Just two days shy of the 40th anniversary of the signing of the treaty ending the Vietnam War, two former POWs toured an exhibit Jan. 25 at the Hill Aerospace Museum containing a reproduction of a cell from the Hanoi Hilton.
Retired Col. Leon “Lee” Ellis and retired Lt. Col. Jay Hess, Air Force pilots shot down over North Vietnam in 1967 and both held for more than 5 years, visited the Hoa Lo Prison cell built as a part of the recently opened Vietnam War exhibit. Hess was shot down in August 1967 and Ellis three months later in November.
“(Our captors) thought if they could break the leaders everybody else would follow. It just never worked,” said Ellis.
“The amazing thing was their courage and the commitment to do the right thing. They just kept bouncing back and they would go through torture and isolation and then bounce back. It was a great example for us to try to keep up with them,” he added.
In contrast to his somber recollections, earlier panels of the exhibit showing photos of some POWs being released brought big smiles to the two men. They compared recollections of their individual rides home in the C-141 “Hanoi Taxi” which flew out groups of about 40 POWs to freedom and the hugs as the guys circled the nurses on the plane.
“They had three nurses on each flight. There were about 40 guys … so the girls just kind of circulated around and we just hugged them, they were obviously prepared for that kind of thing and hugged us well,” said Hess. “They were excited too.”
“We hadn’t been enjoying beauty, so it was great to hug some of the ladies,” said Ellis. “We hadn’t seen a female in five and a half years and God made beauty to be enjoyed.”
While Ellis was shot down in an F-4 Phantom, Hess flew an F-105 Thunderchief. Both were captured soon after they ejected. Hess, unconscious, awoke to find himself surrounded. Ellis landed within yards of his captors, seeing his comrade, Ken Fisher, caught in his parachute by enemy forces before he could even hit the ground.
Ellis said the cell reproduction was very similar to one of the first rooms he was held in after a two week road trip to Hanoi in the back of a truck. “This makes it feel real,” he said.
“I think I always believed I would go home someday, that I would get out and come home. The enemy would look at me and at first it was a fear of torture, and then of being tortured, and not being able to beat them at torturing me, and secondly it was the depression of being locked up all the time, especially in these small cells, being bunked so that we were almost on top of one another,” said Ellis.
Both praised the leadership of those they were imprisoned with. Hess recalled the torture being the hardest dished out to those who held senior leadership in the U.S. military.
“That was one of our great assets that we did really have great leaders,” Hess said.
“The POWs in Hanoi were kind of a different, unique group because we had more training — we were older,” said Ellis. “The average age inside was 30. So these are people who already had life experience. We had the great leadership that Jay talked about earlier. We had the ‘Code of Conduct’ which our POWs in Korea did not have.”
He added, “I think we would have been a mess if we had gone straight in (to the Hanoi Hilton) at 18.”
Ellis also believes that the improvement in prisoner treatment during the last two years of captivity helped ease some of the adjustment period for the POWs. As a group the Vietnam POWs exceeded the achievement level of others in their peer group who were either not in the military or served in the military but were not imprisoned.
He counts 16 generals, 6 admirals, 2 U.S. senators, several congressmen, several CEOs and seven foreign attaches — with one of those generals a four-star.
“We had this drive to succeed, because we had been shut down from achieving,” said Ellis.
He recalls a fellow prisoner teaching him calculus with a piece of red brick as chalk to write on the concrete slab floor.
“He would write out problems and teach me and then I would do the homework. He would give me three or four problems to do and I would get down on the floor to do them,” Ellis explained.
After that man was freed, he returned to become the dean of mathematics at the Naval Academy, Ellis reported.
Sights and sounds were very important to POWs. A step in the hall or a shadow at the door at an unexpected time usually meant something bad.
Six months of pumpkin soup, three months of cabbage soup and three of “swamp grass soup,” left them with little energy.
Temperatures in the winter were often in the 50s and their holding cells were unheated. Their bodies shivered trying to burn calories to make up the difference. And the summers were hot with no air conditioning.
Both of them described such a feeling of thankfulness upon their return. Hess said every experience for two years had an element of such an elevation from his previous experiences that he couldn’t help comparing everything.
Even now, Ellis said he walks into an area with an elevated sense of vigilance. “I hear sounds, I see things. It’s almost like an obsession to keep up with what’s going around me by sound and sight,” he explained.
Ellis was at the base for a chance to sign books in which he described some of the lessons of leadership that came out of the POWs experience. He points out several commonalities in the experience and their benefits to everyday life for anyone wanting to become a better leader.
“Leading with Honor: Lessons from the Hanoi Hilton,” by Lee Ellis is available online at leading bookstore chains. He was at Hill Air Force Base for a book signing at the BX and wanted a chance to see the exhibit and visit with Hess.
The former Vietnam War POW group holds reunions and stays in touch by email.
“Every day is a celebration,” said Ellis. “As our fellow POW Paul Galanti says, ‘Any day you can get up and the door lock is on the inside is a good day.’ ”