Colonel Robinson Risner 1973 – Retired as Brigadier General in 1976

“I want to show that the smartest and the bravest rely on their faith in God and our way of life,” was Robinson Risner’s answer to why he wrote The Passing of the Night: My Seven Years as a Prisoner of the North Vietnamese. 2008 marks the 35th anniversary of the release of American prisoners of war from North Vietnam and the publication of Risner’s often horrific but ultimately triumphant account.

Many books written by and about American military prisoners during the Vietnam War focus on the deep Christian faith of many of these captives. Their prayers and cries to God depict desperate circumstances, but also a sustaining and unwavering faith in the face of horrendous torture and cruelty. Risner’s account expresses a beautifully simple faith. By simple I mean he absolutely believed in the power of prayer and for God to give him strength to endure his dark trial. He notes in his book:

To make it, I prayed by the hour. It was automatic, almost subconscious. I did not ask God to take me out of it. I prayed he would give me strength to endure it. When it would get so bad that I did not think I could stand it, I would ask God to ease it and somehow I would make it. He kept me.

Finally, though, the pain and aching increased to where I did not think I could stand it any longer. One day I prayed, ‘Lord, I have to some relief from this pain.’ I quoted the Biblical verse that He would hear us and that we would never be called upon to take more than we could bear.

Risner was shot down twice over North Vietnam. He was captured the second time in September of 1965 and taken to the Hanoi Hilton. As a senior ranking officer Risner was marked for additional torture and solitary confinement while in prison. Eventually he would spend a number of years in solitary confinement.

Risner was also featured on a Time Magazine Cover in April of 1965 as an American pilot serving in Vietnam. Risner’s picture on the cover of Time undoubtedly contributed to his abuse and the resolve of the North Vietnamese to break his spirit and beliefs. The North Vietnamese felt he was a celebrity figure in America, and breaking him would lessen the resolve of others who looked to him for leadership. Senator John McCain, the most well known prisoner at the Hanoi Hilton, credited Robinson Risner as one of the leaders who helped sustain him and that Risner would always be a hero to him.

Risner and other senior officers orchestrated a campaign of resistance to limit and sabotage the use of military prisoners for propaganda purposes and to maintain a military posture and morale all despite continued torture. Risner showed his resolve after spending 32 days in stocks attached to his bed, and forced to lie in his own waste. When he was brought to his first torture session his arms were bound and his shoulders were pulled out of his sockets. Then his feet were hoisted up behind him, and his ribs were separated. Risner tried to slam his head against the cement in order to knock himself out because the pain was so unbearable. Risner describes the pain as incredibly horrific and the screams were so deep and vicious he did not think they were his own.

He discusses a time when he was in stocks for so long he had to get out and by prayer he says he was able to unlock them. Another time he prayed for the annoying prison speaker to stop its incessant noise and it ceased. Risner’s book is full of fascinating stories and the will of so many American fighters to always resist in whatever way they could. He talks about the importance of communication, the tap code, and how it saved lives.

Risner was especially adroit at showing little emotion when the North Vietnamese tried a carrot and stick approach. In fact, when American prisoners finally felt like they were going to leave for real after being informed, they showed no emotion. They would not give their captors the satisfaction.
Furthermore when conditions finally improved for prisoners and many of them were no longer isolated, he led the resistance to fight for Church services regardless of the consequences. It is a heartfelt story that Risner depicts well. Most of the senior officers were pulled out of the group and isolated in stocks in a fight for the freedom to worship.

The Passing of the Night is a story about faith and the commitment to return with honor. There is of course a strong theme of faith in other books about the experiences in the Hanoi Hilton. Jeremiah Denton’s and Ed Brandt’s When Hell Was in Session and James Hirsch’s Two Souls Indivisible are just a few others among many. It is understandable that men like these would strongly embrace or in many instances return to their Christian faith after such isolation, torture, anguish, and despair. Risner says that his experience has allowed him to speak out forcefully saying, “You should never be ashamed of your faith.” Risner says in his book that faith was such a common experience among many prisoners, “We were no longer embarrassed talking about God or religion.”

A nine foot statue of Risner was erected at the Air Force Academy in 2001. It stands at that height because Risner said he felt like he was nine feet tall when he was dragged away by guards for torture after organizing a church service and the other prisoners spontaneously started singing the national anthem. Risner says he’s undeserving and the statue represents all the prisoners of war that stood that high and even taller.

