ENID, Okla. —
On Nov. 7, 1967, Lee Ellis’ life changed forever.
That day Ellis, then a 24-year-old Air Force 1st lieutenant, was flying his F-4C Phantom tactical fighter on a bombing run over North Vietnam when the jet was hit by antiaircraft fire.
The aircraft burst into flames, but Ellis still managed to drop his load of bombs directly on the target before he and his front-seater, Ken Fisher, ejected from the plane, which then exploded.
Both were quickly captured by the enemy. Thus began their more than five-year captivity in Hoa Lo Prison, better known as the “Hanoi Hilton.”
Ellis will share some of his experiences as a prisoner of war and the leadership lessons he learned from his captivity during a pair of speeches Sunday and Monday in Enid.
He will be featured speaker Sunday evening during the Woodring Wall of Honor Legacy Award Ceremony at Chisholm Trail Expo Center. The dinner begins at 6:30, followed by the award ceremony at 7:30.
Monday, Ellis will speak at the 11 a.m. dedication ceremony for the retired traveling Vietnam Memorial Wall in its new permanent home on the grounds of Enid Woodring Regional Airport, adjacent to the Woodring Wall of Honor.
Ellis didn’t think he was going to survive his first hours as a prisoner when his captors marched him up to a drainage ditch.
“I really thought this was going to be a firing squad,” Ellis said. “I remembered stories of the Korean War and the enemy executing prisoners and shoving their bodies in a ditch.”
His captors ordered Ellis to face the ditch, yelling and pointing guns at him. He could see the ditch under his blindfold. He decided his best chance for survival was to face his captors.
“I thought maybe they would have mercy on me,” he said.
Instead, they kept turning him around. This went on for awhile until one of his captors shoved him and he found himself falling into the ditch, so he did the only thing he could think of, he jumped across.
Instantly his captors broke into smiles. All they wanted, it seemed, was to get him to jump that ditch and proceed across the adjacent rice paddy.
Conditions in the area of the prison where Ellis was held, known as Little Vegas, were brutal. Prisoners regularly were interrogated and tortured.
“When you go face-to-face with a communist interrogator threatening you, and you think he has the power of life and death over you and he is threatening to torture you, that is a pretty scary place to be,” Ellis said. “You just have to figure out what it was you can do that best supports your duty. I tried to deny them what they wanted, which was information. Some guys were stronger than others mentally or physically, but everybody has a breaking point.”
As the months and years of privation and fear passed, Ellis never allowed himself to lose hope.
“I always expected to someday get out of there,” he said. “I thought I could make six months. Then after six months I thought I could make another year, then after a year I thought I could make two years. But, as it turned out, it was about four.”
Ellis credited the camaraderie and leadership provided by his fellow prisoners for helping him get through the experience.
“If I had been totally alone it would have been that much harder,” he said. “But we had good leadership and teamwork. When one guy was down, others encouraged him to bounce back.”
One of those leaders, Robinson Risner of Oklahoma, died recently at the age of 88. Risner was one of the highest-ranking officers in the Hanoi Hilton.
“He was a real mentor for me in the POW camp, a real encouragement,” said Ellis. “He was a great friend and a natural leader. He made a difference in our lives.”
The prisoners passed the time memorizing Bible verses or poems, doing pushups or playing mind games.
“I spent two months farming,” he said. “I went from having 40 acres to owning almost the entire county. I would work 10 to 12 hours a day figuring how much fertilizer I would need.”
He also spent months trying to decide which law school he would attend when he finally returned to the U.S. As it turned out, he stayed with the Air Force, becoming a T-38 instructor pilot and later serving on the Air Education and Training Command staff before retiring in 1990.
Ellis now is president and founder of Leadership Freedom LLC, a leadership consulting company, and FreedomStar Media, a publishing company specializing in leadership material. He is the author of the book “Leading With Honor, leadership lessons from the Hanoi Hilton.” Many of his fellow Hanoi Hilton prisoners, including U.S. Sen. John McCain, have gone on to successful careers. Ellis said their POW experience was a contributing factor.
“We became more goal-oriented,” he said. “It gave us a lot of confidence we could think through any problem, come up with an answer and go out and do something about it. We learned a lot about ourselves and leadership that paid off.”
Upon their release, Ellis and his fellow prisoners came home to a hero’s welcome. Such was not the case for most Vietnam War veterans, however. That makes Monday’s dedication of the Vietnam Memorial Wall all the more meaningful for Ellis.
“It is a tragedy that Vietnam servicemen in general were not recognized and not honored,” said Ellis. “Part of my personal mission in life is to honor those who served in Vietnam, especially those who didn’t come home.”
ENID, Okla. —
On Nov. 7, 1967, Lee Ellis’ life changed forever.
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