New POW exhibit opens at Enlisted Heritage Hall
Colonel Stewart Price, commander of the Barnes Center for Enlisted Education and former POW's retired Col. Wayne Wadell, left and retired Lt. Col William Gaunt, right, helped unveil the Operation Homecoming exhibit at the Enlisted Heritage Research Institute, Feb. 15. (U.S. Air Force photo by Senior Airman Christopher Stoltz)
by Becca Burylo
Air University Public Affairs
2/22/2013 - MAXWELL AIR FORCE BASE, GUNTER ANNEX, Ala. -- Forty years since America welcomed home 591 Vietnam War prisoners under the Operation Homecoming mission, Gunter's Enlisted Heritage Research Institute honored their sacrifice and those still missing Feb. 15 with the unveiling of a new exhibit focusing on one enlisted man's story of freedom.
Nearly five hundred guests were present, including several former POWs, at the unveiling ceremony that began with a historical account of retired Capt. William "Bill" Robinson's heroism as a POW at the Senior Noncommissioned Officer Academy and concluded next door inside the EHRI with the exhibit presentation and reception.
"It is an honor for me," said Robinson for being selected as the focus of the exhibit. "But it's an honor to be a representative of America's end to the Vietnam War. As an enlisted member, to remember the sacrifice of other enlisted Air Force members, it's an honor that I'm the one they chose to be a representative for our brothers and sisters who came back before and those who did not."
Surviving seven years of imprisonment, Robinson and his team were shot down in their Kaman HH-43 Huskie helicopter during a rescue mission in 1965.
Captured hours later and taken to the infamous Vietnam prison, Hoa Lo Prison, or Hanoi Hilton, Robinson became the longest enlisted POW. He was also the first to earn his battlefield commission through the Officer Training School and the Air Force Cross as a POW using the prisoner's simple tap code.
Chief Master Sgt. Fred Graves, EHRI director, said he could not remember a day he was more proud to be a part of honoring the heroism of Robinson, all other former POWs and the 1,654 that remain Missing in Action.
"Your incredible sacrifice, dedication and service to this great nation is nothing short of inspiring. We are truly humbled," said Graves adding, "Today we have a great opportunity to witness history as we dedicate this display exactly 40 years after Operation Homecoming brought Capt. Bill Robinson and his fellow POWs home."
Operation Homecoming, a prisoner exchange, was one of the provisions made in the Paris Peace Accords which intended to end U.S. military involvement, finish the Vietnam War and bring the POWs home, including Robinson and others from the Air Force, Army, Navy, Marines and civilians. Others held by the enemy added a total of 660 American military POWs surviving the war.
Robinson was released with 39 others Feb. 12, 1973, and one of the first to board the USAF C-141 Starlifter transport jet, nicknamed the Hanoi Taxi, waiting to fly them home. There was much rejoicing on that flight as freed soldiers become acclimated to a different world of space travel and women's liberation.
"It was overwhelming," Robinson said when he arrived at Scott Air Force Base, Ill., 40 years ago. He has since then received the Air Force Cross, the Silver Star, Legion of Merit, Bronze Star, POW Medal and two Purple Hearts.
The new display designed by EHRI curator, Bill Chivalette, who began research for it in 1985, includes an $8,500 life-like mannequin of Robinson standing at the threshold of his cell with a replicated wooden door open wide to reveal the inside of his prison barracks.
The mannequin wears Robinson's Operation Homecoming uniform, a simple set of brown slacks, a white buttoned shirt, blue shirt coat and brown overcoat issued by the Vietnamese.
His red prison uniform is folded neatly on the narrow bed inside with a pair of rubber tire sandals on top. Shackles that bound his hands and feet during his severe daily tortures hang on the wall.
Money for the mannequin was raised by the students of the Senior NCOA class 12-C, to whom Robinson has guest lectured. Detailed and lifelike, Robinson's mannequin took more than six months to create as human hair was injected into the sculpted head one strand at a time.
Inside, the prison walls and ceiling were painted to match historical photographs of Vietnamese prisons. Faux foliage surrounds the exhibit, reminiscent of the Vietnam jungles, with pictorial slideshows of Robinson hanging on the wall.
On the opposite end of the partition, an encased display holds an array of original artifacts from the Hanoi Hilton, including a brick from the compound, soap, utensils and cigarettes used by the prisoners.
Also on display are the original black and white photograph and stamps depicting Robinson guarded and herded to prison by a young female Vietnamese soldier, which quickly became a popular propaganda piece during the war. The preservation of such pieces of history pays tribute to the POWs' sacrifice, said Chivalette.
"I'm not sure if we can ever thank them properly," he said. "We certainly can't get them back the years that they lost in captivity, but we hope this display will keep their stories alive."