HILL AIR FORCE BASE — When Bill Robinson left to fight in Vietnam, he didn’t think his stay would last more than a few months, but cruelly, it ended up lasting seven and a half long years.
Robinson spoke Aug. 8 to a group of Airmen at Hill Air Force Base, recounting his military career that was defined by his time as a prisoner of war in North Vietnam.
“We didn’t even know exactly what we were going to be doing until we got there,” Robinson said, recalling his thoughts of shipping off to East Asia. “We all thought it would be a short war, if one at all.”
In September of 1965, Robinson was the crew chief on an Air Force Rescue helicopter that was shot down while serving a rescue mission in North Vietnam. The group was eventually captured by North Vietnamese forces in the Ha Tinh Province and taken to the infamous Hoa Lo Prison — also known as the Hanoi Hilton.
Robinson and his crew had just finished extracting a fallen U.S. pilot, when “All of a sudden, all hell broke loose,“ Robinson said.
His helicopter began taking heavy fire and eventually fell about 90 feet to the ground. The thick jungle surroundings offered just enough cushion that nobody in Robinson’s crew was seriously injured. The pilot Robinson had just rescued warned the other members of the crew that they were deep in enemy territory and needed to leave the area as fast as possible.
”We found a relatively comfortable place and decided to take cover till dark,“ Robinson said. ”But about an hour later we were discovered by the local militia.“
Robinson said the militia brought the U.S. soldiers before their village and beat and humiliated them. He said he was eventually led to a freshly dug grave.
”I honestly thought my life here on this Earth was over at that point,“ he said. ”But oddly enough, after that was over, I just had a strong feeling that I was going to survive this thing.“
Robinson was eventually separated from the pilot his crew extracted, but the man’s last words hung in his head throughout his captivity in Vietnam: ”Live to fight another day.“
And that’s what he did.
Robinson ultimately endured 2,703 days (which amounts to about 7 1/2 years) in several North Vietnamese prison camps, battling the full rigors of North Vietnam’s torture program. No enlisted American solider before or since has been held as a prisoner of war longer than Robinson.
He said he had to live his life believing that his rescue was always just one day from happening.
”It’s how I stayed mentally straight,“ he said.
When Robinson was taken to his first cell, a Vietnamese man said ”home,“ in broken English. It took a moment for the man’s words to register with Robinson, but he finally understood the cell was now his new home.
”At first, I thought he was talking about North Carolina,“ Robinson said.
Robinson was given clothing similar to pajamas: a pair of shorts, a pair of pants, a short-sleeved shirt and a long sleeved shirt. He was also given a toothbrush, a tube of toothpaste, a mosquito net, a blanket and a tin can.
”Little did I know those would be my worldly possessions for the next eight Thanksgivings, the next eight Christmases and the next eight New Years,“ he said.
Aside from the regular torture he endured, Robinson had no running water or electricity and was permitted to bathe only about once every four weeks. He was fed twice a day, a meal he called ”grass soup.“
”We lived like heathens,“ he said.
But Robinson said he continued to endure, staying true to his ”one day at a time“ mantra.
Robinson was eventually brought back to the United States as a part of Operation Homecoming, a prisoner exchange that was part of the Paris Peace Accords which was intended to end U.S. military involvement in Vietnam.
He was released from captivity on Feb. 12, 1973, boarding the Air Force’s C-141 Starlifter transport jet, nicknamed the Hanoi Taxi.
Robinson said it took him a while to be able to finally be at peace with his experience behind the walls of the Vietnamese prisons, but he did. He eventually went back to visit the country where he was imprisoned.