Air Force POW recounts events, inspires Airmen
92nd Air Refueling Wing Public Affairs
/ Published October 15, 2019
FAIRCHILD AIR FORCE BASE, Wash. --
As daylight fades from the Vietnam skies, a U.S. Air Force F-4 Phantom conducts a security patrol with the goal of identifying enemy activity. Without warning, anti-aircraft missiles erupt into the skies, blazing through the darkness and ripping through the Phantom.
With seconds to act, the two men piloting the disintegrating aircraft eject just seconds before it crashes. Yanking the ejection handles, their parachutes deploy and their descent into darkness begins. Their destination: the enemy territory they finished checking security for mere seconds ago. They hit the ground and rush into a bomb crater created from previous battles with the hopes to call for help over the radio from a secure location … yet, within no time at all, the enemy surrounds them, demanding their surrender.
This is how retired U.S. Air Force Col. Lee Ellis, Vietnam War F-4 Phantom pilot, described the fateful night he and his comrade were shot down and captured during the Vietnam conflict to Team Fairchild Airmen as part of a monthly leadership speaker series, Oct. 8, at the base theater.
“Having Mr. Ellis here was a great experience and opportunity for our team to hear a first-hand account about resilience, leadership and success,” said Col. Gene Jacobus, 92nd Air Refueling Wing vice commander. “We’re always looking for ways to better our team, and through events like this, we provide our Airmen the opportunity to grow both personally and professionally.”
His experience fostering his leadership abilities began when he ejected from his aircraft and was captured by the enemy.
“They apprehended me and removed my flight gear, blindfolded me and then transferred me for over two weeks where we had to avoid three separate bombings,” Ellis said. “I decided it was time to suck it up and do my duty. I was alive, I knew who I was, I was an Airman in the U.S. military and I knew what I had to do, which was Return with Honor.”
Ellis shared with Airmen his leadership principles, learned and cultivated while he was a five-year prisoner of war.
“All leaders face difficulties and challenges every day,” Ellis said in his book Leading with Honor. “No one can control what the next day will bring, but there is one thing that can be controlled: attitude. Attitude is crucial for success in any endeavor, and no one influences organizational and individual attitudes more than the leader.”
“As a leader, I learned how important it is to stay positive,” he said. “Our leaders were always positive and they set an example for us. They were confident in one thing: that they were going to do their best. [Their positive attitude] made us truly believe we could do it.”
After spending more than five years as a POW in Vietnam, Ellis and many other POWs were finally set free and sent back home to their families. Upon returning home, Ellis quickly returned to serve as a pilot and went on to serve as a Reserve Officer Training Corps detachment commander at his former college Georgia University, where he mentored and developed future officers.
During his speech to Team Fairchild, Ellis gave thanks and praise to the Survival Evasion Resistance and Escape training that he received here as part of his pilot training course.
“It was almost 53 years ago when I completed [SERE] training here at Fairchild, and little did I know within 15 months of completing my training, I would end up in a [POW] camp,” Ellis said. “You never know how things are going to turn, but the training and leadership I had made all the difference.”
The Fairchild Speaker Series is a monthly event where experts and leaders from diverse career fields come to share leadership insights with Team Fairchild and provide Airmen the opportunity to expand their professional development in preparation for the potential challenges of today and tomorrow.