50 years later, longest-enlisted POW talks about how he survived

Despite spending more than seven years in captivity, Captain Bill Robinson is grateful.
Bill Robinson Vietnam War POW
Bill Robinson Vietnam War POW(WVLT)
Published: Mar. 23, 2023 at 7:23 AM EDT|Updated: Sep. 15, 2023 at 8:34 PM EDT
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KNOXVILLE, Tenn. (WVLT) - 2023 marks 50 years since Vietnam prisoners of war were freed.

Among them is the longest-held enlisted prisoner, Captain Bill Robinson, who now lives in Lenoir City. Despite spending more than seven years in captivity, he is grateful.

He was just 22 years old and was a flight mechanic on a rescue helicopter. His team was on a mission to rescue a downed crew when his aircraft was hit by ground fire and crashed. All four members of the crew survived, but their hardest battle would still be ahead.

“It’s just one of the things that you know, you’re almost still in shock. You just fell 90 feet and survived and you just got shot at and survived and you got out of a crashed airplane and walked away,” he said eventually Vietnamese surrounded them and took them into custody.

“I was taken out and lined up in front of a freshly dug grave. I was told to kneel down in front of or right behind it and my hands were tied together ... my feet were tied together and I could see a crowd gathered. I could see the shadows of two guards standing behind me pointing their weapons out and at that point, I thought my life was over,” said Robinson. The Vietnamese spared his life, he said at that point on he believed he would eventually get home.

Robinson spent most of his time at the infamous “Hanoi Hilton.” “It was a little small cell, I could stretch my arms and either direction and touch the walls. I had a wooden bed board, designed for Vietnamese about 16 inches wide and about four and a half feet long with a bucket at the end of the bed,” he said.

“You know, we ate a lot of grass. They call it a vegetable but around here we call it grass... the average weight loss was anywhere from 40 to 60 pounds,” he said.

The days were long but he had the formula to stay sane, “I adopted a three-day stay in Vietnam. Yesterday I was shot down, and today is today and tomorrow I’m going home. So I only had one day to work with rather than creating a long-range plan,” he said.

He and his fellow prisoners adopted a tap code similar to Morse code, but without the scratch, to talk to each other through the walls of the prison. Robinson was there so long, he watched as more Americans were captured over the years, including the late Senator John McCain. “I was on the welcoming committee when John came in,” he said.

In 1968, President Lyndon Johnson announced the U.S. would stop bombing Vietnam- but Robinson and the other POWs would spend another five years imprisoned. They weren’t rescued until 1973. They received a hero’s welcome home.

Something that didn’t happen for veterans brought home years before.

“Never again will another group of veterans abandon another. That’s what we live for and stand for to make sure that never again a veteran will be treated the way Vietnam veterans were treated and we can add the Korean war veterans to that as well,” he said.

Now, 50 years later, Robinson lives with his wife in Lenoir City. When asked why he isn’t bitter about his situation he said, “Well I have 58,000 plus that I can’t be bitter for.”

He said he will continue to serve his country for the men and women who can’t, including the pilot on his mission, Duane Martin, who never made it home from Vietnam.

“I’m not going to disappoint them. They gave it their all so I can have tomorrow and that’s what our men and women in uniform do today, they’re willing to give their today so we have a tomorrow and we as a nation would never forget that.”