GOODFELLOW AIR FORCE BASE, Texas --
On Feb. 15, Col. Leon F. “Lee” Ellis, visited the Goodfellow Air Force Base Theater, sharing his story with the audience, using experience as a prisoner of war as a reflection of leadership through hardship.
Born and raised in Georgia, Ellis commissioned into the Air Force through Reserve Officers’ Training Corps at the University of Georgia in Athens as a fighter-pilot.
“It said it there on my orders,” explained Ellis. “After training I was going right to south-east Asia.”
He arrived and flew 53 missions, successfully. But, that came to an end.
On November 7, 1967, Ellis, was shot down in Vietnam and captured by opposing forces.
“All the training came back,” said Ellis. “I knew I was going down and I was trained to react, trained to know when to make the call to eject or to land, and I knew I had to eject. I had two seconds to make the decision and I did. If I didn’t my F-4 [jet] would’ve gone 480mph into the earth.”
He successfully ejected and landed about 300-clicks north of a river. He requested strafe fire north of him and that he would move south down toward to the river, but the fighters never came.
“After I got out they told me I was completely surrounded,” said Ellis. “There was no way they could keep me safe. The enemy was all over me.”
Viet Cong forces captured him. For the next 1,955 days, Ellis went through what he described as moments of boredom interrupted by stark moments of terror. After two weeks of travelling through Vietnam, he arrived at the Hoa Loa Prison in Hanoi, Vietnam.
“They called it the Hanoi Hilton,” said Ellis. “Of course, I didn’t know the name until I got there.”
During his speech, he held his arms out to his side.
“Add a foot to that and you have the width of the room they kept me in,” he said. “Which would’ve been okay, but there was three other guys in there with me.”
Faith in his country and God keeping him alive and hopeful, he left the camp with a clearer insight as to what makes us human.
“We had to endure a lot,” he said. “They’d torture us to our breaking point, then they’d let us recover, then they’d go right back at it. And we had to keep resilience the whole time. We couldn’t give up. I took away a lot of lessons from that.”
Within Ellis’s own room, the senior ranking officer was making the decision to collaborate with the enemy. The second in command, Capt. Ken Fisher, asked Ellis and the other prisoner if they’d assist him in standing down the senior ranking officer.
“I just don’t understand it,” said Ellis. “Fisher asked him if he were collaborating with the enemy and he said that in fact he was. He made all kinds of excuses, so many things to justify it to himself. Saying, ‘we’re not in actual declared war,’ stuff like that. I just don’t understand how someone could betray their country.”
Naturally, faced with the same dilemmas and offers as the senior officer who collaborated, Ellis built a strong resilience.
After the death of Ho Chi Minh, and the new leader of Vietnam, Ton Duc Thang, talks of ending the war took a different direction on both sides.
“My family started getting involved in the national league of POW/MIA, it’s amazing what the women did,” said Ellis. “They changed the policy of the U.S. government, and our U.S. government started raising hell about POW accountability and treatment and they ultimately changed everything by going to Paris and taking millions of letters from parents to the peace talks. This set up for when Ho Chi Minh died and the new leadership came in. After the change they did a dialectic dance: we were no longer working mules, we were prisoners; we were no longer tortured, we were ‘live and let to live.’”
Peace talks went on for about two more years, leading to the Paris Peace Accords. Operation Homecoming followed after the Paris Peace Accords reached a final agreement, starting the return of 591 American prisoners of war over a period of three months.
“So the last two years we were there, were totally different because of the families back home,” said Ellis. “You want to talk about leadership that had an impact? Those families had a huge impact. Leadership always makes a difference. It’s about connecting at a heart level, and that gives energy. And that energy to write those letters and get involved took heart—it came from the heart. For 19 months we lived in a new cell, a bigger one. Can you imagine being locked up with 52 guys in a room about this big for a couple years?” said Ellis, motioning to the stage he stood on. “So we got busy and got organized. We had an education program: all days of the week almost all day. We were busy. My goal was to get fluent in French, fluent in Spanish, and German. The good news is I accomplished all my goals. The bad news is I was there long enough to accomplish all my goals!”
During the wait, the prisoners dealt with uncertainty, making them have to maintain resilience.
“We had a lot of push back, but we were always bouncing back and bouncing back,” said Ellis. “Resiliency was everything. But one day, on February 12th groups, were being released every two weeks after the Paris Agreement documents were being signed. I was the third group. March 14th of 1973 is when I left for home.”
From there he left the “Hilton” and flew to Clark Air Base in the Philippines, where they were processed and debriefed. Retired Major General John L. Borling, a POW in Hanoi who was a returnee during Operation Homecoming, commented that after being hospitalized in the Philippines, many of the doctors and psychologists were amazed by the resiliency of the majority of the men. Many of the repatriated members, including Ellis, Borling, and even Senator John McCain, returned to their active duty careers.
He concluded his talk with a lesson:
“Bounce back,” he said. “Always bounce back. Always remember to communicate mission, vision and values. Develop your people, and balance the mission and people. Those are the key things that are going to help you in life and leadership, wherever you are.”