At 23, Air Force Col. Lee Ellis was flying on his 53rd combat mission. It was where he wanted to be.
But things took a terrible turn when his plane was hit in 1967 on the trip back from North Vietnam.
“It blew up into three pieces and just went tumbling along,” he said. “My life didn’t flash in front of me at that point.”
It was when he landed and the armed militia began popping up, that Ellis knew he wouldn’t return to safety.
Even after the fall, Ellis was “in really good shape,” he told Forsyth County Republicans during a weekly party meeting recently. “McCain almost died.”
Ellis, who now lives in Windermere in Forsyth County, was referring to Republican presidential nominee John McCain, a Navy pilot shot down around the same time.
Though the two didn’t meet until the later months of the war, “We went in [as prisoners of war] about the same time,” he said.
“We came out about 20 feet apart on the day that we were released — March 14, 1973.”
Through their experiences as prisoners of war, Ellis said he learned a great deal about the candidate’s character, preparation, commitment, courage and leadership.
Those five qualities, he said, are crucial for a presidential candidate and all are characteristics of McCain, who will face off against Democratic presidential nominee Barack Obama.
“[McCain] knows who he is and lives from the inside out,” Ellis said. “He doesn’t dance to anybody’s drum but his. He goes by his values and what he believes in ... he’s committed to this country and what he thinks is best for it.
“I’m convinced he’ll do a great job for us and lead us where we need to go.”
About 50 people attended Tuesday night’s gathering, which local GOP officials said they organized to offer insight into McCain’s life and candidacy.
Among the guests were District 23 state Rep. Mark Hamilton of Cumming, District 27 state Sen. Jack Murphy of Cumming and District 9 Congressman Nathan Deal of Gainesville, all Republican leaders from the 9th congressional district.
Ellis, a 9th Congressional District alternate representative at the upcoming 2008 Republican National Convention, talked about his experience as a prisoner of war, which began when he arrived Nov. 22, 1967, at the Hanoi Hilton.
He and three others shared a 6.5-foot-by-7-foot room for the next eight months.
“They had guards out there patrolling,” he said. “If they caught you talking to somebody else, they’d just take you out, beat you up and put you in solitary confinement.”
Ellis talked about the tap code he learned, which he joked was “kind of like text messaging. We’d have all these shortcuts.”
“We were able to communicate very well and this literally kept people from going insane,” he said.
“The most prominent message probably that was ever tapped was ‘W-N-U-T-K we go home’-when do you think we go home? Well, we always believed we’d go home, no matter where we were.
“I can remember the day when I, initially, could only accept six months. It was fall of 1967 and I said I’ll be home for the Olympics in 1968 in Mexico City and I’m going to go.
“That’s what’s going to happen. Well, it didn’t happen. So a couple of years later, I thought, ‘You know what, I’m going to be here at least another year.’ And then I remember a time when I said I could handle two more years.”
In total, Ellis spent more than five years imprisoned.
It was during the last few months in the Plantation prison camp when Ellis got to learn more about McCain than what he’d heard through tapping and other prisoners.
“That’s where we really got to know each other,” he said. “The situation he was in was very unique.
“He was offered the chance to go home and to tell the meanest interrogator in Hanoi ... ‘I’m not doing it.’ The guy came around the table and just smashed him and tells his guards to beat him up and then put him in solitary confinement for two years, and then beat him up some more. That’s the kind of person we’re talking about — that kind of commitment to character.”
Ellis, who has four children and six grandchildren, called McCain’s commitment to his country inspiring. Just like leadership in the Armed Forces, leadership in any capacity “always makes a difference.”
“Nothing happens for very long without leadership,” he said. “Somebody’s got to take the lead and take the responsibility and put it on the line and make it happen.
“Yeah, [McCain] was a playboy when he was young. Most fighter pilots are. He’s been such a good model solid citizen since he came home and I’ve just been really proud of him.
“We have to use every bit of influence we have to get him elected this fall, or I can’t imagine what it’s going to be. I want you to aim high, I want you to see it and believe it that John McCain is going to be the president this fall.”