  • Scott

    Indeed, he and others like him have carried this burden for all of our country – past, present, and future. It is upon their shoulders that civilization today stands. How is it that we then have the audacity to think we know better? It is through a return to truth that we shall survive, not from frantic grasping at straws.

    “From time to time, the tree of freedom must be replenished with the blood of tyrants and patriots.” -Thomas Jefferson

    “God will not look you over for medals degrees or diplomas, but for scars.” –Elbert Hubbard

  • Santiago Matamoros

    Dear Ray,
    Thanks for posting this timely, informative and inspiring piece.
    If we do not recover godly stewardship over this nation by such soldiers of Christ, then we will be far less a power for good to transform the world.

  • Michael Howard

    Good stuff. I read Jeremiah Denton’s book some years ago and it changed my life.

  • Jim Pyle

    Colonel Risner’s Story says all we need to know about him and his fellow American prisoners in the POW Camp. Having read many stories about the treatment of POWs, there is no need to try and expand on them. The individuals who suffered are the story tellers. We who are in position to read and comprehend the impact and the results know that the people like Colonel Risner were then and still are real American patriots who would not bend under pressure. They represent the very best in our American Fighting Forces. We all should be forever thankful for such courage and fortitude though in so doing it often brought about more pain and suffering. May God Bless each and every one of our POWs and their families, who suffered also as they awaited the return of their loved ones.

  • Susan Neibel

    Robinson Risner’s name was on the POW bracelet I wore during the Vietnam War. I was in Junior High School at the time and remember that he was the first man off of the second plane to land when these brave soldiers were able to come home to America. I am thankful to this man for his honorable service, humility, and faith.

  • Becky Hane

    I too had Col. Robinson Risner’s name on my POW bracelet.
    I was in grade school and unfortunately don’t remember too much of his homecoming but I am honored to have worn a bracelet with such a brave man’s name on it. They should do it again for the men and women serving now.

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  • Sue Jennings

    My Mom wore Col. Risner’s bracelet as well. I just ran across my bracelet with CWO Francis Anton’s name on it. My Dad’s fella was Michael D. Balamonti whose remains were returned and identified.
    Many thanks to these three as well as all the soldiers out there past and present.
    God Bless you all.

  • Marie Wixner

    I too had Colonel Risner on my POW bracelet and I still have it today among my most precious possessions. I was just starting high school but I remember the day I took that bracelet off while I watched him leave the plane that brought him home. I think about him and the other brave men and women who serve our country and have never forgotten to be thankful for all the sacrifice that allows me the freedoms I cherish so much. Thank you and God bless you all.

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  • Deborah Ferguson

    I am a cousin of Robbie Risner. Thank you for all of the sentiment, we are very proud of him. I too wore a POW bracelet, Robert D Thomaso however, I was never able to find his outcome. He was shot down over Cambodia in July, 1968. Does anyone know of resources to find the outcome of the prisoners? I have always wondered about him and his family whom I corresponded with, then lost contact. I believe he was from Wisconsin.

  • Pam Bramlage

    Tonight while watching Apollo 13 I saw someone on the movie with a POW bracelt on. I suddenly remembered that the name on My POW bracelet was Robinson Risner. I prayed every day for him. How thrilled I was to google and read all about him. As the daughter of an Air Force Pilot I stand in awe of my dad and men like General Risner who represented our country in a most selfless way. May God bless you for your sacrifice. Thank you.

  • Kathy

    I still have my Col. Robinson Risner bracelet that I wore in my early 20s. I would like to give it to one of his family members if anyone is interested in it.  Please let me know. God Bless,  Kathy

  • randall raplee

    Typical American Soldier. ………………………………………………………..Aint ya proud?  I am!

  • Bob Davies

    This being April 2012 and i just pulled this up to read more on the Col. Many say they were his bracelet which to me was heart wrenching to say the least. I was stationed at the same base (Korat) as he when he was shot down. What a day that was. I was on guard duty and watched as his pilots came back and left again as quickly as possible to hopefully get him back ASAP. We played ball the day before and though I didn’t know of him that day the next day WE did. What a leader and a strong man he is. I don’t know of his whereabouts now but do wish him well and is always in my heart and mind even to this day 47 yrs later

    • bill cupp

      I was stationed there also. Although I was just an airman, I had the honor of meeting Col Risner when he informed of my older brother’s death. It was april 27,1965. He immediately arranged my leave. I would like to know his present status.

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