A Patriot and the Longest Held POW in American History

A Patriot and the Longest Held POW in American History

Published by: David Cate
June 28, 2022

When you look back on your years, it's good to pause and reflect on those intersections that changed the trajectory of our lives. You know the ones. Although they may be short in years, they are long in influence.

I suppose that can go both ways, but when you take a moment to appreciate those who influenced you for the better - you come to recognize the blessings that cross your path.

My family lived moved to Hendersonville, TN, in the early seventies. That's where we met Annette and Charles Tinnin, who lived two houses down South Valley Drive.

We met Annette and Charles while they were working in their garden one day, and it wasn't long before we were there most every day in our pre-teen years. Sometimes we ate fabulous meals, told stories, and played games. Annette's father, Robert Horsly, was a former executive with Parker Brothers, and we had the best of the best.

In fact, my brother and I had our first media job working with Annette and Charles. Someone in their family owned a printing company and produced a small visitors guide called "The Tennessee Visitor Guide." We rode with them each month and dropped off magazines at Nashville's primary entertainment venues and bars.

As I look back on that time, these are some of my best memories, but that was only three years. It wasn't long before we moved to Kingsport in 1976, and Annette and Charles were always in the rearview mirror.

I've been grateful for our friendship for a very long time. We don't get to see each other often. Still, when I heard Annette and Charles were attending a Gold Star Memorial installation in Erwin this past Summer, I cleared my calendar to share this experience with them.

Charles Tinnin is a marine. That's one of the fantastic stories he always used to talk about when we were young. They recently moved back to their hometown in Clarksville and, among other efforts, have committed to recognizing and supporting the build-out of Gold Star Family Memorials across the state and country.

Gold Star Families are those families whose sons or daughters never came home from military service. These fallen soldiers' wives, husbands, children, and relatives made the greatest sacrifice. Annette and Charles are patriots in the truest sense of the word.

When I arrived in Erwin, it was cloudy, but there was already a gathering of people inside the town hall. It didn't take long before Charles saw me come through the door. He was with several people then and introduced me in a flurry of handshakes.

There was a short ceremony before the presentation. A local singer from a Baptist church boldly and joyfully sang a couple of songs, and the Mayor of Erwin spoke as well. Other speakers included a 4-star General Baxter, who attended to honor the families of Erwin.

One of the men Charles introduced me to when I arrived was Bill Robinson. When he said his name, I immediately thought of my good friend Bill Robinson from The Kingsport Times-News. He was another influencer, and the name connection made it easy to remember.

Bill was on the speaker's schedule, and General Baxter introduced him as the longest-held POW veteran in America's history. During his military service in Vietnam, his helicopter was shot down in enemy territory as they tried to evacuate his comrades. Bill and his men were captured, and he was held captive from 1965 to 1973 in the Hanoi Hilton.

When Bill spoke, he read Psalm 23 slowly and set the somber tone of what we were there to honor in Erwin.

After the marker ceremony, I wanted to talk to Bill a little longer. We shook hands the second time we met, and I felt something cold and metallic. When I opened my hand, I was surprised to hold Bill's challenge coin.

When I was a kid, Charles would tell me the story of a military man and his challenge coin. As he said, it was an extreme exchange of respect between soldiers. Bill Robinson had given me a memento, and I'll never forget it.

I still have tremendous respect for Annette and Charles. They helped encourage my curiosity, and Charles taught me about honor. Bless you, both in your future endeavors to honor our Gold Star families. May God continue to bless you both.