MARINE CORPS LOGISTICS BASE ALBANY, Ga. --
Retired Air Force Capt. William A. Robinson stood before a capacity crowd at the Base Conference Center, describing in detail the horrors the North Vietnamese soldiers inflicted upon him and other prisoners of war more than three decades ago.
In whispered tones before a silent and solemn crowd, he described his 2,703 days in captivity and how he went from a newly captured propaganda tool to his eventual release as the longest held enlisted service member in U.S. history.
As the guest speaker for the 23rd annual Prisoners of War/Missing in Action Recognition Breakfast here, Robinson described his personal history as a POW and his seven and-a-half years kept in a 6x8 foot cell in the Hoa Lo Prison, infamously known as the Hanoi Hilton.
“Twenty September 1965...my life changed forever. I was shot down and captured over North Vietnam,” he said. “I was put on public display in local villages, and I was placed in front of a firing squad next to a freshly dug grave.”
Serving as a flight engineer aboard a HH-43B “Huskie” helicopter during a rescue mission to extract a downed F-105D “Thunderchief” pilot, his helicopter was shot down by enemy fire, and he and all of his crew were captured.
Robinson said that he was turned over to the North Vietnamese military and traveled by car, truck, boat and walked for eight days before arriving at the Hanoi Hilton where he was stripped of all of his worldly possessions. Soon after arriving to the prison, he was told by the senior POW, Col. Robinson Risner, that “he should be prepared to die for his country.”
Along with the other POWs, he was tortured and abused, but only spent six months in solitary confinement, compared to others who spent up to seven years cramped in a 6x8 foot cell. He considered himself lucky.
Friday, standing at the podium at the Base Conference Center before military service members, civilian-Marines and other veterans, including other local and former POWs, Robinson’s steely will to help former POWs and MIAs is his life’s project. Approximately 300,000 service members were injured and 58,000 killed in the Vietnam War. Many are still unaccounted for, and for Robinson, his cause is to keep alive the remembrance of those who remain missing.
“We have to remind people that we still care,” said the former airman first class who, upon his release in 1973, had risen to the rank of master sergeant and was later commissioned a first lieutenant for his conduct as a POW. “We are brothers and sisters in arms. We all want them to be accounted for. Our nation will never give up its effort to account for all the POW/MIAs, so that as many families as possible receive the peace that their loved ones have come home.”
Colonel Terry V. Williams, commanding officer, Marine Corps Logistics Base Albany, Ga., said that Robinson’s speech serves as an educational opportunity for everyone.
“It is essential to remember as a nation,” Williams said. “We’ve got to remember what they have sacrificed. Those who have spent time as a captive in the enemies’ camp experienced sacrifices and hardships beyond what most Americans can only imagine. They experienced the absence of everyday freedoms many of us take for granted here at home.”
In Robinson’s speech, he said that tributes, such as the POW/MIA Recognition Breakfast, honor those people’s contributions to freedom. They have earned the nation’s highest respect and gratitude.
“We must always remember that freedom is not free. Freedom comes sometimes at a very high cost,” said Robinson who was medically retired in 1984 after serving 23 years active duty, and was one of the first enlisted airmen to be awarded the Air Force Cross.
“POW/MIAs took an oath and stood ready to fight and die for their country. With their commitment, they have kept America strong. They have gone above and beyond the call of duty, protecting our way of life and preserving the freedom we enjoy today.”
Although Robinson was released in Operation Homecoming in 1973, no commemoration for POW/MIAs was held until six years after his release in 1979.
That year the first resolution was passed and a national ceremony was held in the National Cathedral in Washington.
Over the years dates have changed many times for National POW/MIA Recognition Day.
This year, the ceremony will be held at the Pentagon on Friday.
President Barack Obama is expected to issue a proclamation commemorating the observances and reminding the nation of those who have sacrificed so much for their country.