Many facts and stories from previous conflicts remain in the spotlight long after they have passed. One that seems to elude many is the name of the longest surviving POW – USAF Airman First Class William Andrew Robinson. If asked, how many individuals would even be able to answer which conflict Bill was involved in?
Bill’s story begins on a typical mission day in Vietnam – September 20, 1965. By the end of the day though, the mission would result in a life that was anything but typical. And while most POWs have been interned for a number of years, Bill Robinson would endure 7 years and 5 months of captivity – the longest POW internment in US military history.
The mission of the Huskie Helicopter that Robinson and several others boarded that morning remains unclear. The chopper was shot down, however, and Robinson and those aboard were all taken prisoner.
Robinson was transported to what was known as the “Hanoi Hilton Prison” by the North Vietnamese Army. For the next seven years, Bill Robinson survived unthinkable conditions. He was beaten, starved and often witnessed the death of his fellow prisoners.
Bill was finally released on February 12, 1973. He accredits previous WWII, as well as Korean War, POWs for his survival. He notes their experiences proved it was possible to survive the horrific day-to-day struggles of a POW.
Overview of Robinson’s Military Career
Robinson’s military career started just after graduation from high school in 1961. After his training, he served stateside in Oklahoma and North Dakota and eventually overseas in Korea prior to being sent to Vietnam. In April of 1965, Bill’s tour of duty in Vietnam was scheduled to last only four months. Those four months, however, turned into almost eight years. He describes his internment as boring “punctuated by terror” and notes the only communication he had with his fellow Americans was through a tap code they had devised.
Bill said he was able to survive by continually telling himself he was only in Vietnam for three days. “I was shot down yesterday; today was today; and I was going to the house tomorrow.” He remembers continually preparing himself for the prospect of being released and going home. He knew he must remain strong – both physically and mentally – in order to survive.
Upon his release, Bill Robinson was commissioned to Lieutenant, but he always remains humble about his captivity. He notes that he is but one of 7.3 million who can his story, because he survived. Thousands upon thousands of stories died with those who did not survive their internment.
Robinson continued his service and retired a Captain in 1984. During his career, he was awarded the Air Force Cross, the Silver Star, the Legion of Merit, the Bronze Star, the POW Medal and two Purple Hearts.
Robinson is remembered by many as one who set the standard for maintaining honorable duty even under the most unbearable conditions. William Andrew Robinson, the longest surviving US military POW, has no doubt proven himself to be a true survivor.