Make us your home page

Today’s top headlines delivered to you daily.

(View our Privacy Policy)

J. Robinson Risner, leader of Hanoi Hilton prisoners, dies at 88

Retired Brig. Gen. J. Robinson Risner sits next to the painting that Time magazine used for its 1965 cover story on U.S. pilots.

Dallas Morning News (1999)

Retired Brig. Gen. J. Robinson Risner sits next to the painting that Time magazine used for its 1965 cover story on U.S. pilots.

The captured fighter pilot had already been through so much at the infamous Hanoi Hilton.

He had been beaten and starved, thrown for months into a dark cell crawling with rats, held immobile with his legs pinned in stocks, and strapped with ropes so tightly that his right arm was torn from its socket. When he passed out from pain, the ropes were briefly loosened until the ordeal could start yet again.

Now, with his jailers ordering him to do a propaganda broadcast, J. Robinson Risner, in the solitude of his cell, tried to destroy his voice. "I began pounding my throat as hard as I could," he wrote in his 1973 memoir The Passing of the Night. After he delivered repeated judo chops to his larynx, he drank a paste made from acidic lye soap and intensified the burn by screaming as loud as he could into a rag he clamped over his mouth.

"I continued this for three days and nights," he wrote, "staying awake as much as possible."

Ultimately, Risner didn't lose his voice and had to give the statement. But he deliberately fumbled words and used a stage-y German accent — unmistakable signals of defiance that further infuriated his captors but even more deeply endeared him to the men under his command at the Hoa Lo prison.

Risner, the highest-ranking American POW during most of his seven years, four months and 27 days behind bars, died Oct. 22 at his home in Bridgewater, Va., after a stroke, the Air Force said. The retired brigadier general was 88.

"Robbie" Risner was a rising star in the Air Force when he was shot down and captured Sept. 16, 1965. In the previous decade's war, he had been a hero, downing eight enemy planes over Korea. In Vietnam, he was such a standout that his tanned, chiseled face made the cover of Time magazine with a fighter jet streaking into the sky behind him.

Unfortunately, the April 23, 1965, piece, which profiled a dozen U.S. military members in Vietnam, made its way to Risner's captors. It "made him their 'prized prisoner,' which meant more abuse," Gen. Mark A. Welsh III, the Air Force chief of staff, wrote in a remembrance last week. Risner also came in for harsher treatment because, as a lieutenant colonel and then a full colonel, he was the top-ranking officer for most of his imprisonment, including the three years he spent in solitary confinement.

Using coded messages that could be passed with the flash of a hand or the whisk of a broom, Risner encouraged the several hundred fellow Americans at Hoa Lo to hang tough.

Risner's leadership was on display when he organized a forbidden worship service in 1971, said fellow POW Lee Ellis, a corporate consultant who wrote Leading With Honor: Leadership Lessons From the Hanoi Hilton. "It was a big day in our lives," Ellis told the Los Angeles Times. "We had never done anything this rebellious before." Guards stormed into the cellblock and hauled Risner and two other organizers to certain torture. As they did, the 40 or so men in their cellblock burst into The Star-Spangled Banner. The other six cellblocks also erupted in the national anthem as the three were marched off.

Risner was "one of the toughest and most honorable men I've ever known," Jeremiah Denton, a POW who later became a U.S. senator from Alabama, wrote.

Retiring from the Air Force in 1975, Risner raised quarter horses in Texas. Risner's first marriage ended in divorce. He is survived by his wife, Dorothy; three sons and three daughters; 14 grandchildren; and a sister.

J. Robinson Risner, leader of Hanoi Hilton prisoners, dies at 88 10/31/13 [Last modified: Thursday, October 31, 2013 10:32pm]
Photo reprints | Article reprints

Copyright: For copyright information, please check with the distributor of this item, Tribune News Service.

Join the discussion: Click to view comments, add yours

  1. Jones: Bucs need success to get national respect


    Tampa Bay Times columnist Tom Jones offers up his Two Cents on the world of sports.

    No respect

    Tampa Bay Buccaneers head coach Dirk Koetter walks the field during the second day of mandatory minicamp at One Buccaneer Place in Tampa, Fla., on Wednesday, June 14, 2017. LOREN ELLIOTT   |   Times
  2. Hopes fade after landslide destroys Chinese village (w/video)


    Crews searching through the night in the rubble left by a landslide that buried a mountain village under tons of soil and rocks in southwestern China found 15 bodies, but more than 110 more people remained missing.

    Vehicles and people line a road leading to the site of a landslide in Xinmo village in Mao County on Saturday in southwestern China’s Sichuan Province. More than 100 people remained missing after the village was buried under tons of rocks and soil.
  3. Rookie Jake Faria dissatisfied with performance in Rays' loss to Orioles

    The Heater

    ST. PETERSBURG — The rookie pitcher walked to his locker Saturday after tossing the fourth quality start in as many tries to begin his career. He held the potent Orioles bats to three runs and for six innings gave his team a chance to win.

    Orioles third baseman Manny Machado tags out the Rays’ Mallex Smith at third after a rundown in the first inning.
  4. Thousands converge in two St. Pete locations celebrating LGBT rights

    Human Interest

    ST. PETERSBURG — Tom Rockhill didn't know what to expect Saturday, but by noon people were knocking on the door of his bar Right Around the Corner in Grand Central.

    (From left to right) Emma Chalut 18, gets a rainbow sticker on her cheek from her sister Ellie, 15 both of Jacksonville before the annual St. Pete Pride parade in downtown St. Petersburg on Saturday. This year the route was changed from the Grand Central and Kenwood area to Bayshore Drive.
[EVE EDELHEIT   |   Times]
  5. Retired Florida Supreme Court Justice Parker Lee McDonald dies

    TALLAHASSEE — A former Florida Supreme Court justice, who wrote a decision that prevented lawyers from excluding jurors because of their race, has died.

    Former Florida Supreme Court Justice Parker Lee McDonald died Saturday, the court said in a statement. He was 93.