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He joined the United States Air Force and in June 1957, graduated from Air Force Pilot Training. He later flew the F-86F, the F-100 and then the F-104. He volunteered for combat duty and in September 1965 was flying the F-104C with the 436th Tactical Fighter Squadron based at Da Nang Air Base, South Vietnam.
On 20 September 1965 Captain Smith was flying his F-104C #56-883 on a mission to escort an EC-121 over the Gulf of Tonkin when due to equipment failure and incorrect navigational commands he strayed into Chinese airspace over Hainan. His aircraft was intercepted and shot down by two Shenyang J-6 fighters of the People's Liberation Army Naval Air Force. Captain Smith ejected successfully and was captured by PLA forces.
He was first taken to Canton for interrogation and then later transferred to Peking. Most of his captivity was spent in solitary confinement; however, he did meet John T. Downey and Richard Fecteau both of whom were CIA agents captured in 1952.
Due to improving US-China relations following President Richard Nixon's historic 1972 visit to China, Captain Smith was released on 15 March 1973, crossing the land border into the British Crown Colony of Hong Kong.
Smith returned to USAF duty and retired with the rank of Colonel in December 1996.
- Van Staaveren, Jacob (2002). Gradual Failure: The Air War over North Vietnam 1965–1966 (PDF). Air Force History and Museums Program. pp. 183–4. ISBN 9781508779094. This article incorporates text from this source, which is in the public domain.
- Smith, Philip (1992). Journey Into Darkness: the Gripping Story of an American Pow's Seven Years Trapped Inside Red China During the Vietnam War. Pocket Books. pp. 29–35. ISBN 0671728237.
- "Robert J. Flynn, Shot Down in Vietnam War and Held in China, Dies at 76". New York Times. 24 May 2014.
- Robert J. Flynn (1967 shootdown of a US Navy attack aircraft)