Greatest Heroes of the 4th FW: POWs

SEYMOUR JOHNSON AIR FORCE BASE, N.C. --

Editor’s Note: This article is part of a series celebrating the 75th anniversary of the 4th Fighter Wing

Many of the heroes of the 4th Fighter Wing gave their lives in the defense of our nation.  In fact, over the years many members of the "Fourth But First" have given their lives or suffered injury in the cause of freedom. 

But there is another type of casualty that far too many of our warriors have endured.  Being a prisoner of war is a particularly bitter fate for Americans who enjoy the blessings of freedom.  This is the story of two of our POWs – one from World War II, the other from the Vietnam War.

Andrew C. Lacy was born to immigrant parents in Elyria, Ohio, on April 30, 1921.  Like so many of "the greatest generation" Andy answered the call to service and began pilot training prior to the attack on Pearl Harbor.  In the Spring of 1942 he enlisted in the Army Air Corps.  Then in September 1944, 2nd Lt. Lacy was assigned to the 334th Fighter Squadron of the 4th Fighter Group.

Lacy flew his first combat mission on Sept. 27, 1944.  At that time a tour of duty for pilots in the European Theater of Operation was 250 combat hours.  Lacy was looking forward to completing his duty and returning home to his new bride.  In January 1945 Lacy became a Flight Leader of four fighters and was promoted to first lieutenant.  He volunteered for every mission in order to finish his tour of duty. 

On Feb. 21, 1945, Lacy helped escort a bombing mission to Nuremburg, Germany.  After escorting the bombers the P-51 Mustangs sought targets of opportunity.  Spotting a freight train, Lacy led his flight to lower altitude to attack the train.  He dropped his external fuel tanks on top of the train so the other fighter could fire on the tanks to set them ablaze.  As Lacy pulled up he felt a loud thump under his aircraft.  With his aircraft badly damaged, Lacy parachuted into Germany.

Lacy landed hard and sprained both ankles.  German home guard troops quickly rounded him up and turned him over to a prisoner collection point.  Lacy was startled to learn that the Germans were well acquainted with the 4th Fighter Group and its famous leader.  They were anxiously looking forward to making a prisoner of Col. Donald Blakeslee, which they were never able to do.

At this point in the war the Allies had achieved air supremacy over Europe.  As a prisoner of war Lacy suffered from inadequate food and shelter, but it was the Allied air power that almost killed him on several occasions.  On March 2, 1945, Lacy was transported via railroad boxcar to a POW camp.  The train was attacked by American P-51 Mustangs.  Many prisoners were killed – including the one right next to Lacy.

On April 4, 1945, as the Third Reich was collapsing, Lacy and his fellow prisoners were marched south to avoid advancing Allied armies.  The column was bombed by two P-47 fighters.  Two more fighters joined the attack when they realized the column was Allied prisoners and pulled up.  From that day on the column was monitored daily by P-51 Mustangs, protecting the column of POWs from any Allied aircraft that might mistake them for the enemy. 

On April 29, 1945 an American tank from Gen. George S. Patton's 14th Armored Division crashed into Lacy's camp and liberated the prisoners.  Lacy survived being shot down, being a prisoner of war, and being the inadvertent target of Allied air power.  In 1949 he joined the Air National Guard and over the course of a very successful career rose to the rank of colonel.  Today this great hero of the 4th Fighter Wing lives in Enon, Ohio.

Robbie Risner was born in Mammoth Spring, Arkansas on Jan. 16, 1925.  He flew P-38s and P-39s in Panama for the 30th Fighter Squadron during World War II.  Then in the Korean War Capt. Risner flew for the 336th Fighter Squadron of the 4th Fighter-Interceptor Wing.

Risner's most famous mission occurred on Oct. 27, 1952, when flak struck the fuel tank of Risner's wingman, Lt. Joe Logan.  Unwilling to abandon his wingman to the enemy, Risner attempted an unprecedented, untried, and extremely dangerous maneuver.  Risner inserted the nose of his F-86 Sabre into the exhaust of Logan's plane and "pushed" him sixty miles to friendly territory.  Logan bailed out, but unfortunately drowned when he became tangled in his parachute lines.

Risner shot down eight MiGs in Korea, making him an ace.  In 1964 Lt. Col. Risner took command of the 67th Tactical Fighter Squadron at Kadena Air Base, Okinawa, flying F-105s.  While on duty with the unit at Korat Royal Thai Air Force Base in 1965, he was shot down over North Vietnam and rescued.  On Sept. 16, 1965, Risner was shot down and captured.

For more than seven years Risner was the senior ranking officer among the prisoners in Hanoi.  His courage and dedication to his men brought many of them through the ordeal of their brutal captivity.  Risner organized church services for his men, which was forbidden.  As Risner was being led away for punishment, the other prisoners began singing “The Star Spangled Banner.”  When Risner was asked how he felt when the men began singing, he replied, "I felt like I was nine feet tall and could go bear hunting with a switch."

Risner was freed on Feb. 12, 1973, returned to the U.S., and flew F-4 Phantoms.   He later commanded the 832nd Air Division flying F-111s.  Brig. Gen. Risner retired from the Air Force on July 31, 1976. 

On Nov. 16, 2001, a nine-foot bronze statue of Robinson 'Robbie' Risner was unveiled at the U.S. Air Force Academy in Colorado Springs, Colo.  The statue is a tribute to Risner's seven-plus years as a POW in Vietnam, and, yes, the statue is nine feet tall in reference to Risner's response to the support of his fellow prisoners. 

Recently Risner appeared on an episode of the History Channel series "Dogfight" and, with quiet dignity and humility, spoke of his extraordinary exploits in the Korean War.

Lacy and Risner – patriots, Americans, former POWs, and two of the greatest heroes of the 4th Fighter Wing.