ORIENTAL, N.C. — On Sept. 20, 1965, Airman First Class William A. Robinson’s life changed forever.
That was the day his U.S. Air Force rescue helicopter was shot down about 10 miles from the border of Laos in the Ha Tinh province of North Vietnam.
Robinson, who grew up in Roanoke Rapids, spoke about his ordeal and how he survived being the longest-held enlisted POW in the Vietnam War to the congregation of the First Baptist Church in Oriental on Sunday.
After he was captured, Robinson was beaten and tortured. At one point, his hands were tied and he was taken to an open grave. He thought that would be the end, he said.
“I was pleading with my heavenly Father,” Robinson said.
His captors did not shoot him. “I felt my life was spared for some reason,” he said.
Instead, Robinson was taken on a long journey to the infamous “Hanoi Hilton” with 25-foot walls, 18 inches thick and topped with barbed wire. At first, Robinson said he thought he was being taken there to be released. But as soon as he stepped in the prison, he realized that was not the case.
A voice called out saying: “Be prepared to die,” Robinson said.
Robinson said he quickly learned the battle cry at the Hanoi Hilton: “Return with honor,” even if that meant death.
Robinson endured eight years of captivity in a number of prison camps, including the Briarpatch located 33 miles west-northwest of Hanoi and various other compounds at Cu Loc, where he suffered daily privations and torture. No enlisted man in American military history has been held as a prisoner of war longer than Robinson. He is one of only 23 enlisted men ever to earn the Air Cross, the Air Force’s highest military honor.
A day in a prison camp was a bowl of rice for breakfast, a glass of water for lunch and bloating up for supper, he said, causing the congregation to laugh. The mainstay was usually French bread and rice with very little meat, Robinson said.
But the most important thing for the prisoners was communication. The Vietnamese captors would not allow them to talk, so they had their own tap codes that allowed the prisoners to communicate with each other throughout the prison. The Vietnamese could never figure out the code they were using.
Robinson said the strongest survival tools he had were faith in the Lord and the knowledge that people had gone through what he was going through and had made it home, like the American prisoners in World War II.
“They prepared the road for us,” Robinson said. “They inspired us. I had faith in myself, my country and most of all in our God that He would see us through.”
The most passed around verse in the prison camps was the 23rd Psalm, Robinson said.
“We prepared ourselves for whatever was to come,” he said. “…You can never give up. Never give in. Roll with the punches…Continue moving forward.”
Robinson said he spent six months in solitary confinement, but he never felt alone because of his faith.
The American Red Cross tried to send supplies to prisoners, but soldiers were finding those supplies on killed North Vietnamese, so the Red Cross stopped sending them. Although the prisoners were allowed to receive packages from home once a month, they rarely got everything that was sent to them, Robinson said.
Robinson said that, when he thinks about heroes, he thinks about the families, moms and wives who had to face each day and carry on while their loved ones were POWs. He also thinks about the South Vietnamese POWs who were held in cages.
To keep up morale, on Sundays the prisoners would face toward the east and say the Pledge of Allegiance. One of the prisoners, a man who Robinson called Mike, made a flag from a shirt.
But when their captors discovered the flag, they “went absolutely berserk,” Robinson said.
Mike was beaten and dragged out feet first and then severely tortured, he said.
He was dragged back into the prison feet first. After the prisoners helped nurse him back to health, Mike stood up and said it was “time for flag No. 2,” Robinson said.
“We didn’t ever give up,” he said.
Robinson was finally released in February 1973 and came home to a welcome that many of his “brothers” would not see.
“All I think about is my brothers brought back in the middle of the night and they were spat on,” he said. “They never received their proper due.”
Robinson said it was a sad moment in history. He also said he had a friend who was asked to describe freedom and his answer was “doors with inside knobs.”
Robinson also took time after telling his story to sign copies of his book “The Longest Rescue: The Live and Legacy of Vietnam POW William A. Robinson.”