by Dave Smith
21st Space Wing Public Affairs staff writer
PETERSON AIR FORCE BASE, Colo. — July 1, 1972 then Maj. Paul Robinson fired up his F4E “Phantom” jet and prepared for what he thought would be a MIG sweep mission, rooting out enemy aircraft. However, he said it turned into a SAM (surface-to-air missile) day and changed his life.
Retired Col. Robinson spoke at the POW/MIA Remembrance ceremony held at the Peterson AFB Chapel Sept. 18 as part of POW/MIA week events on the base.
On that fateful day he said the first SAM hit the jet, occupied by Robinson and his navigator, and turned it into a ball of flame. The men immediately ejected just in time to see a second missile strike the now-burning craft, annihilating it.
Fortunately neither man was seriously injured, unfortunately they had to eject north of Hanoi in North Vietnam, land in the midst of the enemy and were captured immediately. He was stripped down to his “yellow Jockey shorts” and beat up a bit before being transported to the infamous Hanoi Hilton prison.
Robinson spent the first few days of his 270 days of captivity under interrogation, or “quizzing” as it was known. He succeeded in getting to the second level of interrogation without revealing any military information and finally faced camp commander, “The Weasel” in a quiz.
The Weasel demanded he sign documents stating anti-U.S. sentiments, which he refused. The Weasel was not happy and told Robinson, through an interpreter, that he would be dead by morning. Obviously that didn’t happen. Instead he was placed in a cell with 20 other prisoners.
Communication was a key to encouraging each other Robinson said. Tap and hand codes were the main ways prisoners communicated with each other. The food was not great – mostly pumpkin and some kind of spinach he called “weeds,” temperatures were very hot or very cold and the propaganda was endless. Yet, they found ways to entertain themselves.
“We had a ball up there,” he deadpanned. “We figured out ways to stay entertained.”
Prisoners would “tell” movies, explaining them verbally to cellmates, for example. They even devised a makeshift Newlywed Game where front and back-seaters had to demonstrate how well they knew each other. Robinson even taught a French class.
Torture is one of the most common topics when Vietnam POWs come to mind, but Robinson said he was not tortured, much to his surprise. He attributed the lack of torture to the spouses of POWs and their activism back home. Initially spouses were told not to talk to the media about captured family members, but after word got out about torture being used on prisoners, the wives got organized.
They started the National League of Families of American Prisoners and Missing in Southeast Asia in 1970 to get better treatment and release for military prisoners. That group, along with public outrage led to torture being stopped in 1969 he said.
“Spouses are the unsung heroes,” Robinson said.
He was released in March, 1973 as part of Operation Homecoming. Robinson recalled the overwhelmingly positive reception he received upon returning to American soil and then again when he was reunited with his family.
“It was that and ceremonies like today that softened the experience,” he said.
Robinson said that the more than 80,000 MIAs from U.S. wars are not forgotten. A friend who went missing in action still weighs heavily upon his heart.
“Our hearts go out to the families who will never know the fates of their warriors,” Robinson said.
In closing Robinson quoted former POW and then-Capt. Jeremiah Denton’s words when stepping off the plane on U.S. soil as the most amazing thing he heard said.
“We are honored to have had the opportunity to serve our country under difficult circumstances. We are profoundly grateful to our Commander-in-Chief and to our nation for this day. God bless America.”