Robbie Risner was laid to rest today.
Most Americans in 2014 have no idea who he is, but there was a time when he was perhaps the most famous man in America.
The short version of his bio goes something like this: James Robinson “Robbie” Risner was born in 1925 in Mammoth Spring, Ark. His father, a sharecropper and laborer and—eventually—a used car salesman, made his way by 1931 to Tulsa, Okla., where young Robbie held down a half-dozen part-time jobs to help out his family. He was also a regular attendee at the First Assembly of God Church. Not long after he graduated from high school in 1942, he joined what was then called the U.S. Army Air Corps, earning both his pilot wings and his officer’s commission in May 1944. He missed combat action in World War II, being assigned to the Panama Canal Zone instead.
After the war, Risner joined the Oklahoma Air National Guard and learned to fly ever-faster planes. During the Korean War, he flew the F-86 Sabre, scoring eight MiG-15 shoot-downs. On one memorable day in 1952, Risner’s wingman lost his engine. Risner poked the nose of his plane into the tail of his wingman’s plane and essentially pushed his wingman out of enemy territory. The wingman bailed out over the ocean, but he became entangled in his parachute and drowned. Risner himself nearly crashed. The fuel he expended pushing and maneuvering his wingman’s plane had caused him to run out of gas. He glided into a “dead-stick landing.”
Risner’s derring-do earned him notoriety and special assignments. To commemorate Charles Lindbergh’s transatlantic flight, Risner flew an F-100 from New York to Paris in six hours and 37 minutes, then a record. By 1965 he was a lieutenant colonel and the commander of a squadron of F-105s in Vietnam. Risner’s exploits in Vietnam earned him the Air Force Cross—second only to the Medal of Honor—and landed him on the cover of Time on April 23, 1965. He was perhaps the most famous fighter pilot on the planet.
But on Sept. 16, 1965, Risner’s 55th combat mission, his plane took heavy fire and burst into flames. Risner ejected, was captured, and became a POW at the infamous Hanoi Hilton, where he endured terrible torture. When his captors realized his fame, they taunted him with the Time cover and tortured him all the more. He spent more than seven years as a POW. As the ranking Air Force officer and as a committed Christian, Risner inspired his fellow prisoners with his character, leadership, and calls for resistance. He sometimes had to endure torture for holding religious services for the other POWs. After the war, Risner’s memoir, The Passing of the Night: My Seven Years as a Prisoner of the North Vietnamese, became a best-seller. He wrote, “To make it, I prayed by the hour. It was automatic, almost subconscious. I did not ask God to take me out of it. I prayed he would give me strength to endure it. When it would get so bad that I did not think I could stand it, I would ask God to ease it and somehow I would make it. He kept me.”
Risner eventually rose to the rank of brigadier general. The very symbol of courage under pressure, his war experiences—including long separations from his family—nonetheless took a toll. While he languished in the Hanoi Hilton, Risner’s mother and brother died. The absence also took a toll on his marriage: He divorced his wife Kathleen in 1975 after 29 years of marriage. He soon remarried—to the widow of a fighter pilot. They remained married to the end of his life, which came last year, on Oct. 22, following a stroke. For a variety of reasons, his funeral takes place at Arlington National Cemetery today.
The last years of Risner’s life were filled with honors. One of them was a 9-foot statue erected at the U.S. Air Force Academy in Colorado Springs. Why 9 feet? Because Risner said when he heard his fellow prisoners singing “God Bless America,” he felt 9 feet tall. When Gen. Mark Welsh, Air Force chief of staff, heard of his passing, he said, “Robbie Risner was part of that legendary group who served in three wars, built an Air Force, and gave us an enduring example of courage. Today’s airmen know we stand on the shoulders of giants. One of ’em is 9 feet tall … and headed west in full afterburner.”