General 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 turned out to be 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.
General Risner spent a total of seven and half years in Hoa Lo Prison, more than three of those in solitary confinement.
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 P.O.W.’s sang “The Star-Spangled Banner” to show support. He was later asked how he felt at that moment.
“I felt like I was nine feet tall and could go bear hunting with a switch,” he said. In 2001, a nine-foot-tall statue of General Risner was installed at the Air Force Academy in Colorado Springs to commemorate that declaration.