The Longest Rescue by Glenn Robins


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.

William Robinson signing copies of The Longest Rescue

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.

—John Mort

More Than Merely Names by Patricia B. Hopper

The latest edition of MORE THAN MERELY NAMES: An Updated List of Prisoners of War and Missing in Action from Southeast Asia (Task Force Omega, 362 pp., $28, paper) provides an alphabetized list of information about 3,768 American military personnel, civilians, and foreign nationals who have been listed as POW/MIA or KIA/BNR (body not recovered) from the Vietnam War.

This loosely bound book, first published in 1998, is the work of Task Force Omega’s chair, Patricia Hopper. Her nonprofit group works for a full accounting,and the return of POWs and MIAs who, Hopper says, “have the right to return home, whether they are alive or dead.” Hooper believes that there still are, as she puts it in the book, “live American Prisoners of War in Southeast Asia and our government knows it!”

The individual listings that make up the heart of the book contain the missing person’s original rank, the promoted-to rank, incident date, country of loss, branch of service, incident date, status in 1973, current status, home of record, birthday, name location on the Vietnam Veterans Memorial, and other information.

The book’s website is  www.taskforceomegainc.org/index_files/Page903.html

—Marc Leepson

The Last Man Home by Susan Preiss Martin

Susan Preiss Martin’s The Last Man Home (CreateSpace, 94 pp., $11.95, paper) deals with the mysteries surrounding the death of a Special Forces soldier, Staff Sergeant Robert F. Preiss, Jr. The author is SSGT Preiss’s sister. Susan Preiss Martin tells us that she is not an author or a writer, but a story teller. She does have a story to tell. 

Bobby Preiss was deployed to South Vietnam for his first tour of duty December 1966. His sister tells us that Preiss was a high school dropout and a small town troublemaker who was given that classic option by a judge: jail or the Army.  In those days the Army needed cannon fodder, so Preiss went into the Army. Preiss did well in the Army, responding particularly well to the training and the discipline.

He didn’t do so well when he returned to civilian life, so he re-upped without losing his rank because he had been out of the Army less than a year. The last letter Bobby Preiss wrote to his mother was received on May 9, 1970.  In it, Bobby Preiss reminded his mother he had just six months left to serve in South Vietnam. He had just returned from an R&R in Australia. 

“He wished his mother a Happy Mother’s Day and that was that,” Martin writes. 

The family wanted to know more about had happened to Bobby Preiss. His status had started out as MIA, but it was then changed to KIA. The author says, “We knew we would never find out the truth.”

General Westmoreland took time from his tennis game to write the Preiss family. “Perhaps you may find some measure of comfort in knowing that he served his nation with courage and honor at a time of great need,” the General wrote. 

Both of SSGT Preiss’ parents died without knowing the details of their son’s death. His mother died of a broken heart, Martin says, half thinking that her boy was wandering lost in Southeast Asia. His father died bitter and angry about the lies the Army told him.

Bobby Priess’s siblings kept up the fight to learn the truth about his death, and also demanded that the government retrieve Bobby’s remains for proper burial in the U.S. I won’t ruin the suspense by spelling out what was discovered about SSGT Preiss’s death in Laos as a leader of a MACV-SOC Long Range Recon Team, but I will say that I was satisfied with this story when Preiss received a hero’s burial at Arlington National Cemetery. This happened in 1998, twenty-eight years after his death.

The author comments at length about how different Bobby’s welcome home in 1998 was than it would have been in 1970. Different and better. He did get parades and ceremonies and honors bestowed, but the thought looms large for me that Bobby was dead.

Martin discusses how returning Vietnam War veterans were treated badly and that had Bobby returned alive in 1970 he, “would have been treated like a leper.”  She goes on to say that all of the men who returned from Vietnam “were treated like lepers. Yes, it was horrible how Vietnam veterans were treated then and still today.”

I believe that Martin has gone a bit overboard here. But I agree with her statement that: “those who have not died since from medical issues are still fighting for justice and health benefits.”

As Martin implies, SSGT Preiss, her beloved brother, avoided all the problems that a returning Vietnam veteran encountered in the 1970’s, perhaps even PTSD, Agent Orange issues, and other related problems.  We’ll never know. Bobby got no chance.

Martin tells us that her brother “floundered” after his discharge in October 1968.  As she puts it: “I don’t think he brought his heart home.”

