An incredible obituary, by a man who “met” him under a steel prison door in the Hanoi Hilton.
Risner was not only a three-war veteran and an ace (in Korea), but one of the greatest leaders of the 4th Allied POW Wing.
James Robinson Risner was a man of humble origins, son of an Arkansas sharecropper, educated at secondary school level, not particularly ambitious, a common man save for two things: He could fly the hell out of an airplane; and, under terribly difficult circumstances as a prisoner of war in North Vietnam, he rose to a level of heroic leadership matched by few men in American military history.
Raised in a religious family, Risner made his first critical life choice between attending Bible College or joining the Army Air Forces during World War II. When he passed the tough entrance exam for pilot training by one point, he took it as a vector from God, and his future aloft was set.
Flying came easily to the gifted trainee, which led to a coveted assignment flying fighters after graduation. But Robbie’s repeated requests for combat duty were ignored by the Army’s personnel system, and he spent the rest of the war defending the Panama Canal.
Postwar peace and return to civilian life brought mundane employment for Risner as an auto mechanic, a service station manager and a short stint running a service garage. What mattered to him was the chance to fly P-51s with the Oklahoma Air National Guard, a path that would continue leading toward his destiny.
It was the Korean War that put Robbie Risner’s name on the map of aerial warriors of that era, and became what he described decades later as the most gratifying period of his life. He finagled his way out of his recalled Guard unit into a front line air combat Group equipped with the best aircraft of the period, and paid back the favor by shooting down 8 MIGs. He also pulled off other incredible feats of airmanship. He once pushed the damaged and fuel-starved plane of his wingman with the nose of his own aircraft out of hostile skies into friendly territory for a safe bailout. That is the stuff of which legends are made.
While the Korean War may have been Risner’s favorite period, it was by no means the most consequential in the lives of others. It would take another war, and an extraordinary set of circumstances for that to occur.
That is definitely a Read The Whole Thing™ story, written as it is by one of Risner’s fellow Hanoi Hilton inmates. With a handful of exceptions, the POWs showed America that hardship doesn’t beat true character down. It makes it rise. They showed the world, and especially the North Vietnamese, that you could take a fighter pilot out of his machine, an SF guy away from his team, an American fighting man of any kind away from all the creature comforts that travel with the American way of war — and still have a fight on your hands.
Risner’s been gone for some months now. Don’t know what occasioned this story, but we were very glad, and very humbled, to read it.