KNOXVILLE, Tenn. (WATE) — Across America, National POW, MIA Recognition Day will be observed on September 16. It honors those who were prisoners of war and those who are still missing in action, or MIA.
The longest-held enlisted POW is Bill Robinson from East Tennessee. Don Dare spoke with the retired Air Force Captain about his years in captivity and a pilot who is still MIA.
Shortly after being captured, a North Vietnamese militia woman escorted Robinson, in what he learned years later was a propaganda photo.
“They kept hitting me in the back of the head with a rifle butt to get me to hold my head down. We were told anytime you see a camera look straight into it, that’s the best survival you can get,” said Robinson.
Robinson joined the Air Force right out of high school, and his intention was to make it a career. On September 20, 1965, aboard a helicopter, Airman First Class Robinson and three others were over North Vietnam on a rescue and recovery mission to bring back a downed pilot.
“We were on the side of the hill. We couldn’t get straight on top of the guy. I had to move out and I had to swing the cord this way, the cable,” said Robinson.
About the time that cable reached the pilot, the enemy opened fire, and the chopper fell 90 feet hitting the jungle floor.
“All four of us got out of the airplane. But our co-pilot got separated from us,” said Robinson.
A telegram informed the Robinson family back in Roanoke Rapids, NC that Bill Robinson was missing.
It is with deep regret that I officially inform you that your son Airman William Andrews Robinson, is missing since 20 Sept 1965 while on a tactical flight in South East Asia. An extensive search is now being conducted. When further information received, you will be notified immediately. A letter containing further details will be forwarded to you at the earliest possible date. Suggest you not divulge this information. “Read the telegraph to his family
He would spend seven and half years in captivity. He explained to Dare his method of staying sane.
“I didn’t count on a long-range plan. I adopted a 3-day plan. Yesterday I was shot down, today and tomorrow, I’m going home. So, I just had one day to work on to stay mentally and physically sound to be able to go home when the whistle did blow,” said Robinson.
Subjected to torture, he ended up at the notorious Hanoi Hilton prison camp. For those first few years, what kept him and other POW’S alive was their system of communicating, a language of tapping on the walls.
“Our lifeline was that 18-inch thick wall that people would tap on from the other side. We eventually learned how to tap on the wall, we learned how to talk through the wall,” said Robinson.
On February 12, 1973, Robinson and other American POWs were released. They received a hero’s welcome home.
At the new Vietnam Veterans Memorial in Knoxville, there is a dedication marker to POW’s and those still Missing in Action.
“As we get more removed it seems to be less important that we honor those who gave their all,” said Robinson.
Inscribed on the Vietnam Veteran’s wall in Washington, DC is LT. Duane Martin’s name, Robinson’s co-pilot who has never come home.
“I want Duane recovered,” said Robinson.
Robinson also explained his four precepts of hope.
“It is hope in faith. Faith in ourselves that we had to get the job done. Faith in each other that we would stand shoulder to shoulder and eventually return home with honor. Faith in our country that it wouldn’t abandon us in difficult circumstances, but most of all, faith in our God that he would see us through,” said Robinson.
If you know a veteran who wants to share their story, you can give Don a call at 865-633-6923.