In The Longest Rescue: The Life and Legacy of Vietnam POW William A. Robinson (University Press of Kentucky, 259 pp., $31.50, hardcover, $19.25 e-book) the historian Glenn Robins brings a scholarly treatment to his subjects’s time as a Vietnam War POW, as well as the rest of his life.
Unlike most Vietnam War POWs Robinson was an enlisted man. In fact, he holds the record for the longest term as an enlisted Vietnam War prisoner: eight years. After several stateside deployments, he worked out of Thailand as part of USAF air rescue crews, manually (that is, looking down directly into the jungle) helping chopper pilots as they lowered hundred-foot cables to downed pilots. Before the fateful day in 1965 when he himself was shot down, Robinson had received a Silver Star not for his exploits—as Robinson, a modest man, would be certain to say—but for doing his job well.
William Robinson’s capture resulted in the iconic photo of him (which appears on the cover), a big man, with his head downcast, being ushered at gunpoint down a village path by a girl not half his size. The photo of Robinson and “the guerrilla girl” had great propaganda value for the North Vietnamese, symbolizing a small nation—North Vietnam—standing up to an overwhelming enemy, America.
The photo was entirely staged shortly after Robinson’s capture, and the girl, Nguyen Kim Lai, knew no more about what was going on than Robinson did. Robins, a thorough writer, relates how Robinson and Kim Lai met again in 1995 when a Japanese documentary crew brought them together. They had a peaceful, cordial meeting, and it might even be said that they struck up a friendship.
Robinson spent his eight years in various prisons around Hanoi. Some were new, some were primitive, and some a vestige of the French era. He was tortured—most damagingly, with the rope torture in which his arms were yanked behind his back at the elbows, then tied to the ceiling. Horrible at this must have been, it was the prolonged bad food, and the scarcity of it, that was perhaps his worst ordeal. Robins delivers a harrowing account of Robinson’s appendectomy, which he endured with only a local anesthetic.
Robins, a history professor at Georgia Southwestern State University, also weaves in the stories of other POWs. Most fascinating of these may be that of Marine Lt. Col. Edison Miller and Navy Commander Walter Eugene Wilber, who—presumably to avoid torture—went over to the other side and tried to convince other POWs to do the same. These two are mentioned fairly often in POW memoirs, but they probably deserve their own book.
Robinson was well liked by other prisoners. He was cheerful, practical, and had a good sense of humor. A gifted mechanic, he kept things running. These characteristics would describe him in civilian life, too.
His father spent his POW pay, but Robinson forgave him—and kept forgiving him. When he returned, with a battlefield commission as a lieutenant, Robinson worked through his life-lasting injuries, and made a career in the Air Force. As a civilian, he took on ordinary jobs, put up with a difficult marriage before settling into a good one, and supported POW/MIA causes.
In his ordinariness, he’s an extraordinary man.