POW endures 'boredom, punctuated by terror' during captivity

MAXWELL AIR FORCE BASE, Ala. - -- It was a mission that lasted more than seven years. It was also a trap.

Sent to rescue the downed pilot of an F-105D Thunderchief during the Vietnam War, retired Capt. William "Bill" Robinson, an airman first class at the time, and his three teammates navigated inside enemy lines where an ambush lay in wait and shot down their Kaman HH-43 Huskie helicopter.

Two hours later, Robinson and his team were captured along with the downed pilot and taken to Hoa Lo Prison, Sept. 20, 1965.

"The thing about the rescue business is you're not the only guy out there looking for them," said Robinson. "The enemy is looking for them too. That's what happened when we came. They had already gotten there before we did and surrounded the area."

Nearly seven years later on Feb. 12, 1973, Robinson; Capt. Thomas Curtis, the aircraft commander; Airman 1st Class Arthur Black, pararescueman; and the downed pilot they had continued to watch over were freed during Operation Homecoming, a mission to bring home prisoners of war.

Robinson's story will be the focal point for the new POW Operation Homecoming exhibit to be unveiled at Gunter's Enlisted Heritage Research Institute Feb. 15, marking the 40th anniversary of Robinson's return to the states.

The exhibit will act as a bookend to the replica POW cell exhibit, said the institute's curator, Bill Chivalette.

"We're trying to end Vietnam [display]. It's Operation Homecoming, when we brought the POWs home," explained Chivalette.

Upon return, Robinson, along with the other members of his crew, received the Air Force Cross, the second highest military award given under the Medal of Honor. Robinson was also a recipient of the Silver Star, Legion of Merit, Bronze Star, POW Medal and two Purple Hearts.

Though he is considered one of the longest enlisted POWs in military history, Robinson was never given any formal survival training before deployment. He quickly received a crash course while in the Vietnamese prison, and he contributes his survival to his "four Fs."

"I refer to my 'four Fs': faith in myself, faith in those around me, faith in my country and faith in my God," Robinson said. "My faith is what pulled me through. I always thought, yesterday I was shot down, today is today, and tomorrow I'm going home."

That mindset, his faith and sense of humor were enough to pull Robinson through each day he describes as "living in minutes, hours and days, weeks, months and years of boredom, punctuated by terror." Guards were known for delivering daily beatings and inhumane tortures to their prisoners. The rest of their time was spent locked in a narrow cell.

Counting each day of his captivity, Robinson had already made up his mind he was going home. It was just a question of when. Instead of letting fear and bitterness consume him, he prepared both physically and mentally for his day of freedom.

"I just didn't let things stack up. You just have to deal with it," he said. "There's no room for bitterness. Bitterness is a killer."

Robinson learned the tap-code system brought into the prison from previous POWs to communicate with the other prisoners.

Through a simple alphabetical code of rows and columns that replaced "K" with "C," they accounted for everyone, passed along information and were given their daily code of conduct from higher ranking officers to never give up, never give in and return with honor.

The simple code was one of the few never cracked by the Vietnamese.

"They thought it was just a lot of banging around and us making a racket. Some of our guys were able to tap out 45 words a minute. Good thing we weren't being graded on spelling," Robinson said with a chuckle.

While in prison, Robinson and Black earned the rank of master sergeant through using the code system, something that had never been done before.

"That's the only time we have ever heard of that happening," said Chivalette. "His character was so good, so strong and he followed his training so well that they [other prisoners] helped him run through OTS [Officer Training School]. The Air Force honored that when they were released."

The day Robinson was finally able to step out of his cell and leave his prison uniform behind, was a day he always knew would come.

"It was something I had been prepared for everyday," he said. "Think about not being able to see the sunset, the sun rise, the rain or feel the cool. Going five years without seeing a bird or hearing one. That stuff is all around us though we don't appreciate it. I learned to appreciate the simple things."

Robinson was in the first convoy to arrive at Scott Air Force Base, Ill., as a part of Operation Homecoming. The world received them quite differently than many of the service members before him who returned under the cover of night and denied the honor of wearing their uniform.

"It was overwhelming," he recalled. "I came home to a hero's welcome that they [returned service members] earned. It was humbling for me, but I'll never forget those 58,000 who never came home. I was blessed to be a part of the fortunate few."