Annual POW/MIA ceremony held at Museum of Aviation

WARNER ROBINS — Most people across the developed world knew or saw Neil Armstrong walk on the moon in July 1969 within moments of the event.

Retired U.S. Air Force Capt. Bill Robinson found out months later when he saw a depiction of Armstrong’s famous “small step” on a pack of candy.

Robinson was incarcerated in North Vietnam’s Ho Loa Prison — aka “The Hanoi Hilton” — and prisoners “had no amenities like radio, television, newspapers” and other niceties of freedom, Robinson said.

Robinson was part of a POW/MIA ceremony held Thursday at the Museum of Aviation to honor military members who remain unaccounted for or were imprisoned during wartime. National POW/MIA Recognition Day is Friday. The annual event was attended by more than 200 active duty military, members of the community, veterans and former POWs.

On Sept. 20, 1965, as a 22-year-old enlisted man from Roanoke Rapids, N.C., Robinson was shot down over North Vietnam while on an Air Force mission in a HH-43B Husky helicopter. Robinson and 10 other airmen were almost immediately seized by North Vietnamese Army troops.

He didn’t breathe free air again for more than seven years.

The conditions were beyond austere, Robinson said, with hunger overcoming the POWs revulsion toward the twice daily soup that was made of some sort of plant type they didn’t want to identify.

A holiday meant a single cup of coffee, which came about twice a year, Robinson said.

“We survived. We survived there because of the sacrifices of those who are still missing in action over there,” Robinson said.

Like the moon landing, news did filter into the camp. Once a picture of Robinson’s family came through “it had people in it that I didn’t recognize.”

One turned out to be a fellow prisoners wife, and that led the POWs to believe their families were banding together.

“Morale was high and morale was low at different points throughout the years,” Robinson said.

The POWs were abused, witnessed beatings, starved and lost precious family moments, but persevered, Robinson said.

Robinson’s actions, and those of all POWs and MIAs are inspiring to soldiers, airmen, sailors and marines still in uniform, said U.S. Marine Corps Lt. Col. Michael Johnson, commander of the newly installed Marine Aircraft Group Detachment A at Robins Air Force Base.

“As a helicopter pilot, (Robinson’s) story is near and dear to my heart, as I have often contemplated being shot down in combat,” Johnson said. “Each time I am fortunate enough to meet a POW, I come away prouder to be an American. ... Our deployments pale to the time these gentleman spent away from their families.”

To contact writer Shelby G. Spires, call 744-4494.