Interview With POW Colonel Lee Ellis

Lee Ellis was on his first Air Force assignment, flying an F-4C aircraft out of Danang, South Vietnam, when he was forced to eject over Dong Hoi, North Vietnam, and captured. He endured 5 1/2 years as a Prisoner of War (POW) in the infamous Hoa Loa prison, nicknamed the Hanoi Hilton.
It was during that incarceration, in the crucible of leadership, that he learned the lessons that guided him through the rest of his career and his life.
After repatriation, he returned to flying, serving as a T-38 Instructor Pilot (IP), Stan-Eval Flight Examiner (SEFE), and Squadron Commander. His final assignment in the Air Force was Commander of the Air Force ROTC Program at the University of Georgia.
He now travels and lectures extensively on Leadership, and has written four books.

His website is


I’m Not On The Wall

The Vietnam Veterans Memorial – The Wall – has panels that list the KIA (Killed In Action) casualties in chronological order of their loss. Panel W1, the last panel, encompasses the date July 31, 1972. My name is not on that panel, because my military Brothers, J.D. Allen and the crew of Purple 28, saved my life.

Forty-four years ago today, I was Number Four in Walnut Flight, four F-4s on a strike deep into enemy territory north of Hanoi. The flight was being led by a new flight lead on his first mission over Hanoi, and J.D. was the deputy flight lead, Walnut Three. Enroute to the target, we faced heavy reactions. SAMs (surface-to-air missiles), AAA (anti-aircraft artillery) and MiG calls (enemy aircraft). As we egressed the target area over the Gulf of Tonkin, Lead called for a fuel check, and that was when we all realized that my fuel was significantly below the other airplanes in the flight. In fact, I wouldn’t have enough fuel to make it to the post-strike refueling point.

Lead was out of ideas, and that’s when J.D. went into action. With Lead’s concurrence, he took command of the flight, sent us over to the emergency GUARD frequency, and made contact with the refueling tankers. One of them, Purple 28, volunteered to fly up into enemy territory to meet us. That crew put their airplane, their lives, and their careers on the line to save me.

Back in 1972, navigation was not the GPS precision it is today. The INS (inertial navigation system) position on the F-4 could be off by as much as 10 miles for every hour of operation. The only way to roughly determine our position was radial/DME from a TACAN located on a Navy ship, far away. J.D. asked the tanker for his position from the TACAN, then gave the tanker a heading to meet up with us. Picking the tanker up on radar, J.D. told him when to begin his turn to a heading to match ours, and told him to start a descent. In the meantime, he directed me to start a half-nozzle descent.

My WSO and I were running through the Preparation For Ejection checklist, and I was periodically reporting my fuel state. The last reading I recall seeing was 0 on the tape and 0030 on the counter. About two minutes fuel. With fuel gauge tolerance, perhaps a bit more, perhaps less.

Up until this time I had simply been flying the headings, speeds and altitudes J.D. had assigned. I was pretty much operating on mental autopilot. The next thing I knew, I looked up and saw the refueling boom of the tanker directly above me, ready to plug in. I opened up my refueling door and immediately heard the rush of JP-4 entering my aircraft. And I knew I wouldn’t need to step over the side on this mission.

I think of J.D. and the tanker crew, and silently thank them, every time I hold my wife, my kids, my grandkids. If they hadn’t stepped up to the plate when they did, I’m fairly certain I wouldn’t have made it home. When you pull the ejection handle over shark-infested enemy-controlled water, there are a thousand things that can happen to prevent a happy outcome.

So on this anniversary, July 31st, I want to once again thank my Brothers, the brave tanker crew and J.D. Allen.

Great Bookends For The Locher Rescue

If you want to hear first-person accounts of the mission to rescue Roger Locher from North Vietnam, you’ll want to listen to these two interviews. The first is with ace Brigadier General Steve Ritchie, and the second is with Brigadier General Dale Stovall.

For more exciting and inspirational interviews, please visit the Ready For Takeoff podcast.