While home, he discovered that some of his childhood friends had “got married, some went to jail, and some died.” Bobby missed the discipline, respect, and purpose of being a Green Beret. So he opted to return to Vietnam, knowing there was the possibility of dying in action. And it came to pass.

This book includes many photographs of Bobby Preiss, his medals, and his family. The book is a monument to him. Read this book for an inside look and a griping story of how a soldier’s decision to return to war had a huge impact on everyone in his family. The survivors now have closure and a feeling of peace and reconciliation.

If you wish to read an exciting book about what Green Berets such Bobby Preiss did in Vietnam and Laos, a good one to read is John Rixey Moore’s Hostage of Paradox. Moore beat the odds and came back home and wrote a great memoir. Read it in Bobby’s memory.

 —David Willson

Glory Denied by Tom Philpott

Glory Denied: The Saga of Jim Thompson, America’s Longest-Held Prisoner of War, which was published in 2001, is now out in a new paperback edition (Norton, 496 pp., $16.95).

As we noted in our review in the April/May 2001 “Books in Review” column in the The VVA Veteran, the subject of the book is Col. Floyd James Thompson. The former Green Beret was captured by the Viet Cong in March 1964 and held longer than any other prisoner of war in American history. Thompson suffered greatly during his nine years of captivity, physically and emotionally.

While he was held by the Viet Cong, Thompson’s wife moved with their four young children into the home of an Army sergeant. The Thompsons reunited after his release, but their marriage soon dissolved. Thompson later suffered a stroke that diminished his mental capabilities.

In Glory Denied, syndicated newspaper columnist Tom Philpott (left) tells Jim Thompson’s story mainly through the verbatim testimony of his family, friends, and colleagues. Much of Thompson’s own contributions come from interviews he gave for another book prior to his stroke.

—Marc Leepson

Six Degrees of the Bracelet by John Siegfried

While rummaging through his late mother-in-law’s belongings in 2009, John Siegfried, a military historian, discovered a silver POW/MIA bracelet inscribed “Colonel Myron Donald.” Intrigued, Siegfried made contact with Myron Donald, a former POW who was imprisoned by the North Vietnamese for five years. Moved by his face-to-face meeting with Donald, Siegfried embarked on a nationwide journey to meet with additional Vietnam veterans and families of those still listed as missing in action.

In Six Degrees of the Bracelet: Vietnam’s Continuing Grip (Xlibris, 356 pp., $22.99 hardcover; 15.99, paper), Siegfried documents the moving encounters and troubling stories he unearthed during his travels. Focusing on the themes of sacrifice, struggle, and remembrance, Siegfried seeks to memorialize, honor, and tell the stories of those who endured the harshest of conditions while serving in Vietnam.

From accounts of ongoing battles with post-traumatic stress disorder to stories of wives still unsure of the whereabouts of their husbands, Siegfried transforms what could be clichéd stories of war into personal accounts of pain, uncertainty, endurance, and, in some cases, triumph.

—Dale Sprusansky

Left Alive To Die by Susan Keen

Susan Keen’s Left Alone to Die: The Story of Blue Angel Leader CAPT Harley Hall (Hannibal Books, 192 pp., $14.95, paper) is a tribute to the last American pilot who was shot down over Vietnam. Harley Hall, a Navy F-4 Phantom pilot on his third Vietnam War tour of duty, had been a member of the famed Navy Blue Angels flying aerobatic flight team.

Keen presents evidence that Hall was captured alive after he was shot down on January 27, 1973. She uses a lot of reconstructed dialogue based on interviews with Hall’s wife Mary Lou and other members of his family, friends, and fellow Navy fliers to tell the story of Hall’s life as a Blue Angel (including his two years as the group’s commander), his Vietnam War experiences, and his family’s ordeal since 1973.

Throughout the book Keen offers the highest words for praise for Mary Lou Hall and for Harley Hall. “With her equanimity and aplomb, Mary Lou moves forward [today] like the indomitable, spirited woman she is,” Keen says in the book’s final paragraph, which ends with this sentence, commenting on a tribute paid to Harley Hall by Adm. Jim Maslowski in July of 2000 at the dedication of the H.H. Hall Professional Building in Vancouver, Washington:

“Jim’s poignant tribute to his fellow Blue Angel, his mentor, and his friend… [serves] not only as a reminder of Hall’s efforts on behalf of America, of liberty, of the people’s vote, and of family, but also as [a summary] of the life of Harley H. Hall—the best of the best!”

—Marc Leepson