On Feb. 12, 1973, more than 140 American prisoners of war were set free.
One of them was Lee Ellis, a retired Air Force colonel, a fighter pilot, who was shot down over Vietnam and spent more than five years as a POW in the downtown prison nicknamed – the “Hanoi Hilton.”
“It’s a French prison built in the early 1900s. It occupies an entire downtown block,” Ellis said. “The walls are 15 feet high, 5 or 6 feet thick, guard towers at all the corners so impossible to escape from.”
Likening their prison to a “hotel” was part of the gallows humor that Ellis said got him and others through their captivity and torture. Ellis turned the experience into a book: “Leading with Honor: Leadership Lessons from the Hanoi Hotel.”
Ellis said his fellow POWs and the military leaders at the Hanoi Hilton like the senior ranking officer, Lt. Col. Robbie Risner, helped him recover and learn to deal with the torture.
“He said we just need to bounce back. He said be a good American, live by the code of conduct. Take torture to resist only up to the point of where you don’t lose physical or mental damage,” Ellis said. “Then, go ahead and give in, give as little as possible and ready to bounce back.”
Another among the men to start the long journey back home that day was John Borling.
An Air Force fighter pilot, Borling was shot down on his 97th mission over Vietnam. He spent the next six years and eight months in the “Hanoi Hilton,” a place of torture, deprivation and often solitary confinement.
Borling spent much of his time there just trying to survive. He also composed poetry — in his head, without benefit of pencil or paper.
NPR interviewed him about his book of poems written and memorized during those years, Taps on the Walls: Poems from the Hanoi Hilton. It’s a tribute, as he told NPR, to the “power of the unwritten word.”
A list of Florida POW/MIAs is available here.