Pushing the Sky

by Steve Gerkin

12/30/2014

James “Robbie” Risner started life in rural Mammoth Springs, Arkansas, in the 1920s. His destitute family left the Ozarks for a forested hill east of Muskogee, Oklahoma: Pumpkin Center, where Grover Risner toiled as a share-cropper and bartered horses and cattle on their oil-lease patch of dirt. His two-year-old son loved the horses. Settling in Tulsa at Fourth and Houston in 1931, Robbie’s spotted horse roamed their backyard. Grover started a used car business. Robbie washed the cars between school and church activities.

The Pentecostal teachings of the First Assembly of God formed Robbie’s spiritual life. It would come in handy. Yet, he had an ornery side that poked through, usually with an airplane in his hands.

Risner’s first location as an Army Air Force pilot was his World War II assignment in Panama. For sport, his colleagues and he would whoosh the straw roofs off native huts with the exhaust of their thrusting P-38 and P-39 prop engines. Sailboats in the harbor suffered similar playful strafing. The conclusion of WWII ended his first military tour. Robbie and his wife, Kathleen, headed for Oklahoma City and a flying slot with the Oklahoma Air National Guard. The hijinks continued, but the stakes were raised.

Friends decided to have a party and needed shrimp. Risner agreed to fly one of the Guard’s P-51 Mustangs to Brownsville, Texas, to procure the required amount. Leaving early morning the day of the party, Robbie encountered clouds and, despite no instrument rating, climbed smugly above the weather until his calculated time to reach the Padre Island coast and its crustacean prizes. Emerging from the blanket of angry clouds, the coastline was all-wrong. He was lost.

Cruising the Mustang up and down the coast did not reveal familiar landmarks. Nearly out of fuel and daylight and weather threatening, he put down on a dry lakebed. Using his parachute for a blanket, he curled up on a wing, comforted by its warmth. A hurricane arrived during the darkness, filling the lake, covering the wings with water and whipping up the surface with its 70-mile-per-hour winds. Wading out in the morning, Risner aggravated a herd of longhorns that chased him back to his aircraft. Treed by bovines, Robbie used his parachute to shoo the Brahma hybrids away.

Making his way up the beach, searching for civilization, he spooked an old man on a donkey. The crusty Mexican with white hair, goatee, and clothing drew an 18-inch barreled horse pistol. Using his Panama-Spanish to defuse the encounter, they rode the donkey tandem-style to the Samaritan’s casa. There were no phones to call Oklahoma City. Robbie gave the old man most of his shrimp money and headed out.

Hitching a ride to Tampico, Mexico, he reported in after three days of no communication. The Air Guard and Air Force had been searching for him, afraid he perished in the ocean during the hurricane. Their physician had ordered his seven-months-pregnant and overwrought wife to bed. He reported to the United States Embassy in Mexico City that he was without a passport and, somewhere along the Mexican coast in a dry lakebed, there was a fully armed P-51 fighter that had entered a foreign country without permission. They told him to sit tight. Fat chance.

Hours later in Brownsville, a National Guard buddy picked Robbie up in a B-26 Marauder for the return to Oklahoma. He shared that Kathleen was in the hospital and she had lost the baby. Down the road, five boys would arrive safely but not before Robbie had a date with the Korean War and destiny.

• • •

Captain Risner arrived in Korea during May 1952 as a photo-reconnaissance airman. He wangled his way into fighter status as a wingman. A wingman’s job is to keep the leader of the formation clear at all times—making sure nobody came in on his tail. The “Lead” was the shooter in the air-to-air combat game. They flew the newest American jet, the F-86 Sabre, and their pilots were considered pioneers of the sky.[1]

The aviators of the swept-wing fighter were a no-excuses bunch. They had a flight-suit attitude of bravado that contrasted with the MIG fliers. The aggressive training of Sabre pilots at Nellis Air Force Base in Nevada resulted in a high casualty rate. The trainees were advised to “take a picture if you ever see the flag at full staff.” At graduation, they were ready for the Korean conflict.

