By Steve Brady
21st Space Wing Public Affairs Office
PETERSON AIR FORCE BASE, Colo. — A jet cutting through the cool, overcast sky provided a somber backdrop for the Peterson POW/MIA ceremony Sept. 20 at the base chapel.
The guest speaker was retired Col. Paul Robinson, an Air Force pilot taken as a POW in Vietnam July 1, 1972. He was held captive until March 28, 1973, when he was released following the signing of the Paris Peace Treaty in January. He shared his story of being held prisoner.
Robinson was assigned to the 469th Tactical Fighter Squadron at Korat Royal Thai Air Base, Thailand, in January 1972. On July 1, he was flying an F-4 Phantom on a patrol mission over Vietnam when his aircraft was hit by a surface to air missile.
He ejected and landed in a rice paddy north of Hanoi, and was quickly surrounded by farmers and a militia. They stripped him of his uniform, blindfold and beat him, and took him to the infamous Hanoi Hilton for interrogation.
He was held there with hundreds of other POWs — about 700 were held POW during the Vietnam War — in poor conditions. They slept on cement floors with only a rice mat and subsisted on a diet of pumpkin and wheat soup.
“I did come out in relatively good shape,” Robinson said, as torturing the POWs had ended in 1969. Robinson credited the “unsung heroines,” the POWs’ wives who took their plight to Congress and the media, demanding better treatment of their loved ones, as well as the American people who launched a letter-writing campaign demanding that the torture stop.
“Did it make a difference? Yes it did,” Robinson said.
The POW group stayed in communication through a system of tapping and hand signals, and kept morale up by playing cards and organizing educational classes.
“We survived by using our Air Force training, teamwork, communicating and living up to our motto ‘Return with honor,’” he said.
“Recognizing the POW/MIA week is a unique experience that recognizes our trials as prisoners of war,” Robinson said. “It also recognizes that the American people were united on one thing during the war in Vietnam, and that was the treatment of the POWs, and they wanted to get them home.”
Robinson said he did not want to forget the MIAs. One of his best friends, Maj. John Overlock, was also a pilot who took off and was never seen again.
“We looked for him and could never find him. We’re still not sure what happened to him, but he was a very good friend and I miss him today.”
“There are many, many spouses today who have never had their husbands accounted for,” Robinson said. “There are still 1,800 missing in Vietnam. Our hearts go out to the families of the MIAs. They don’t know how or where their spouse died.”
More than 83,000 Americans are missing from World War II, the Korean War, the Cold War, the Vietnam War and the 1991 Gulf War according to the Defense Prisoner of War Missing Personnel Office.
You are not forgotten.