Vietnam POW finds humor in horror

wcrenshaw@macon.comDecember 6, 2013 

WARNER ROBINS -- Many heroes have passed through the doors of American Legion Post 172, but there hasn’t been one quite like Bill Robinson.

According to a recently published book about him, “The Longest Rescue,” Robinson is the longest held enlisted prisoner of war in U.S. military history. He was held captive in North Vietnam from 1965 to 1973. For his courage in captivity, he was awarded the Air Force Cross, which is second only to the Medal of Honor.

He was at the post Friday signing copies of the book, written by Glenn Robins. He will also be there Saturday from 10 a.m. to 5 p.m.

Robinson was serving in the Air Force as a helicopter crew chief on Sept. 20, 1965, when his crew was dispatched to rescue an F-104 pilot who had been shot down. They had the pilot, Capt. Willis E. Forby, in a sling and were seconds away from escaping when gunfire brought the chopper down. The crew and Forby were all captured.

The book’s title refers not to Robinson but to Forby, who was released with Robinson 7½ years later.

As he talked, Robinson showed a unique sense of humor in recalling horrific experiences.

“We were all treated equally,” he said. “We all got the hell beaten out of us.”

The cover of the book is a staged photo taken after his capture. It shows a 17-year-old girl appearing to guard him with a rifle.

The North Vietnamese used the photo for propaganda, putting out a phony story that the girl captured him single-handedly and Robinson surrendered to her because she reminded him of his sister. The photo was used as a postage stamp in North Vietnam.

None of it was true. Robinson said the girl was part of a large party that captured him.

“I was kind of a deer across the hood for a while as I was paraded through different villages in Vietnam,” he said.

He spent time in various prisons, including the infamous Hanoi Hilton. He was held with John McCain, as well as Medal of Honor recipient Bud Day, who wrote the forward to the book. McCain is now a Republican senator from Arizona.

Day begins the book with some straightforward words: “This is a very big book about a very big man, with a big mind, and a huge, unshakable stoicism and innate common sense. These were exactly the qualities he called on to resist the brutal and inhumane conditions he faced as a prisoner of war.”

For much of the time he was there, Robinson said they subsisted on a bowl of rice and a cup and half of water a day.

“To this day I can’t pass a water fountain without seeing if it works,” he said.

He weighed 240 pounds when he was captured and dropped as low as 160. Before his release, he said, his captors “instituted a fattening-up program,” and they ate better.

The first person in line for his book-signing Friday was Vietnam veteran Hank Griffiths of Warner Robins. Griffiths bought five books, one for himself and others as Christmas presents.

Griffiths hadn’t read the book but said he has heard Robinson speak and was impressed with him.

“He speaks from the heart,” Griffiths said. “When you talk to him you get the feeling that he’s been there and done that.”

Originally from North Carolina, Robinson lives in Madisonville, Tenn. The book is available on Amazon.

To contact writer Wayne Crenshaw, call 256-9725.

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