Note: This article has been corrected.
HANOI, Vietnam — North Vietnam wasn’t on many Americans’ radar until President Lyndon B. Johnson went on radio 50 years ago to tell them about the Gulf of Tonkin incident, a naval clash off the coast of the Southeast Asian nation that escalated U.S. involvement there.
The next day, Aug. 5, 1964, American bombers were pounding targets in the communist country. Antiaircraft fire hit a Navy Skyhawk piloted by Everett Alvarez Jr. near Hong Gai.
Alvarez ejected and was captured. First held nearby, he was transferred to Hanoi on Aug. 12, becoming the first U.S. prisoner of war to be taken to the Hoa Lo prison.
For seven months, Alvarez was the only POW there. Then other aviators trickled in until the cells were crowded. Using gallows humor to cope with their poor treatment, they came up with a nickname for their harsh accommodations:
The Hanoi Hilton.
Returning to Vietnam
Alvarez had been a POW for three years and three months when Air Force Lt. Lee Ellis’ F-4C Phantom jet went down on Nov. 7, 1967, during a mission to pound the guns that protected the Quang Khe ferry near Route 1A, the main thoroughfare for transporting supplies to the Ho Chi Minh Trail. He and Capt. Ken Fisher had just dropped their bombs when their plane was hit.
Ellis managed to eject safely but was quickly captured and stripped to just his olive drab boxer shorts. Fisher also survived, and the two men were transported to several POW camps around Hanoi. Ellis spent two stints, totaling about 28 months, at the Hanoi Hilton.
He remembers it all too well — the deprivation, the torture and the constant fight against depression as days turned into years.
But just over a week before he went back for the first time since his release in 1973, he still wasn’t sure about how he felt about it.
“I don’t know. Accessing my feelings is something I’ve had to learn about in the last few years,” the plain-speaking Ellis said. “When I came home, I was looking forward, not back.”
He quickly picked up the pieces of his interrupted life, met his future wife a few months later, resumed his military career and moved on.
Still, time in captivity shaped Ellis’ life. He built a successful consulting business and wrote a well-received book, “Leading with Honor,” on the lessons he learned at the Hanoi Hilton, using anecdotes on coping with adversity to illustrate his points. And time has allowed the wounds to heal, mostly.
At least he thought so.
“I don’t have a lot of bad memories because it was just an episode on my life,” Ellis said. “We were warriors, and we were the lucky ones. We came back. We suffered, our families suffered, but there were blessings, too.”
He talked about the lifelong friendships that he forged with John McCain, who was captured by the North Vietnamese 11 days before Ellis, and other fellow POWs. He focused on how the military principles he learned in training were galvanized in prison into his rules for life.
In his book, he described the early interrogation sessions, trying to avoid giving anything more than name, rank and service number, and feeling shame when the torture proved to be too much and he divulged more.
He was awarded two Silver Stars, the Legion of Merit, the Bronze Star with Valor device, the Purple Heart, and POW Medal for his service in Vietnam, which included five and a half years as a POW.
'Small victories' between bouts of torture
As more POWs arrived, life at the Hanoi Hilton fell into a rough rhythm of poor food and occasional interrogations that often were brutal — ranging from spending hours on their knees with their arms outstretched above their heads to a position called the “pretzel” that Ellis described in his book.
“After the prisoner’s legs were tied together, his arms were laced tightly behind his back until the elbows touched and the shoulders were virtually pulled out of joint,” he wrote. “Then the torturer would push the bound arms up and over the head, while applying pressure with a knee to the victim.
“During torture, the circulation is cut off and the limbs go to sleep, but the joint pain continues to increase as the ligaments and muscles tear. When the ropes are finally removed, circulation surges back into the 'dead’ limbs, causing excruciating pain.”
McCain seemed to get it worst after his captors discovered that his father was commander of all U.S. forces in the Vietnam theater.
Despite the conditions, a sense of community grew, with senior officers doing their best to keep morale from sinking. POWs found ways around the rules that were designed to keep them from sharing information. It could be a painful game — getting caught violating any rules meant lockdown in leg irons.
Ellis said he found that, using a blanket muffler, he could talk through a 16-inch wall when guards weren’t nearby. A system of taps also conveyed messages, as did a complex system of hand signals.
And there were the small but satisfying acts of rebellion. The POWs made up names like Clark Kent or Ben Casey for fictitious commanders when they were being interrogated for operational information.
“Even the smallest victories were important in this war of wills,” Ellis wrote.
