ELLIS: Returning home with honor

Remembering Vietnam heroes

It was on the morning of Jan. 28, 1973, that my fellow prisoners of war and I were ordered to assemble in the yard of the North Vietnamese prison in Hanoi. 

The camp commandant, a stocky man in his mid-50s who had supervised our beatings and torment, forced a brief smile. It was the first time any of us had ever seen him do so. 

Speaking through an interpreter, he delivered the words each of us had lain awake so many nights hoping to hear: Negotiators in Paris had just reached a peace agreement, and all captured military personnel would be free within 60 days. 

At last, our often-stated mission was in sight: “Return home, with honor.”

Hard to believe that was 40 years ago. Like so many of the events that change our lives, human memory makes it seem at once like it happened yesterday — and in another lifetime.

Ever conscious of North Vietnamese propaganda efforts, we remained at attention, expressionless. We could always count on cameras whenever our treatment improved, as on those rare occasions that we were allowed packages from home. 

Determined not to give the enemy footage of American prisoners cheering inside the walls of the hated Hanoi prison system, we remained stoic, holding our joy and relief in check until our long awaited freedom became a reality.

I had been shot down 5 years, 4 months, 14 days earlier, on Nov. 7, 1967, at 4:00 PM. In the North Vietnamese prison camps, where time otherwise stood still, we kept close count. 

Captain Ken Fisher and I had been on a bombing mission to take out the guns that protected the Quang Khe ferry near Route 1A, the main thoroughfare for transporting the materials of war to the Ho Chi Minh Trail. 

As our F-4C Phantom jet roared toward the enemy artillery positions at 500 mph, the face of the Earth enlarged as if viewed through the zoom of a telephoto lens. We released our payload of bombs and lurched upward just as an explosion rocked the aircraft. I doubt I will ever forget the smell of the smoke filling the cockpit or the horrible sound of our jet falling apart — rather like the clatter of marbles in a blender.

I parachuted to safety but was barely able to radio my position before militia surrounded me. I tried to bluff them by firing a round over their heads with my sidearm, but they didn’t take the bait and immediately leveled their rifles at my head. I’ll never know why they didn’t shoot me on the spot.

Those were the thoughts that entered my mind as I walked back to the cold, dank, 48-square-foot cell that was home to me and three other Americans. 

Other memories flooded my mind that day (and in each of the days that have followed) of the heroic acts of brave men who remained committed to our mission, our nation and to each other. As one of our number, my friend and fellow “Hanoi Hilton” prisoner Sen. John McCain, has observed, “I have spent time in the company of heroes.” 

Actually, we were the lucky ones. In March 1973, thanks to the successful efforts of people like Dr. Henry Kissinger through the Paris Peace Accords and “Operation Homecoming,” we finally came home to open arms, the sounds of military bands and the applause of our countrymen. That was certainly not the case for most of the Americans who served in uniform in Vietnam. All too many were spit upon. 

Nevertheless, we Vietnam veterans emerged from the jungles, highlands, rice paddies and POW camps of America’s most unpopular war to distinguish ourselves in virtually every field of endeavor. Our comrades have stood for election to the highest offices in the land and served the people — from the cabinets of presidents of both parties to town councils and school boards. Among our number were the first responders who charged into the World Trade Center on Sept. 11, 1991, and gave their lives in doing so; others were on board Flight 93 that morning as it crashed into a field in rural Pennsylvania. 

We worked our way through some very difficult issues to form families and found great American companies. Countless thousands of us overcame debilitating injuries and psychological trauma, each of us aware that nothing we went through can compare to the ultimate sacrifice of the 58,261 Americans whose names appear on the Vietnam Memorial.

We owe it to each of them to remember their sacrifice — not just on the 40th anniversary of the cessation of hostilities, but always. As with all American veterans, from Bunker Hill to Baghdad, they have earned both our liberty and our everlasting gratitude.

Col. Lee Ellis (Ret.) is an author and lecturer on the subject of leadership whose most recent book is “Leading With Honor: Leadership Lessons from the Hanoi Hilton” (Freedom Star Media, 2012). For 1,955 days, he was a prisoner of war in North Vietnam.

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