This Week in AG History -- June 10, 1973
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Born Jan. 16, 1925, in Mammoth Spring, Arkansas, he was one of nine children born to Grover and Lora (Robinson) Risner, His father was a sharecropper. By 1930 his family had moved to Oak Grove, Missouri, and later that year they moved to Tulsa, Oklahoma, where they faithfully attended Central Assembly of God. The pastor, Guy Phillips, had a strong influence on young Risner.
“I was 11 when I received Christ,” recalled Risner. “I used to see my mother go into her clothes closet to pray. It was quite a deep closet, and I could get alone in there. I still remember the homey comfortable smell of the clothes.” It was in this secret prayer closet that Risner accepted Christ as his Savior.
Risner was active in the Christ’s Ambassadors, the youth organization of the Assemblies of God.
“From the time I accepted Christ until I entered the service, I was close to the church,” Risner reported. Two of his brothers became AG ministers. Grover Risner Jr. pastored and taught in AG churches for more than 55 years, from New York to California. Jack Risner served as a pastor, missionary, Revivaltime radio representative, and chaplain for the California Highway Patrol. Several of Robbie Risner’s nephews also became AG ministers.
Risner 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 at age 18 and served in Panama during World War II. He trained as a pilot. World War II was not quite over when young Risner discovered the two loves of his life: flying and Kathleen. Kathleen Shaw, an army nurse stationed in the Canal Zone, cared for him when he broke his arm in a motorcycle accident. After a three-year term of service, Risner was discharged from the Army, and he and Kathleen were married in Tulsa in September 1946.
His love of flying led him to enlist in the Oklahoma Air National Guard and he learned to fly the F-51 Mustang. He became an exceptional air gunner and often did target practice at Fort Sill. There was one lapse in his otherwise immaculate flying record. In 1949, on a flight from Tinker Field outside of Oklahoma City to a base near Corpus Christi, Texas, a severe storm drove his plane off course, and he landed on a beach in Mexico. He had to borrow a horse and ride for three days through the jungle before he could reach a phone. His wife waited three long days before she finally heard from him. This was early training for the many perilous missions he would face in Korea and Vietnam.
When he was called up for the Korean conflict, Risner learned to commit each mission to God. “I used to find a place alone and kneel and pray before I went up,” said Risner. “God did protect me. I never was hit by enemy aircraft fire. Once I was cut by flying glass, but that was all.” He flew 108 missions during the Korean War.
After the Korean conflict, Risner decided to stay in the service. He served tours of duty in Germany, California, and Hawaii, where he was a Sunday School teacher in the local churches. He also went to senior officer training at the Air War College at Maxwell Air Force Base in Montgomery, Alabama.
Next he served in Vietnam. By this time the Risners had five boys, and they settled at Kadena Air Force Base in Okinawa as their home base. During one of his missions in 1965 he had a close call. His canopy was shot off, and the cockpit filled with smoke and fumes, but he made it back safely. Others were not so fortunate. During the first four weeks that Risner’s 21-pilot squadron was operating over Vietnam, Mrs. Risner helped break the news to five wives when their husbands failed to return.
In Vietnam, General Risner was awarded the Air Force Cross for bravery. 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.” But it turned out that he was not so lucky. Soon after this he was captured by the North Vietnamese.
On Sept. 16, 1965, the wing commander reported that two more men had gone down, and that Robbie was one of them. His plane had been hit northwest of Hanoi. He was seen parachuting down and hurrying off into the underbrush. This was a populated area, and escape was impossible. Kathleen waited several months without any news. She did not know if he was dead or alive. Then in May of the following year, the North Vietnamese confirmed that her husband was a prisoner. He ended up spending seven years in prison, first in a place called the “Zoo” and then for most of that time he was interred at what was dubbed the “Hanoi Hilton.” Risner vividly recalled his first night in prison. “God was very close to me. I remember praying for an opportunity to witness for Him.”
The Lord used him in prison, and he often prayed for other prisoners and asked them, “Do you know how to pray?” Prison was not easy, as the men, especially officers, endured all kinds of torture to try to extract military information or get the men to say things in public that would help the cause of the North Vietnamese. A number of prisoners died because of the conditions and treatment they received in prison. Risner credits the power of prayer and his faith in Christ for sustaining him through seven long years in captivity.
It was a blessed day when Risner and others were able to walk across Hanoi’s airfield into the freedom of a U.S. transport plane that flew them homeward. Risner was the senior member of the group of returning POWs. He called President Nixon and sent an appropriate message from the Philippines to former Secretary of Defense Laird. He also cabled Admiral Thomas Moorer, chairman of the Joint Chiefs of Staff, and said: “As senior member of the group of returning POWs, I wish to report that after a good night’s sleep and two good meals, we are ready for duty.” The military appreciated Risner’s commitment, but they gave the POWs a much longer time to recuperate.
Senator John McCain, who also was held at the Hanoi Hilton after his own fighter-bomber was shot down, said in a statement that General Risner was “an inveterate communicator, an inspiration to the men he commanded, and a genuine American hero.” An account of Robbie Risner’s capture and imprisonment was later published in a book called, The Passing of the Night: My Seven Years As a Prisoner of the North Vietnamese.
Risner continued his military career for a few more years before retiring as a brigadier general in 1976. After his retirement, Risner served for a time as the executive director of the Texans’ War on Drugs and was appointed by President Ronald Reagan as a United States delegate to the 40th session of the United Nationals General Assembly. Risner was inducted into the Oklahoma Hall of Fame in November 1974 in recognition of his military service. He also was inducted into the Arkansas Military Veterans Hall of Fame on Nov. 1, 2013.
A bronze statue of General James Robinson Risner was dedicated in 2001 and can be seen on the grounds of the U.S. Air Force Academy at Colorado Springs, Colorado, in memory of Risner and his POW comrades being persecuted for their faith. They felt God’s presence with them, and they would pray and sing “The Star-Spangled Banner” and “God Bless America.” The statue was made nine feet tall in memory of Risner’s statement during the prayer services that “I felt like I was nine feet tall and could go bear hunting with a switch.”
Brigadier General Robbie Risner passed away on Oct. 22, 2013, in Bridgewater, Virginia, at the age of 88. He is buried in Arlington National Cemetery. He was a celebrated hero of three different wars and served in many dangerous missions, as well as being a POW. Through it all, Risner’s faith in God carried him through every experience he encountered.
Fifty years ago, the Pentecostal Evangel featured his life story. Read, “The Robbie Risner Story,” on page 4 of the June 10, 1973, issue.
Also featured in this issue:
• “Child Evangelism: A Winning Combination”
• “Diamonds in the Rough,” by Ruth A. Lyon
• “Everything We Have,” by Adele Dalton
And many more!
Click here to read this issue now.
Pentecostal Evangel archived editions courtesy of the Flower Pentecostal Heritage Center.