Perhaps the best-known incident came when the guards tried to photograph Navy Lt. Paul Galanti in a spacious room for propaganda purposes. Galanti casually extended both middle fingers in defiance. They were airbrushed out, but an original copy made it back to the U.S.
Rumors of imminent release circulated occasionally, bringing hopes that the ordeal was coming to an end. Ellis recalled thinking: “We’ll get on that plane, then I’ll believe it.”
Finally, in 1973, meals started improving. The POWs figured their captors didn’t want them to look too emaciated when they were released, and soon they were going home in groups, first in, first out. Ellis was in the group that included McCain.
The other Hilton
February in Hanoi is chilly and drizzly, but Ellis barely seemed to notice when he returned for the first time since his release earlier this year. His eyes were everywhere, taking in how much the city has changed since the war, rebuilding from the rubble left by American bombardments.
Twenty-four years after he left the military as a colonel, his black hair was shot with gray, but Ellis still looked like he could switch quickly into a uniform from his neat khaki trousers and blue button-down shirt, a sharp contrast with the black cotton pajamas that were his constant attire in captivity.
He has more than a little sense of irony. Instead of going directly to the Hanoi Hilton, which has been turned into a museum, he had lunch first with wife Mary at the Hanoi Opera Hilton hotel. The hotel opened 15 years ago, carefully choosing its name to avoid association with the prison a few blocks away.
Ellis looked a little taken aback by his luxurious surroundings but was in a good mood as he sat in a chair for the first time in Vietnam; in captivity it was flat wooden boards or rough concrete. He drank his first coffee, and the lemongrass chicken was his first meat here; in prison, the only protein was a two-inch cube of bean curd once a week.
Other memories came floating back — leg irons and handcuffs, rubber sandals to make it difficult to escape, a steady diet of pumpkin soup alternating with months of cabbage soup, and a first meal as a prisoner of fish heads and rice, which apparently was standard fare for new captives. Before missions, pilots used to joke with each other to be careful or they’d be eating fish heads that night.
“I wondered if the guards knew the joke,” he said.
And he recalled the sounds of air raids, with antiaircraft fire and surface-to-air missiles going up from the ground, punctuated by the nearby concussions of rockets fired by fellow American pilots from above.
Finally, after a dessert that left him longing for a nap after the drive from a cruise ship docked on the coast, it was time to head to the Hilton that he really associates with Hanoi.
Well-known prisoners of the 'Hanoi Hilton'
Return to hell
Ellis stood outside what remains of Maison Centrale, the yellow stone-and-concrete prison built by French colonialists in 1896. It used to take up an entire block, but 80 percent has been torn down to make way for Hanoi Towers, a residential/office complex.
Ellis, usually a model of reserve, started to look a little apprehensive as he walked in, and he was immediately frustrated by Vietnam’s rigid officialdom: a cameraman he brought from the cruise ship can’t bring in his professional-level gear because he didn’t seek government permission first. Still cameras and cell phone cameras were OK, though.
As it turned out, one of the remaining sections of the prison is where Ellis was held. It was dubbed “Thunderbird,’ after the former Las Vegas hotel, as were other sections: “Desert Inn” and “Stardust.” Bare light bulbs provided scant light. Two rows of statues depicted shackled Vietnamese prisoners — the museum is dedicated to them; the American POWs are treated almost as an afterthought.
Ellis saw a pit toilet that prisoners used when they were allowed out of their cells and recalls how one officer lost his dental bridge while squatting over it. Another POW dug through the muck and recovered it, then washed and returned it.
A couple of cells still have black leg irons that Ellis said “started to cut into your skin pretty fast.” There were buckets to use as a toilet when the doors were locked, but “if you were in leg irons (for violations of prison rules), you just went on yourself.”
The men slept shoulder to shoulder on hard surfaces, and Ellis says some developed hip, knee and other problems that have plagued them over the years.
Ellis’ upbeat demeanor faded in the face of the past, and he seemed to be slipping back into that time, the memories becoming clearer. As Mary watched, he noisily slammed open and shut the metal covers over the small barred opening in the otherwise solid cell door — Bang! Bang! Bang! — just like the guards used to do.
“What you would hear was the rattling of the keys at meal time and bucket time,” he said. “At unexpected times, it could be scary,” because it could mean hours of interrogation and torture for someone. “The threat was always there.
