NEW YORK — Brigadier General Robinson Risner, one of the nation’s most decorated pilots in the Korean and Vietnam Wars, who spent 7½ years in the infamous “Hanoi Hilton” prison after being shot down, died Oct. 22 at his home in Bridgewater, Va. He was 88.
He died after a series of strokes, the Air Force said.
Mr. Risner, who was promoted to the rank of brigadier general at his retirement in 1976, was shot down in September 1965 during a mission to destroy a missile site. Then a lieutenant colonel, he was the highest-ranking officer at Hoa Lo Prison, which American prisoners of war called the Hanoi Hilton. For the first five years — after which higher-ranking officers came to the prison — he helped organize inmates to make complaints about the conditions and to boost morale.
One of his major acts of defiance was helping to organize a church service in 1971, even though he knew he would be punished. As guards led him away to yet another spell in solitary confinement, more than 40 POWs sang “The Star-Spangled Banner” to show support. He was later asked how he felt at that moment.
“I felt like I was 9 feet tall and could go bear hunting with a switch,” he said. In 2001, a 9-foot statue of Mr. Risner was installed at the Air Force Academy in Colorado Springs to commemorate that declaration.
Senator John McCain of Arizona, who also was held at the Hanoi Hilton after his own fighter-bomber was shot down, said in a statement that Mr. Risner was “an inveterate communicator, an inspiration to the men he commanded, and a genuine American hero.”
Defense Secretary Chuck Hagel, also a Vietnam veteran, praised Mr. Risner’s “constant resistance” to “relentless torture.”
Before his incarceration, Mr. Risner had established himself as one of America’s top pilots. In Korea, he shot down eight MIG-15 fighters. In 1957, when he was a major, he was chosen to fly an F-100F Super Sabre jet named the Spirit of St. Louis II to commemorate the 30th anniversary of Charles A. Lindbergh’s trans-Atlantic flight on the same route. He did it in 6 hours and 37 minutes, a fifth of Lindbergh’s time, setting a new trans-Atlantic record.
In Vietnam, Mr. Risner was awarded the Air Force Cross for bravery. He was hit by enemy fire on four out of five consecutive missions. Time magazine put a portrait of him on the cover of its April 23, 1965, issue as an exemplar of the modern American warrior. In the article, he called himself “the luckiest man in the world.”
Then, he was not so lucky.
He was shot down, for the second time in Vietnam. It turned out that his North Vietnamese captors had read the Time article; they waved the magazine under his nose. An interrogator claimed that the only three people they would rather have captured were President Lyndon B. Johnson, Defense Secretary Robert S. McNamara, and Secretary of State Dean Rusk.
“They thought I was much more important than I ever was,” Mr. Risner told Air Force magazine.
Mr. Risner spent more than three years in solitary confinement, in total darkness. He once experienced an anxiety attack, but knew he would be beaten if he screamed. He stuffed a blanket in his mouth.
His advice to the men he commanded combined the heroic and the practical. “Resist until you are tortured,” he said, “but do not take torture to the point where you lose the permanent use of your limbs.”
When he was released in 1973, Mr. Risner received another Air Force Cross for his gallantry as a POW. His many other medals include the Air Force Distinguished Service Medal, the Silver Star, and the Distinguished Flying Cross.
His memoir of his time as a prisoner, “The Passing of the Night: My Seven Years as a Prisoner of the North Vietnamese,” was published in 1974.
James Robinson Risner was born in Mammoth Spring, Ark., where his father was a sharecropper. He did odd jobs in his youth, competed in rodeos, and graduated from high school. He enlisted in the Army Air Forces as an aviation cadet in 1943 and flew fighters in Panama, but did not see combat. After the war, he joined the Oklahoma Air National Guard and learned to fly the F-51 Mustang.
He was recalled to fly in Korea, but had a broken wrist from falling off a horse. He persuaded a flight surgeon that it was healed, but he was able to fly his first mission only after removing a cast. Until the Vietnam War, he was assigned to bomber and fighter groups in the United States and Europe.
Mr. Risner’s first marriage ended in divorce. He leaves his wife, Dorothy; sons Timothy, Daniel, and David; daughters Dana Duyka, Deborah Darrell, and DeAnna Parker; 14 grandchildren; and a sister, Peggy Goldstein.
In later years, Mr. Risner participated in reunions. In the 1990s, he met a Russian MIG-15 ace who had been in Korea at the same time. The other pilot wondered if they had ever faced each other in combat.
“No way,” Mr. Risner replied. “You wouldn’t be here.”