These newly trained Air Force jocks and their F-86s engaged the enemy in MIG Alley near the supply-line flowing over the Chinese border into North Korea.[2] Robbie loved his fighter, which was nicknamed Ohio Mike and sported a cartoon image of Bugs Bunny as nose art. He called it “my little sports car.”

Risner was a quick learner and an excellent pilot. He moved up to the lead position—right where he wanted to be, where God wanted him to be. When Robbie passed the tough entrance examination for Army flight school, he considered it a vector from God. He would need Him.

His squadron scrambled for a rendezvous in MIG Alley. Robbie was still latching his canopy and his equipment as he rolled down the runway. His wingman was an eager, handlebar-mustachioed, first-timer who called out, “We’ve got six (MIGs) at three o’clock high.” They came in blazing. Two overshot Risner, so he whipped back over their tail only 1,000 feet behind them. Putting the bright-red circle of his radar-guided gun sight on the tailpipe of one of them, he gave the Korean jet a long burst of his 50-caliber, armor-piercing incendiary rounds. In his book, The Passing of the Night, Risner wrote, “He lit up like a Christmas tree.” The MIG stalled and went into a spin. He continued, “I could smell the powder smoke. I was only 300 feet from him when I cut his tail off.” The foreign pilot panicked and bailed while at 32,000 feet. Robbie had his first kill—the military calls them “victories”—saying, “I imagine he was frozen as stiff as a poker by the time he hit the ground.” Robbie was seldom lacking for things to say.

During a late-in-life interview, Robbie, laughing, said: “It was a grand feeling to knock down every MIG we could and that’s what I did. It was a thrill to hear those guns chattering, ‘cause (good) things were going to happen.” Yet, his most heroic flying escapade did not happen during a life-and-death gunfight. It happened after.[3]

• • •

Risner believed the best pilot in the Korean air conflict was not an American. Escorting fighter-bombers aimed at a chemical plant near the China-Korea border, four Red Air Force MIGs appeared but did not want to tangle as they turned for a Chinese coastal airfield, a sure sign these were Russian flight instructors who were illegally piloting the craft. Americans called them “honchos.” Robbie gave chase.

Commanded not to fly into Chinese sanctuaries, yet motivated to chalk up a kill, a crippled plane heading into forbidden territory was hunted vigorously by pilots like Risner and loyal wingmen with loyal sealed lips like Joe Logan. Mission film from the nose camera of these hunts was often “lost.”

When the MIGs turned to attack him, Risner shot a short burst at maximum range, hitting and dislodging the canopy of one jet. Glass flew. He called off the other American leads and hunted the damaged enemy plane.

More bursts from Robbie’s cannons sparked the MIG, as they headed straight down for the deck at the speed of sound. “I was sure he was going to splatter,” he said, “yet (as) I widened my turn, he pulled out, down a dry riverbed.” Robbie dropped down to get him, but the turbulence from the jet wash made him bounce like a bobber. Part of the MIG tail was shot away and he was burning on the left side.

The cornered rat chopped his throttle. In a quick maneuver to avoid flying by the MIG, Robbie did a roll over the top of him, ending up right on his wing tip. They were both at idle—just coasting. The Russian looked at the American, raised his hand, and shook his fist.

“This is like a movie. This can’t be happening,” Robbie thought, later claiming they were so close to each other he could see the stitching on the Soviet’s leather helmet.

Suddenly, the pursued jet banked between two hangar buildings. He had led the two Sabres to a Manchurian airfield 35 miles inside Communist China. Flak burst around the two F-86s as the Korean plane went down the runway at 350 miles-per-hour, so close to the surface that he was scattering dust. The Russian banked to make a crash landing on the grass next to the airstrip and Robbie fired the last of his ammunition into him.

Losing the entire right wing, the disintegrating plane smashed into a line of parked MIGs. “You just took out the whole Chinese Air Force,” shrieked wingman Logan. They climbed out and headed for the coast and home. Passing over Antung, the flak from its 250 radar-controlled heavy guns was intense.

