Long before he retired as a much-decorated brigadier general, Robbie Risner was one of the most celebrated pilots in the US 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 mid-air manoeuvre 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 1965 for leading air strikes against a strategic bridge in North Vietnam. Later that month he was featured on the cover of Time magazine.
He flew 55 missions over Vietnam. In five missions in a single week, he recalled, his plane was hit by anti-aircraft fire four times. "Fear is a luxury one can't afford," he said. But in September 1965 his luck ran out. During a raid his F-105 Thunderchief was hit by groundfire. He was forced to bail out and was taken captive. Because of the Time story he would become one of the highest profile US prisoners of the Vietnam War. He was held for more than seven years in Hoa Lo prison – the "Hanoi Hilton" – before his release in 1973.
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. Amid heavy anti-aircraft fire, Risner moved his jet behind Logan's and at more than 200mph, placed the nose of his plane in the tailpipe of the damaged plane. Risner pushed Logan's powerless plane until they were beyond enemy territory and within reach of US troops. Logan bailed out over water but became tangled in his parachute lines and drowned.
Risner received the first of two Silver Stars for his heroics; his second came only after he went home from Vietnam – it was awarded for his leadership as a POW. Risner was a lieutenant colonel when he was taken captive and because of his high rank he faced particularly harsh treatment. He was kept shackled for weeks at a time and spent more than three years in a darkened, solitary cell.
After Vietnam, Risner commanded several fighter training programmes before his retirement in 1976. He was a friend of the businessman and former presidential candidate Ross Perot, who commissioned a statue of him at the US Air Force Academy in Colorado Springs. It was a reminder of Risner's leadership among the POWs after he organised a forbidden church service in the Hanoi Hilton in 1971. As he was led away his comrades began to sing "The Star-Spangled Banner." "I felt like I was nine feet tall and could go bear hunting with a switch," he said later. The statue at the Air Force Academy stands nine feet tall.
James Robinson Risner, airman: born Mammoth Spring, Arkansas 16 January 1925; twice married (six children); died Bridgewater, Virginia 22 October 2013.
© The Washington PostReuse content