by Dave Smith
21st Space Wing Public Affairs staff writer
9/22/2015 - 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
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
"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
"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."