Three U.S. Air Force enlisted men held as Prisoners of War in the prisons of Hanoi, 1965-1973 were commissioned as officers after the war.  The three enlisted men had been shot down and captured in North Vietnam while conducting rescue missions for downed Air Force pilots. 

William Andrew Robinson
Arthur Neil Black
Arthur Cormier

William Robinson and Arthur Black

Flight Engineer A1C (E4) William Andrew Robinson and Pararescueman A3C (E2) Arthur Neil Black were flight crew members of a HH43B (62-4510) piloted by Captain Thomas Jerry Curtis, USAF and co-pilot 1Lt Duane Whitney Martin, USAF September 20, 1965. Curtis, Martin and Robinson were with the 38th Air Rescue Squadron.  Black was attached to the 41st ARS.  Both squadrons were based in Thailand.  Black was a volunteer who jumped aboard the helicopter at the last moment without proper clothing or even a military identity card.  All four of these rescue crewmembers became POWs.  Robinson, Black and Curtis were captured along with the F105 pilot, Captain Willis Ellis Forby flying with the 334 TFS out of Takhli, Thailand.  They were taken to Hanoi while Martin evaded long enough to reach Laos.  He was captured and placed in a primitive POW camp.  Martin escaped on July 20, 1966, along with Navy pilot Lt (jg) Dieter Dengler. Shortly after their escape, 1Lt Martin was killed by a villager as he sought food and water.  His remains have never been found.  After two weeks surviving in the jungle, Dieter Dengler was spotted by a US helicopter, rescued and returned to Danang where he was hospitalized.  Dengler was rescued a second time by his squadron mates from VA-145 aboard U.S, Ranger, CV61 when he was surreptitiously whisked out of the hospital and returned aboard Ranger.

"Guerilla Girl " Famous staged capture picture of Bill Robinson

Arthur Cormier

Staff Sergeant (SSgt) (E5) Arthur Cormier was a Pararescueman aboard a CH3C (63-9685) helicopter piloted by Captain Warren Robert Lilly, USAF and co-pilot 1Lt Jerry Allen Singleton, USAF.  They were flying with the 38th ARS out of Thailand when shot down during a rescue mission in North Vietnam November 6, 1965.  A fourth member of the Jolly Green 85 crew, SSgt B.E. Naugle was rescued but was badly burned.  Cormier, Lilly and Singleton became POWs in the infamous Hanoi Hilton.  Cormier would later join the two Air Force Captains who were flying Rescap that day.  Captain Richard Eugene Bolstad and Captain George Grigsby McKnight were flying separate A-1E Sandy aircraft from the 602 ACS, 6251 TFW out of Bien Hoa detached to Udorn, Thailand when shot down.  The pilot they were trying to rescue was LCol George Carlton McCleary who had been shot down the day before.  McCleary was flying a F-105D from the 357 TFS out of Korat, Thailand.  McCleary was never spotted.  He was presumptively found to have died.  His remains were returned to US control in July 1988.   

Robinson, Black and Cormier ended up in 1968-1969 being held in Room 4 of the Zoo-Annex (Cu Loc prison).  The Annex consisted of eight rooms each holding 9 POWs, all of whom held the ranks of O3 or below.  The prison complex next door, the major part of Cu Loc, was called the Zoo.  The Zoo held an equal number of POWs with the ranks of O4 and below. 


On the night of May 10th, 1969, Air Force Captains John Arthur Dramesi and Edwin Lee Atterberry escaped from Room 5.  The next day they were captured a few miles outside of Hanoi.  Dramesi survived the torture, but Atterberry died within a week of brutal interrogation.  All the senior officers of each of the eight rooms of the Annex were removed from their cells and underwent intense and brutal interrogations.  Beatings of all POWs in the camp with fan belts were common.  Many were put in leg irons.  All air vents were sealed, and medical treatment was denied.  In the 120-degree heat in the sealed cells, all men quickly developed boils, ringworm and heat rash over their bodies.  The enlisted men were no exception.


The six officers of Room 4 decided that since the three enlisted men in their room, (Pararescueman A3C (E2) Arthur Neil Black, Pararescueman SSgt (E5) Arthur John Cormier, and Flight Engineer A1C (E4) William Andrew Robinson), were going through the same rough treatment as the rest of the officers in camp, they should be given a “battlefield commission.”  The SRO of Room 4, Lt (jg) Richard Marvin Brunhaver requested permission from Air Force Captain Conrad Trautman (Konnie), the Annex camp Senior Ranking Officer (SRO) in Room 5 to approve a battlefield commission for the three men. 

Konrad W. "Konnie" Trautman
Richard M. Brunhaver
John P Flynn
John L Borling

Captain Trautman, the senior ranking officer of 72 junior officers in the Annex, agreed.  He said the Air Force could consider the legality of the battlefield commission after eventual release. (Note: Release came during Operation Homecoming, Feb-Mar 1973). The men of Room 4 set up an Officer Candidate Course for the three men.  This later turned out to be an important decision which the Air Force took under consideration upon their return.  After the officer candidate course was completed, Room 4 SRO, Skip Brunhaver turned over the responsibility of administering the Oath of Office, which can be found in Section 3331, Title 5, United States Code, to the senior ranking Air Force officer in Room 4, 1Lt John L. Borling. 

Later, in Camp Unity, the senior ranking officer of all Vietnam POWs, Air Force Colonel John Peter Flynn was briefed on this event.  After the release of all POWs during Operation Homecoming, General Flynn took charge in presenting the issue to the Air Force.  The Chief of Staff of the Air Force turned the commissioning down.  Flynn then took it to the Secretary of the Air Force who in turn denied the commissioning.  Flynn then went to the Secretary of Defense who in turn denied the commissioning.  Flynn then did the unthinkable.  He went to President Nixon and briefed the President on what these three men went through and what actions the officers of Room 4 had taken. 

The President liked what he saw.  He said, “Yes, make it happen.”  And it did.  Brigadier General Flynn would later confide to Bill Robinson in a private conversation that this was one of his greatest accomplishments.  He was extremely proud that he could accomplish the impossible for three men under his command.

William Robinson receiving his Silver Star
Bill Robinson, Bob Lilly and Art Cormier


The three enlisted men remained on active duty after their release February 12, 1973.  Robinson and Black, both of whom had reached the rank of MSgt (E7), were sworn in as Air Force second lieutenants on April 9th, 1973.  Brigadier General Flynn swore in Neil Black.  Colonel Fred Vann Cherry, USAF swore in Bill Robinson.  Senior Master Sergeant (SMSgt)  (E8) Art Cormier held off accepting his commission as he was up for promotion to Chief Master Sergeant CMSgt (E9).  It was important to Art to reach this accomplishment, the highest level of promotion for the enlisted ranks.  After reaching CMSgt (E9) in February 1974, Art Cormier accepted his promotion to 2Lt.  Cormier’s date of commission was back dated to April 9th, 1973.  All three men attended an OCS course as 2nd Lts.  Arthur Neil Black would later retire with the rank of Major, USAF.  William Andrew Robison and Arthur John Cormier would retire with the rank of Captain, USAF.  Both William Robinson and Neil Black are recipients of the Air Force Cross, the nation’s second highest military award behind only the Congressional Medal of Honor.   They were the first Air Force enlisted men to receive the Air Force Cross.

Arthur Neil Black
Bill Robinson Capture Photo