Joe got hit in the belly fuel tank. Precious propellant spewed from the rupture. Robbie advised him to shut down his engine when five minutes of fuel remained. In an unprecedented and untried maneuver, Robbie radioed Logan that he would push him as close to the friendly airbase of Cho-do off the North Korean coast, where the United States maintained rescue aircraft for the purpose of fishing downed airman from the Korea Bay.

Coming in at his six o’clock, Robbie settled the snout of his Sabre into the tailpipe of Logan’s plane. Jet fuel and lubricant coated Robbie’s canopy. Turbulence separated the jets. Robbie repeatedly re-engaged his wingman’s jet exhaust. As the duo neared Cho-do, afraid his jet might stall, he pulled away as Logan told him, “I’ll see you at the base tonight.” The wingman bailed and Robbie shut off his engine to save fuel, but his engine flamed out. He glided the silent war machine home, making a dead stick landing. His comment regarding the episode was that the decorated nose of Ohio Mike was “all boogered up.”

Joe landed in the water close to shore with his parachute still open. The rescue helicopter opted to use its propeller to blow him into shore. The turbulence caused the chute’s ropes to ensnare Logan. As the recovery aircraft touched down, Robbie and others went to greet him. The doors opened, Joe did not appear. Although a strong swimmer, he had drowned.

Six days later, Robbie scored his fourth and fifth kills, earning him the distinction of jet “ace.”[4] He left Korea in January 1953 after flying 108 missions and knocking down eight MIGs. Asked about his Korean experience, Robbie said, “It was the high point of my career. To be able to participate in air-to-air combat was a thrill.” He seemed unflappable.

Before his Vietnam deployment, Robbie was a test pilot for the Air Force, nearly dying in a free-falling F-100 after stalling out at 60,000 feet in a plane rated for 40,000 feet. Unconscious in a cockpit with a frosted canopy surface and no pressurization, his plane headed for the deck. At 23,000 feet he was conscious enough and his inflated flight suit gave just enough that, using both hands, he was able to reach the cord of the air-start switch. The engine came to life.

Clumsily landing on the George Air Force base runway, his torn heart valve sounded like the “lonely cry of a seagull.” With no permanent damage, the following year he piloted the Spirit of St. Louis II to a new transatlantic record of six hours and 37 minutes, five times faster than Lindbergh. But another war was heating up.

Between his arrival at Kadena Air Base in Okinawa as the commander of a F-105D Thunderchief fighter-bomber squadron in August of 1964 until his shoot-down on September 16, 1965, Robbie flew 55 missions over North Vietnam. He had unsettling premonitions before his last one.

Before Kathleen went to bed, he briefed her over all his insurance policies, investments, and obligations. In the early morning hours of August 18, 1965, Robbie pulled out a small tape recorder and made remarks to his wife and five sons. After addressing each individually, he closed, saying, “If something should happen, never give up. Don’t live in the past; live fortomorrow. Don’t mourn over something that was meant to be. Just remember how much I love each one of you. Bye now.”

She took him to the gate. He waved. She waved back and drove away. He would not see her again until February 20, 1973—seven and a half years later. His three-year-old would be in eighth grade and his oldest would be completing a master’s degree. As his kids evolved, following his shoot-down in September 1965, Risner grappled North Vietnamese rats for scraps of his daily bread.

Heading straight up Highway 1 to Hanoi, Risner’s jet crested a small hill. He saw the tracers just before impact with his intake ports. His engine shuddered. The cockpit filled with smoke as several explosions ripped through the jet. He ejected his canopy and himself amid the roar of thunderous gunfire. Risner, who bragged to fellow aviators he would never be captured, peered over the shoulder-high rice and stared into a gun barrel. His captors delivered him to the Devil’s Island of Southeast Asia, Hóa Lo Prison in Hanoi.

Suffering in his cell at the Hanoi Hilton, his mind saw that parting scene with Kathleen played over and over. He prayed about them often. He prayed all day.

Robbie thought of them at Thanksgiving when he envisioned they might be sitting down for turkey. He assumed they had returned to Oklahoma City. He thought of them looking at his vacant place, not knowing if he were dead or alive and thinking of happier times.

