Lee Ellis: Inspiring honorable living
Story and photo by Kathy Eastwood
WEST POINT, N.Y. (Nov. 15, 2013) — Retired Air Force Col. Lee Ellis, who endured unimaginable hardship as a prisoner of war, spoke to Class of 2015 cadets enrolled in the Professional Military Ethic course Nov. 5 at Robinson Auditorium about the leadership lessons learned by the commanding officers imprisoned during the Vietnam War.
Leadership abilities can be severely tested when imprisoned behind enemy lines, where leaders of character must find creative ways to communicate with fellow prisoners and maintain unit cohesion.
Following some basic leadership rules, such as know yourself, guard your character, stay positive, confront your doubts and fears, fight to win and bounce back and resiliency are keys to survival.
Ellis spoke peripherally about his experience as a POW, but more about the leadership abilities and strength of character of those imprisoned with him who helped him and others survive.
People like Navy Commander Jeremiah Denton, now a retired admiral; Capt. Kenneth Fisher, who was shot down with Ellis; Commander James Bond Stockdale, a Medal of Honor recipient; Ellis’ friend Lt. Col. James Robinson Risner; and Senator John McCain.
Ellis became a prisoner of war when his plane was shot down over Vietnam Nov. 7, 1967, and he was eventually captured by the Viet Cong and imprisoned in Hoa Lo Prison, also known the infamous Hanoi Hilton.
“The whole idea of duty, honor and country, has been around for a long time and deepened my spirit for 50 years now,” Ellis said. “Fifty years ago, I signed my first contract going into the advanced ROTC as I entered my sophomore year at the University of Georgia.”
Ellis always wanted to fly airplanes since he was five years old. That ambition followed him throughout his life and, after graduation, he entered the Air Force.
“Half my class got an assignment flying F-4’s and went to Southeast Asia,” Ellis said. “The war was building up and as quickly as they could get us combat ready we were going to war. They sent us to California in the High Desert. It’s a great place to fly and train. Here I am, a 23-year-old kid, taking off early in the morning at faster than 500 miles an hour. It couldn’t get any better than that for someone who always wanted to fly. All that training was for a purpose, we were going to war. And we knew it.”
Ellis spent more than five years at the Hanoi Hilton, which occupied an entire block of downtown Hanoi. Ellis described it as a fortress prison, a Bastille prison with 15-foot walls that were five feet thick with guards on all four corners holding machine guns. The top of the walls embedded with glass.
“The Viet Cong wanted to break us, to get information and make anti-war propaganda films,” Ellis said. “And they wanted to indoctrinate us. We had propaganda three times a day.
“But our goal was to live up to the code of conduct,” Ellis added. “We wanted to resist the enemy, be loyal to our country and lead or follow and keep the faith. We wanted to go home very bad and we were doing our best to live up to the code of conduct and return with honor.”
Ellis spoke about the commanders in his cellblock who inspired them to follow the code of conduct when dealing with the enemy as POWs.
“I saw this guy I knew, Col. James Robinson Risner who was shot down in April 1965. He was there for two and a half years at the Hanoi Hilton before I was,” Ellis said. “We couldn’t talk, but we spelled out words with our hands and he told me what he had gone through. They were trying to break him to keep him from exercising his command.”
Later on, Risner helped lead American resistance in the prison through messaging techniques such as using the tap code, tapping on pipes and walls. The code was based on a 5x5 grid made up of the letters in the alphabet. One knock indicated a row; the second knock indicated a column.
Retired Air Force Col. Lee Ellis spoke to Class of 2015 cadets about the leadership lessons he and other prisoners of war learned during their capture and imprisonment in Vietnam.
Risner was a prized prisoner to the enemy after they received the April 1965 Time Magazine with his photo on the cover, so he received the brunt of the torture. The enemy wanted Risner to do a press conference to denounce the war.
Risner did everything he could to destroy his voice, but when that didn’t work, he deliberately fumbled his words and used a fake accent. It infuriated his captors, but endeared him to his men.
Risner advised his Soldiers, “I’m in charge here. Here is what I want you to do. Be a good American; live by the code of conduct, take torture to resist only up to the point of where you don’t lose physical or mental damage, then go ahead and give in, give as little as possible and be ready to bounce back.”
“After Risner, we had James Bond Stockdale to take over, a Medal of Honor recipient,” Ellis said. “They wanted him to make a propaganda film, but he damaged his face so bad that they decided against it and he ended in solitary confinement.”
When Stockdale transferred to another camp, Commander Jeremiah Denton took over. Denton was ordered to speak at yet another press conference, another propaganda device of the enemy.
Denton did so, but used Morse code by blinking his eyes to spell the word TORTURE, when a reporter asked how he was being treated.
“It was incredibly innovative,” Ellis said.
Capt. Michael Davidson, education officer for the Simon Center for Professional Military Ethic, said he hopes that through listening to Col. Ellis, cadets are better able to internalize the importance of living honorably, as well as the hard work and commitment it requires.
“Protecting your honor is not always easy, but paramount as a leader. Having the courage to stay true to your principles takes practice, reflection and more practice,” Davidson said.