirement, businessman H. Ross Perot urged him to become the executive director of the Texans’ War on Drugs. Perot later commissioned a statue in Risner’s honor. Although Risner was not a graduate, Perot asked that the statue be installed at the U.S. Air Force Academy so that future pilots could be inspired by Risner’s courage and sacrifice.
“All men who served with him in Vietnam in the prison camps, when they came home and talked to me, would point to him (Risner) and say, ‘He’s the only reason I survived,’” Perot is quoted as saying in a November 2001 story by the Air Force Print Service.
In 1985, President Ronald Reagan appointed Risner an alternate U.S. representative to the 40th session of the United Nations General Assembly. Risner is the author of “The Passing of the Night: Seven Years as a Prisoner of the North Vietnamese.”
He is survived by his wife, Dorothy Risner, six children and their spouses: Timothy Risner, Daniel and Page Risner, Dana and Gregory Duyka, Deborah and Michael Darrell, David and Pamela Risner, DeAnna and Timothy Parker, and 14 grandchildren. He leaves one sister and her spouse, Peggy and Norman Goldstein, and one sister-in-law Jean Risner.