Nine Feet Tall
By John T. Correll
Air Force Magazine
The picture on the Time magazine cover for April 23, 1965, was Air Force Lt. Col. Robinson Risner. The cover story, “The Fighting American,” featured 10 US military members in Vietnam, with fighter pilot Risner—a rising star in the Air Force—foremost among them.
“At the time it was a great honor,” Risner said. “But later, in prison, I would have much cause to regret that Time had ever heard of me.”
On Sept. 16, Risner was shot down over North Vietnam and captured. The additional bad news was that the North Vietnamese had seen Time magazine and knew who he was. “Some good soul from the United States had sent them the copy,” he said, “and they thought I was much more important than I ever was.”
The magazine article told them not only that Risner was an F-105 squadron commander who had led 18 missions against North Vietnam, but also that he was a Korean War ace, having shot down eight MiGs. It also disclosed details about his family. His captors knew they had an important officer and were determined to break him. “The Vietnamese regarded Robbie as their No. 1 one prized prisoner,” said Col. Gordon Larson, a fellow POW. “Robbie was by far the most abused POW there because of who they thought he was.” All of the POWs were tortured and ill-treated, but Risner got an extra portion.
Risner was a leader among the airmen held by the North Vietnamese, first as senior-ranking officer and then as vice commander of the 4th Allied POW Wing formed in Hoa Lo Prison, the infamous “Hanoi Hilton.” According to Larson, Risner was “the most influential and effective POW there.