“And Now The Fat Is In The Fire”: An F-4 Phantom Pilot On Missions Over Vietnam And Captivity In The Hanoi Hilton

Leon "Lee" Ellis


Lee Ellis was born in southern Georgia in 1943 and grew up with his older brother. His father worked at a feed and seed store and was the manager at a poultry processing plant, and his mother graduated from the University of Georgia with a degree in home economics. He remembers driving a ‘49 Ford Coupe in his youth. He decided he wanted to become a pilot and enrolled in Air Force ROTC at the University of Georgia, and after commissioning in 1965 as the distinguished graduate, he realized that dream. In August 1966 he was assigned to the F-4 Phantom and trained for combat in Victorville, California. He deployed to Vietnam in 1967 and remembers completing Jungle Survival School at Clark Airbase enroute to Da Nang, where he was stationed. He found the unit to have good morale, flying missions 24 hours a day. Most of the missions were over the southern part of North Vietnam, but he also flew close air support and interdiction along the Ho Chi Minh Trail. He recalls flying with the Wing Commander, and describes some of the missions he flew as “very rewarding.” He was shot down on November 7, 1967, stating that “the airplane just blew up.” He hid in a bomb crater until he was captured by the militia, and enroute to Hanoi he and pilot Ken Fisher were the centerpiece of a rally in every village they passed through, but in Lee’s case his militia captor protected him from much of the abuse inflicted by the angry civilians. Arriving at the Hỏa Lò Prison (the Hanoi Hilton), he was interrogated and a Vietnamese guard threatened to kill him with a loaded gun to his head, so Lee made up lies. After breaking, he “felt like the most worthless piece of crap,” and he cried. He soon came to realize that everyone “breaks,” and some just last longer than others. Lee spent a few years in the Son Tay Prison Camp where he said the treatment he received there was similar to the treatment prisoners received at other camps. Lee notes the “great, humble leadership” among the prisoners and admits that “we got rid of our bitterness.” He also states that there is “no honor without courage.” After being freed, he remained in the military until 1990, when he retired as a Colonel. Now he is a leadership consultant and runs a career assessment program.


conflicts Vietnam War
topics P.O.W.s Returning from War Leadership Teamwork Camaraderie Rules of War War in the Air Air Force
interviewer David Siry
date 03 June 2022


name Leon "Lee" Ellis
institution University of Georgia
graduation year 1965
service Air Force
unit 366th Tactical Fighter Wing "Gunfighters," 390th Tactical Fighter Squadron, "Wild Boars"
specialty F-4 Phantom Pilot
service dates 1965 1990