“I get a little skittish around things like this,” he admitted. “The darkness is probably the thing I feel the most, the gray walls with no glass, just bars. In the winter, it was cold. You didn’t get enough calories to stay warm. You’d wake up dreaming about going through a cafeteria line eating a full breakfast.
“There would be heat-rash boils in the summer. And there were the rats, big rats. When the sun started going down, you’d hear them scurrying over the walls. They’d come in through the drains in the walls.”
Along a pathway outside, he spotted what used to be a guard post manned with a machine gun, climbed up to see the view he never experienced, including the broken glass imbedded on the top of the prison walls.
The other direction was the interrogation room, where torture was common, then more cells. Ellis walked into one, stretched out his arms and paced three steps, turned around and repeated it, telling his wife that this was how big his living area was.
He fell into a rhythm and seemed lost in memory: “One, two, three,” he counted off the steps, making an about-face and disappearing into the darkest part of the cell, “One, two, three,” then repeating the process again.
Finally, toward the end of the self-tour, there were two rooms focused on the American POWs. Ellis clearly got upset as he saw how all the pilots’ mistreatment has been excised, how the Hanoi Hilton has been portrayed as almost a vacation spot for them.
One sign claims: “During the war, the national economy was difficult, but the Vietnamese government had created the best living conditions to U.S. pilots, for they had a stable life during their temporary detention period.”
Photos show inmates decorating a Christmas tree, receiving letters and care packages from home, playing basketball and volleyball.
One shows two POWs playing chess. “The traitor!” he spat out, referring to one of the men, who was perceived as being a collaborator with the Vietnamese in exchange for favorable treatment.
A bed with a thin mattress is on display, but it just made Ellis angrier: “I don’t know anybody who slept on a bed like that. We slept on concrete slab or wood planks.”
There was a moment of excitement as Ellis ran into a small group of tourists from his small hometown in Georgia, who coincidentally were touring the museum at the same time. Photos and handshakes followed as other visitors realized they were seeing a man who once was confined here.
Ellis pointed to himself in a photo on the wall of a group of POWs, including McCain, as they were being released. He recalled how he dropped from about 160 pounds at the start of captivity to about 130-135 before the Vietnamese started feeding the POWs better shortly before their release so they wouldn’t look so skeletal and mistreated.
Suddenly, he wanted to leave. Badly.
“I’ve seen enough,” he said, already heading for the exit. “Let’s go.”
Outside on the sidewalk, Ellis took a few deep breaths to calm down, oblivious again to the drizzle, the honks of motorbikes.
“The only thing that place really did was make me frustrated,” he explained, his voice taking on a sense of urgency as he realized he didn’t get what he had hoped for. “It didn’t bring me any peace, any closure.
“I believe in documenting things accurately. It’s not surprising; I knew all of that from other people who came and then told me about it. But I hate spin. American politics is getting worse like that, too.”
A tour guide took Ellis and his wife to the city’s Old Quarter, where shops and restaurants line the streets. But he wasn’t interested in food or gifts; he just seemed lost in thought. It’s not clear what he saw, but it didn’t seem to be the chaotic traffic at a busy intersection.
'Freedom is winning out'
Two weeks later, Ellis returned home. After the day in Hanoi, the cruise ship stopped near Danang briefly, then spent several days docked in Ho Chi Minh City, known as Saigon during the war.
He said he was heartened somewhat by what he saw there. Hanoi is still gripped fairly tightly by the Communist Party, but Ho Chi Minh City is the country’s economic engine. That clout, combined with the distance from the capital, create a sense of pure capitalism at work — and a level of resentment at the country’s leaders.
“There’s a real energy in the people,” Ellis said. “I really feel like freedom is winning out every day. Everywhere I went, I heard, 'The government is ripping us off.’ Basically, the officials are just getting their cut.”
He thinks the lack of truth, like what he encountered at the Hanoi Hilton, will ultimately be the government’s downfall.
“What I’m really seeing is the danger of lies,” Ellis said. “It undermines freedom. Everything depends on truth; otherwise, it’s built on a house of sand.”
Freedom is just as important as truth to Ellis. The desire for it was his constant companion in prison, and he believes Vietnam’s people long for it, too, after decades of one-party rule. In fact, he remains staunch in his belief that what happened in Vietnam was only a temporary victory for communism, that capitalism already is winning out.
He was happy his wife was with him, both for the company she provided and so she could share some of his experiences for the first time. He talked about returning in September to meet the North Vietnamese soldier who escorted him from his point of capture to Hanoi.
But most of all, he said the experience has “sharpened a little” his message of leading with honor.