“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.