The Longest Rescue: The Life and Legacy of Vietnam POW William A. Robinson

The Longest Rescue: The Life and Legacy of Vietnam POW William A. Robinson

The Longest Rescue: The Life and Legacy of Vietnam POW William A. Robinson

The Longest Rescue: The Life and Legacy of Vietnam POW William A. Robinson


While serving as a crew chief aboard a U.S. Air Force Rescue helicopter, Airman First Class William A. Robinson was shot down and captured in Ha Tinh Province, North Vietnam, on September 20, 1965. After a brief stint at the "Hanoi Hilton," Robinson endured 2,703 days in multiple North Vietnamese prison camps, including the notorious Briarpatch and various compounds at Cu Loc, known by the inmates as the Zoo. No enlisted man in American military history has been held as a prisoner of war longer than Robinson. For seven and a half years, he faced daily privations and endured the full range of North Vietnam’s torture program.

In The Longest Rescue: The Life and Legacy of Vietnam POW William A. Robinson, Glenn Robins tells Robinson’s story using an array of sources, including declassified U.S. military documents, translated Vietnamese documents, and interviews from the National Prisoner of War Museum. Unlike many other POW accounts, this comprehensive biography explores Robinson’s life before and after his capture, particularly his estranged relationship with his father, enabling a better understanding of the difficult transition POWs face upon returning home and the toll exacted on their families. Robins’s powerful narrative not only demonstrates how Robinson and his fellow prisoners embodied the dedication and sacrifice of America’s enlisted men but also explores their place in history and memory.

Glenn Robins, professor of history at Georgia Southwestern State University, is editor of They Have Left Us Here to Die: The Civil War Prison Diary of Sgt. Lyle G. Adair, 111th U.S. Colored Infantry and coeditor of America and the Vietnam War: Re-examining the Culture and History of a Generation.

The Longest Rescue is an incredibly moving account of the brutal captivity and honorable return home of a big man with an even bigger spirit, William Andrew Robinson. I had the distinct pleasure to meet Bill this past year when our Enlisted Heritage Research Institute unveiled a Vietnam POW exhibit paying tribute to him and his fellow captives. He shared his remarkable story with us, and what struck me most was his ability to forgive those who treated him so inhumanely. I greatly respect this American Airman, and am forever grateful for his tremendous contributions to the proud heritage, tradition of honor, and legacy of valor we celebrate in our Airman's Creed. This well-written book has deepened my admiration of and gratitude for Bill Robinson even more. -- Lt. General Dave Fadok, USAF, Commander & President, Air University.

This fine book tells the story of William Robinson’s heroic life before, during, and after his captivity experience in North Vietnam. It talks about real people working together to survive perhaps the longest and most severe POW experience since the Civil War. A very personal kind of story, one that touches the emotions deeply, I hope that readers will find it fascinating, especially in the horrific details of Robinson’s captivity, his family difficulties, and his basic and genuine goodness of character. -- Robert C. Doyle, author of The Enemy in our Hands: American Treatment of Enemy POWs from the Revolution to the War on Terror.

A very interesting account of how one POW not only came to terms with his Vietnam experience, culminating in a return to the country where he was imprisoned, but even more strikingly, how he eventually reconciled himself to his own status as a POW. -- Craig Howes, author of Voices of the Vietnam POWs: Witnesses to Their Flight.

The Longest Rescue is one of the most detailed and meaningful descriptions of what it means to be a prisoner of war. -- Lewis H. Carlson, author of Remember Prisoners of a Forgotten War and We Were Each Other's Prisoners.


This is a very big book about a very big man, with a big mind, and a huge, unshakable stoicism and innate common sense. These were exactly the qualities he called on to resist the brutal and inhumane conditions that he faced as a prisoner of war. As a reader, you will become a better person for having read this spectacular story and following Billy’s example. I was shot down over North Vietnam on 26 August 1967. I was shootdown number 138 of those Americans who actually made it into a prison camp. More than that number had already been shot down and murdered by the North Vietnamese. Little did I expect that I would be held a pow for five years and seven months. Billy Robinson, one of the earliest POWs, had already been in captivity for more than two very hard years before my shootdown.

In Hanoi I was held briefly at the Hanoi Hilton, in the old French jail, and then the communists moved me to the Plantation (a few miles southwest of downtown Hanoi), where my multiple broken bones and gunshot wounds began to heal. in December 1967 Lieutenant Commander John S. McCain became my roommate. That was a great break for me. John was all broken up and wounded, but he absolutely refused to die, although at first I expected he would. He was filthy, emaciated, and in a massive cast from his hip to his shoulder, and he stank like a rotten egg. That was of no consequence. I enjoyed more than four months of John McCain’s company, until on 30 April 1968, I was abruptly ordered to roll up my blanket and be ready to move. I was on my way to a camp called the Zoo. the political officer at the Plantation advised that I was “going to a very hard camp, where [I] would have a chance to think about [my] bad conduct in the Plantation Camp.” As I would soon learn, the Zoo was a torture camp.

Upon arriving at the Zoo on 1 May, we were immediately put into “kneeling torture,” a remarkably painful punishment that consisted of kneeling bare-legged on rough concrete, while keeping one’s body erect and holding one’s arms straight up as if reaching . . .

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