Former VW POW, Fighter Pilot Shares Leadership Wisdom
by U.S. Air National Guard David Bedard, 176th Wing Public Affairs
October 27, 2019
For several months, a dank 6.5' x 7' foot cell at the Hanoi Hilton
served as a crucible that tested the limits of human endurance for
retired Air Force Col. Leon Ellis and three of his fellow prisoners.
If it wasn’t too cold at night to sleep, if he wasn’t too hungry
from slurping watery pumpkin soup, or wasn’t worried about his
parents who didn’t know he was shot down over North Vietnam on November 7,
1967 ... Ellis was suffering torture at the hands of his captors.
U.S. Retired Air Force
Col. Leon Ellis, a former F-4 Phantom II fighter pilot who
endured 1,955 days of captivity in the Hanoi Hilton, speaks
to Alaska Air National Guardsmen of 176th Wing Aug. 19 at
Joint Base Elmendorf-Richardson. Ellis used his experiences
to illustrate leadership principles. (U.S. Air National
Guard photo by David Bedard, 176th Wing PA)
The communists wanted compliance and useful information, but
what they really wanted was written statements and filmed
confessions denouncing the United States.
Ellis said it was
during those months when he would confront in stark terms who he
was. He thought he was tough coming from a background in football on
both offensive and defensive lines, but he wasn’t tough enough, he
said, at least not alone.
Still, with the help of his leaders
and comrades-in-arms, Ellis said he managed to pull through during
his Aug. 19 speaking engagement with Air National Guardsmen of 176th
Wing at Joint Base Elmendorf-Richardson.
Ellis reported to Da
Nang Air Base, Republic of Vietnam, in July 1967 with the 390th
Tactical Fighter Squadron where he would fly mostly bombing sorties
in the F-4 Phantom II fighter.
On Nov. 7, 1967, then-First
Lieutenant Ellis was flying a mission with Capt. Ken Fisher when
their F-4 took anti-aircraft artillery fire right after the fighter
duo released their bomb load. As the crippled Phantom broke apart,
both Airmen managed to safely eject from the stricken fighter.
Ellis said his pilot indoctrination served him well during the
ordeal, but it would only go so far.
“I was totally calm
during the ejection — coming down in the parachute — it was all
training,” Ellis recalled. “I had one thought: evade. But after they
captured me, I was terrified.”
During his multi-week journey
cross-country to the Hỏa Lò Prison, a 19th Century French-built
prison better known by it’s captors as the Hanoi Hilton, Ellis and
his captors were strafed and bombed by American aircraft, pilots
unaware of American presence, three times.
Before seeing the
inside of the Hanoi Hilton, Ellis said he had already feared for his
life when a mob led by a bullhorn-bearing communist cadre member
tried to get their hands on him. He credits the militiaman charged
with transporting him with saving his life.
When he arrived
at the prison, Ellis was crammed into a tiny cell with Fisher and
two other officers. All they had was a 3-gallon bucket for a
bathroom and a loud speaker that plumbed in communist propaganda
three times a day.
“What they really wanted was for us to
make antiwar propaganda,” the colonel said. “We were a tool in their
hands, so that was going to be our battle.”
If they were
going to win the battle, Ellis said they had to band together and
keep their collective objectives in mind.
“Our goals were to
live up to the Code of Conduct, to resist the enemy, and to keep
faith with our fellow POWs and our country — to return with honor,”
Reading the Code of Conduct was one thing, living it
was quite another, Ellis said, when facing down a torture team.
“That’s when you find out who you really are,” he said. “I was
tough, but one-on-one with a communist interrogator who has torture
guys with him, that’s a scary place. I found out I wasn’t as tough
as I thought I was. Nobody was.”
‘Tomorrow is another day’
Ellis admits he is not naturally a positive man, but credits the
“Stockdale Paradox,” for keeping him in the battle. Named after
fellow captive Navy Vice Adm. James Stockdale, the paradox is both
positive and realistic.
“You must never give up hope of a
good ending, but you have to brutally confront the realities of your
current situation,” Ellis paraphrased. “It isn’t going away. You
have to deal with it.”
Under the specter of constant
privation and torture, Ellis said he struggled with his predicament.
“Staying positive in that little cell, especially that first
year, was hard,” he said.
A saying he held onto came from the
mouth of fellow captive, Marine 1st Lt. Jim Warner.
tomorrow is another day,’” Ellis quoted. “And it was.”
Keeping his small group together was Fisher. He encouraged the other
officers and set the example for not giving in to torture. Ellis
credits his crew mate with helping to keep him in the battle.
“You need to know your people are watching you, and they’re
seeing how you handle the tough situations,” he said. “They’re
seeing if you have the courage to stand up for what you believe in
and to do the right thing.”
Beyond blazing a path for others
to follow, Ellis also said leaders need to know themselves and to
take the time to know their people.
“Leadership is always
first of all about influence,” he said. “If you’re not connected to
your people, you can’t influence them … As a leader, you need to
know where your people are, where their head is, and where their
In the process of knowing members of the team,
Ellis said leaders can move their people from a nagging sense of
insecurity to a place of security.
“We’re humans, and one of
the deepest needs humans have besides eating, shelter and being
loved is to be valued and appreciated,” he said. “As a leader,
that’s one of your biggest responsibilities.”
months, the torture stopped and conditions improved somewhat thanks
to a change in communist policy. After 1,955 days of captivity,
Ellis returned to U.S. custody. With the help fellow leaders, he
managed to survive and return with honor.
“Your message was
inspiring,” said Alaska Air National Guard Brig. Gen. Darrin Slaten,
176th Wing commander. “You came here with immense credibility, and
our leadership here will be able to take your lessons learned back
to their Airmen.”
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