A lesson in courage: Altoona students hear the experiences of Robinson, the longest serving prisoner of war | News, Sports, Jobs


Tom Fox (right), social studies teacher at Altoona Area High School, and presenter William Robinson, the oldest enlisted prisoner of war in the Vietnam War, discuss the memorial wall of the The school’s Patriotic Student Alliance which lists Altoona students who died in war from World War I to the present day. Fox said he hoped Robinson’s story would inspire his students, giving them a new appreciation for the sacrifices made by the military in the fight for freedom. Mirror photo of Patrick Waksmunski

Vietnam War veteran William Robinson holds an inauspicious record – that of being the longest enlisted prisoner of war.

Robinson, who was held captive for 2,703 days or 7.5 years, spoke to students at the Altoona area school on Thursday about courage and perseverance, history and his mother, who gave him instilled at a young age to never give up.

Students in various American history classes were captivated when Robinson presented his story of being captured after his helicopter crashed while on a rescue mission in North Vietnam.

Deployed to Nakhon Phanom Royal Thai AFB, Thailand with the 38th Air Rescue Squadron, Robinson was a crew chief aboard a US Air Force rescue helicopter when he was shot down.

He was captured and taken prisoner on September 20, 1965.

Altoona Area High School Sean Bettwy chats with William Robinson after his presentation Thursday afternoon. Bettwy applied to West Point and Annapolis. Mirror photo of Patrick Waksmunski

Robinson said he was lined up in front of a firing squad, but for some reason his life was spared that day.

Eventually he was handed over to the Red Army and spent time in “Hanoi Hilton.”

He endured years in North Vietnamese prison camps, including the notorious Briarpatch and various compounds at Cu Loc, known as the zoo.

Captured a few days before his 22nd birthday, he was released during Operation Homecoming on February 12, 1973.

No enlisted man in American military history has been held as a prisoner of war longer than Robinson, according to a book written by Glenn Robbins, “The Longest Rescue: The Life and Legacy of Vietnamese POW William A. Robinson.”

William Robinson, the oldest enlisted prisoner of war from the Vietnam War, answers questions from students after speaking at the Altoona-area high school on Thursday. Mirror photo of Patrick Waksmunski

Robinson told the students that while he was a captive he was confined to small rooms with a small bed and a bucket.

“I received clothes, a bar of soap, a toothbrush, toothpaste, a towel and a mosquito net which will become my only possessions during these seven years”, he said.

He said there were no modern conveniences, radios or televisions, and everything familiar no longer existed.

“People have asked me what gives me hope” he said, and he answered, “It was to remember what my mother told me in elementary school to never give up and never give in.”

Being held captive for so long did not deter Robinson from military service.

Upon recovery, he completed undergraduate pilot training at Sheppard AFB, completed the Officer Aircraft Maintenance Course, and served as a maintenance officer with the 33rd Tactical Fighter Wing at Eglin AFB, Florida. .

Capping a 23-year career that began when he enlisted on November 22, 1961, Robinson retired as an Air Force Captain on December 1, 1984, as a logistics management with the 3246th Test Wing at Eglin AFB.

Today, he thinks of all the people who gave their all for the nation and the 83,000 people still missing since the Second World War.

“We have more than 1,500 Vietnamese (soldiers) who have never been counted; they are our American heroes,” said Robinson.

Today’s students are the future of the nation, he said, adding that it was an honor for him to speak about his experiences.

He was only a young boy when he heard about military heroes, noting that his grandfather worked in a cotton mill. During a visit to the mill with his grandfather, Robinson said he learned the names of the men inscribed on the plexiglass wall.

“He said ‘these are young men in my community who raised their right hands and said, take me, I will defend America'” said Robinson, recalling his grandfather’s words.

His grandfather’s friend Roofus, who suffered from leg pain, was a veteran, Robinson said, admitting that “For years I didn’t know he had given so much for his country.”

Then he learned that the names with stars were the ones that made the ultimate sacrifice.

After his presentation, Robinson said he was encouraged to see many students paying attention and being engaged in his story.

“It’s important for them to learn the story and also to encourage them to go back to their own family to find it,” he said.

Professor Tom Fox said he hoped Robinson’s story would inspire his students, giving them a new appreciation for the sacrifices made by the military in the fight for freedom.

“I hope after today they have a new definition of a hero and it also gives them a new perspective on how they can overcome their own obstacles in life,” he said.

The students had the opportunity to ask Robinson questions, with one questioning whether faith played a role in his perseverance.

Strong faith in Christ gave him the strength to hold on, Robinson replied.

Another asked how it felt when he got back to the US, to which Robison said it was like “heaven on earth.”

Fox said by looking at the students’ faces, he could tell they were aware of what was being said and he looked forward to their reactions during Monday’s class.

Ethan Jones, a senior and member of the Patriotic Student Alliance, said he was spellbound and had chills as Robinson told his story.

“The more I grow and meet people, the happier I am to be in this country” he said. “It really is like heaven on Earth, as Mr. Robinson said.”

Wyatt Kuhn, another senior from the same group, said he was grateful for the service Robinson gave to the country.

“I just feel a lot of gratitude, because I also have family members who have served,” he said.

Robinson is due to speak to about 100 local veterans at 6 p.m. today at the American Legion in Hollidaysburg.


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