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Long-held Vietnam War POW returns to Grand Forks Air Force Base

GRAND FORKS AIR FORCE BASE--After more than half a century away, retired U.S. Air Force Capt. Bill Robinson returned Thursday to Grand Forks Air Force Base.

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Capt. William Robinson laughs after responding to a question before getting on stage to speak at the Grand Forks Air Force Base near Grand Forks, ND on Thursday, August 18, 2016. (Joshua Komer/Grand Forks Herald)

GRAND FORKS AIR FORCE BASE-After more than half a century away, retired U.S. Air Force Capt. Bill Robinson returned Thursday to Grand Forks Air Force Base.

Robinson, who was stationed in North Dakota for about five months before deploying in 1965 to serve in the Vietnam War, holds an undesirable distinction. After spending more than seven years as a prisoner of war-2,703 days, to be exact-Robinson is now known as the longest-held enlisted POW in U.S. history.

The airman, 72, returned to base for the first time since his imprisonment in Vietnam to share his story of survival Thursday morning before an audience of uniformed Air Force members in a hangar on base.

"It took me 51 years to get back to Grand Forks, so I'm officially signing in to my (temporary deployment) that I left in April of 1965," Robinson said. "At least they know I'm not lost."

Robinson's ordeal began with what he believed would be a routine combat rescue mission to retrieve a downed U.S. pilot.

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"I jokingly said our intention was to pick him up, dust him off, give him a beer and send him back to work," Robinson said. "But that particular day, that wasn't going to happen."

Robinson said he and the rest of the crew aboard the rescue helicopter took fire from a local militia before plummeting about 90 feet to the ground below. He and others survived the crash landing and were eventually captured and marched into a local village.

Robinson said it wasn't long after that before the beatings began. At the time of his capture, he was 21 years old.

Robinson told the audience that his life as a POW could be described as one of long periods of boredom "punctuated by terror."

He said prisoners were routinely subjected to beatings and other forms of torture as a means of extracting military information, but also to shape them into propaganda tools.

Robinson spoke of a day early in his captivity when he was pulled from his cell and forced to kneel before a freshly dug grave. One of his captors, he recalled, read off a list of supposed war crimes committed by Robinson and summarily sentenced him to execution.

Though armed guards stood behind him, a death blow never came. Robinson was dragged back to his cell and his confinement went on. The mock trial was a frightening event, but Robinson was still able to use it as a source of inspiration.

"From that point on, I was convinced that survival was possible," he said Thursday, adding that he "drew on everything I had," including memories of watching footage of World War II and Korean War POWs returning home from their own ordeals.

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By the time he was 22, Robinson had been transferred to the hands of the North Vietnamese Army and was taken to the infamous prison facility known as the Hanoi Hilton. It was there, Robinson said, that he jokingly referred to himself as a "welcoming party" for future U.S. Sen. John McCain, R-Ariz., who was also held at that same camp.

Almost immediately after Robinson arrived at his tiny cell in the Hilton, he said an unseen neighboring prisoner instructed him to "be prepared to die for your country."

Robinson said that other prisoner, James Robinson Risner, who would later become a highly decorated U.S. Air Force general, soon followed up on his initial instruction.

"If we survive, we must return with honor," Robinson remembered Risner saying. "You might say that everything we stood for was in just those few words."

Years later, as U.S. involvement in the Vietnam conflict drew to an official close, Robinson said he "witnessed the greatest fireworks show on Earth," during the Linebacker II bombing campaign. That series of B-52 bomber raids was carried out in response to a North Vietnamese retraction of concessions, particularly those regarding the return of POWs, during peace negotiations.

Robinson credited Linebacker II with aiding the release of the American POWs and spoke fondly of the "big, beautiful bomber" that can be seen displayed at the entrance of Grand Forks Air Force Base.

With the conclusion of the war, Robinson was released and returned home, where he continued his service with the Air Force until his retirement.

In his remarks to the servicemen and women before him, Robinson concluded with a message of the crucial importance of the sacrifices made by members of the U.S. military.

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"You might say that, in some ways, America is a land of dreamers," he said. "Some people dream the dream, and some people live the dream. Our armed forces defend the dream."

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