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Memories resurface for Vietnam War heroes at 'Hanoi Hilton' exhibit

Published: Friday, Jan. 25 2013 6:09 p.m. MST

Col. Lee Ellis, left, and Lt. Col. Jay Hess talk about their experiences as POWs at the Hoa Lo Prison in Vietnam while looking at a faux prison cell at the Hill Aerospace Museum in Roy on Friday, Jan. 25, 2013. Both Ellis and Hess spent more than five years at the Hoa Lo Prison, or the "Hanoi Hilton" as it was nicknamed, during the 1960s.

Laura Seitz, Deseret News

ROY — The casual manner in which two gray-haired, leather-jacketed men strolled through the Vietnam War exhibit at the Hill Aerospace Museum seemed just that: ordinary, trivial, slight.

They meandered through the exhibit's fighter plane collection Friday, pointing at one, commenting on another. But then they approached the replica of a Vietnam prison cell.

With teary eyes and hesitant steps, the war heroes approached the dauntingly familiar cell, grasping the bars in repugnance as the memories flooded in. 

"It's hard for me to believe we were locked in there," said Col. Lee Ellis, who was imprisoned for more than five years. "It's depressing to see. I've been away so long, it fades into reality." 

The companionship of three other cellmates was instrumental in lifting any prisoner's spirits, Ellis said, turning to Col. Jay C. Hess, a cellmate. "I would've made it by myself, but I'm glad I didn't have to."

Two fighter pilots came together this week just before the 40th anniversary on Tuesday of the end of the Vietnam War. Both were shot down over Vietnam and thrown into what was sarcastically termed the "Hanoi Hilton" by American prisoners.

"To be captured over enemy territory is your worst personal and professional nightmare," Ellis said. "They have all of the power and the control and they're communists, and you don't have any idea what they're going to do."

The worst of the experience, for Ellis, was threefold: "First of all, the fear of being tortured and not being strong enough to beat them at the torch again. Second was the depression of being locked up all of the time especially in the small cells, without a lot of contact with others."

His third fear was not knowing how his family was doing.

"I think I always believed I would go home someday," Ellis said. "My job was to do my best and hang on." 

Hess, that fighter pilot who was shot down in 1967, didn't see the night sky for five years. "When I first saw the Big Dipper, I was amazed that I had been living in the same world."

Returning to the states required some adjusting. "For two years after I got back from Vietnam, everything was a comparison to what I'd been through," Hess said. "I don't hurt, I'm not too hot or I'm not too cold. I'm not hungry, man, the bed's soft and man, is that a warm shower."

Being back, both have much to be thankful for — even all these years later.

"As one of my cellmates put it, any day the lock on the door is on the inside is a good day," Ellis said.

For Ellis, every day is a celebration. "I'm thankful for a good meal. I'm thankful for a roof over my head, heating and air-conditioning and a good soft bed to sleep in." Most importantly, Ellis is thankful for the chance to pursue his passions in life and spend time with family.

"How could I be so lucky, so fortunate?" Hess said. "It's a good life."

Of the 500 or so held captive in the Hanoi Hilton, Ellis and Hess have remained close with about 40 or 50 of their fellow survivors. "You share that bond and that challenge, that experience," Hess said. 

It's a bond that has lasted and will continue to last over the decades.

The Hill Aerospace Museum's new Vietnam War exhibit, which opened to the public late September 2012, was a well-received tribute to the war heroes.

"This exhibit gives an in-depth look at the roles that the U.S. Air Force and Hill Air Force Base played and the sacrifices made by many, including those from here in Utah," said Nathan Myers, the museum's curator. 

The museum is open from 9 a.m. to 4:30 p.m. seven days a week, with the exception of some holidays. Admission is free, but donations are accepted. For more information, contact the Hill Aerospace Museum at 801-777-6868.

E-mail: rlowry@desnews.com

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