JOINT BASE CHARLESTON, S.C. --
Retired U.S. Air Force Capt. William Robinson, the longest surviving enlisted prisoner of war, visited here as the guest speaker at an awards ceremony for the 437th Maintenance Group, March 17.
"I heard him speak at the NCO Academy and was amazed," said Tech. Sgt. John Paull, 437th Aircraft Maintenance special operations flight expeditor. "I reach out to him to be our guest speaker because our award ceremony theme was 'Resilient Airman.' Being an aircraft maintainer who was the longest held enlisted POW in American history made him the perfect choice."
Robinson enlisted in the Air Force Nov. 22, 1961 as a helicopter mechanic. He was aboard a helicopter with a pilot, copilot and pararescueman when they were shot down approximately 50 miles from the Vietnam-Laos boarder, Sept. 20, 1965.
The four Airmen survived the crash. The copilot was able to make his way to Laos where he was later captured and killed in an escape attempt. The remaining three were captured and taken to Hanoi, the capital city, where they were kept in solitary confinement and paraded around the city for propaganda.
“I was taken to a small cell,” said Robinson. “I could stretch my arms out in any direction and touch the walls. The only things we had were a small bed and a bucket.”
Robinson and the other prisoners developed a tap code to communicate with each other. They made a square, with five rows of five letters, by taking out a letter in the alphabet. To send messages, Robinson and the others would tap the concrete wall using the corresponding rows and letters.
“Even though we were in solitary confinement we were able to communicate with a tap code,” said Robinson. “We came up with a saying to keep ourselves going, ‘Never give up, never give in. Roll with the punches, bounce back and be ready for the next round.’”
After nearly eight years in captivity, Robinson and the others were rescued by a B-52 Stratofortress, Feb. 12, 1973. Robinson was commissioned as a maintenance officer when he returned to the United States. He was medically retired 11 years later in 1984.
Today, Robinson speaks about his experience to ensure another generation of veterans is not forgotten.
“It was a great opportunity to have the younger Airmen see and hear what the older generation went through,” said Paull. “We often forget about the past and only focus on the now. Most of the Airmen these days will never experience an event like Capt. Robinson and his crew. If we don’t value our heritage, we won’t be able to pass our traditions and values to future generations of Airmen."