Lieutenant Colonel Risner was the cover portrait of an April 1965 edition of Time magazine after receiving the Air Force Cross—the highest Air Force decoration for valor and the first one given to a living airman.[5] He received the Cross for leading two missions against the Thanh Hóa Bridge—known as the Dragon’s Jaw. The article spoke of his warrior-like leadership. At the time it was an honor, but things changed.

Tracking American reaction to the war, his communist captors subscribed to various American periodicals, and Time was on their reading list. During torture sessions, the notoriety of the piece elevated Risner’s importance to the enemy, garnering him extra punishment.

Robbie had been in the leg stocks for 32 days without walking and often without the daily ration of bread and water. They came to get him. The painful torture session was overwhelming. In an effort to stop the pain, he attempted to knock himself out, falling headfirst onto the concrete, over and over. The prisoner with the POW code name of Cochise stumbled back to his cell. The brutality took its toll.

The Nixon administration in 1969 began an unrelenting campaign to publicize the inhumane prisoner treatment by the North Vietnamese. Millionaire H. Ross Perot joined the voices and had a tremendous impact on prisoner treatment according to Robbie, who described Perot as “a truly great American; red, white, and blue down to his toes.”

The status of senior ranking officer (SRO) of the Hanoi Hilton shifted as high-ranking prisoners came and went. During his stay, Robbie was often the SRO. He devised articles of conduct, developed a tap code used to communicate between cells, and organized religious ceremonies—all of which, when discovered, resulted in severe punishment.

During the last two years of confinement, Robbie was the nominal, commanding officer of the Hilton prisoners. American bombers were dropping heavy salvo on Hanoi bridges, highways, and other important structures. Their captors became uneasy and conditions improved slightly. A group of 40 men, including Robbie and a downed Navy A-4 Skyhawk pilot, John McCain, future senator of Arizona, were moved into a large, communal room. At the time, the 10-building complex sequestered an estimated 350 POWs. The prisoners changed the compound’s name to Camp Unity. Spirits soared.

Warned by guards to end an open religious ceremony in 1971, Robbie and others defiantly continued the service, knowing torture would follow the closing hymn. As Risner and other leaders were led to “the box” for isolation and special treatment, the remaining men belted out the outlawed Star Spangled Banner. When asked by Perot after his release what he felt like as they led him to his punishment, Brigadier General Robinson Risner, an Oklahoma Hall of Fame recipient for 1974, replied, “I was nine feet tall. I could have gone bear
hunting with a stick.”


Footnotes:

1. The Sabre was slightly heavier than the MIGS, allowing them to dive faster, but languished behind the Soviet-made jets in climbing, cruising speed, and altitude, which allowed the enemy to look down on American squadrons. The subsequent F-86F erased those deficiencies. There were approximately 400 MIGs and 50 F-86s in the conflict.

2. “MIG Alley” is the name given by United Nations pilots to the northwestern portion of North Korea, where the Yalu River empties into the Yellow Sea. It was the site of numerous dogfights between UN fighter pilots and their opponents from North Korea.

3.This History Channel video shows Robbie Risner cruising the deadly skies of North Korea’s MIG Alley and engaging his F-86 Sabre against the nimble Russian-built MIG-15 fighter.

4. An “ace” status is awarded to a pilot after downing five or more enemy aircraft in air-to-air-combat. Robbie Risner was the 20th of 40 Americans who earned the ace distinction during the Korean War.

5. Among a long list of awards and decorations, Tulsa Robbie Risner is the only two-time recipient of the United States Air Force’s highest honor, the Air Force Cross. Others commendations of note are two Distinguished Flying Crosses with Valor, a Silver Star, two bronze stars, and three Purple Hearts.


An earlier version of this article incorrectly stated that the P-38, P-39, and P-51 aircrafts that Col. Risner flew were jet-powered; they were propeller-driven aircrafts.


 

Originally published in This Land, Vol. 5, Issue 24, December 15, 2014.