A true airpower giant

  • Published
  • By Gen. Mark A. Welsh III
  • Air Force Chief of Staff

We lost another Air Force hero this week. Brig. Gen. James Robinson “Robbie” Risner was part of that legendary group who served in three wars, built an Air Force, and gave us an enduring example of courage and mission success.   

Most of today’s Airmen know General Risner because of his leadership and heroism as a Vietnam War POW, but his story actually started well before that.

He enlisted in the U.S. Army Air Corps during World War II. He flew more than 108 combat missions in the Korean War, shot down eight MiGs, and became the 20th jet ace of that war.   

During the Vietnam War, Risner was an F-105 squadron commander. On March 16, 1965, he was shot down, but made it to the Tonkin Gulf before bailing out and was rescued. A month later, Time magazine featured him on their cover.  On Sept. 16, he was shot down again, and this time, was captured. To make things worse, his captors had the Time article, and made him their "prized prisoner,” which meant more abuse.  Risner served as a leader in the Hoa Lo Prison -- first as senior-ranking officer and then vice commander of the 4th Allied POW Wing. Some called him "the most influential and effective POW there."

One day in 1971, Risner and several colleagues organized a church service, a forbidden act, which led to more punishment. As their captors led Risner away, Col. “Bud” Day and the more than 40 other POWs in the room began singing “The Star Spangled Banner” to show their support. Hearing the defiant singing, Risner walked away with his back straight, head held high, full of pride.

When asked later how he felt at that moment, Risner said “I felt like I was 9 feet tall and could go bear hunting with a switch.”  That moment and his words are reflected by a statue, exactly 9 feet high, that now stands at the U.S. Air Force Academy.  Bud Day spoke at the unveiling of the statue, saying, “We knew he was in fact 9 feet tall. This is a life-size statue.” 

He was awarded two Air Force Crosses for heroism in Vietnam, the first for leading the attack on the “Dragon’s Jaw,” a bridge that was one of the toughest targets in North Vietnam and withstood 871 attacks. The second was given for his leadership in the POW camp and courage under torture.

After more than seven years in captivity – more than three of which were in solitary confinement -- Risner was released. He was briefly hospitalized and reported he was ready for duty "after three good meals and a good night’s rest." He spent his remaining years in uniform commanding the 832nd Air Division, and serving as the vice commander of the AF Tactical Fighter Weapons Center, where he also commanded Red Flag. He retired in 1976.

Like many heroes, Risner spent a great amount of his remaining years sharing his story with our Airmen. At an event in the 1990s, he met a Russian MiG-15 ace who’d flown during the same time Risner had been in Korea.  The Russian pilot asked if they’d ever faced each other in combat.  Risner responded: "No way; you wouldn’t be here."

When I visit USAFA next week, I look forward to visiting Risner’s statue and reflecting on his life and what he stood for.  A few words come instantly to mind … pride, courage, tenacity, and integrity.  I’m proud to serve in Robbie Risner’s Air Force and to try and live up to his example. 

Today’s Airmen know we stand on the shoulders of giants.  One of ‘em is 9 feet tall…and headed west in full afterburner…     

Airpower…built by legends!