Charles Plumb’s life evokes hope

By Jessica Schurmann

Assistant Editor

The lights dimmed, silencing the chattering crowd. Tap. Tap. Tap. A figure paced the stage in the dark. Tap. Tap. Tap. Back and forth, back and forth.

A voice filled the silence, stating that it took only three paces to stride across an 8-foot by 8-foot cell. Tap. Tap. Tap. A spotlight fell upon a man dressed in military green, forming a square “cell” around him.

Retired United States Naval Cap­tain Joseph Charles Plumb shared his message of positivity that he gained through his experience, as a Vietnam prisoner of war, to a crowd of over 800 on Sept. 19 in the Viterbo University Main Theater. Plumb’s six years as a POW in North Viet­nam were primarily spent in cells the same size as the 8-foot by 8-foot square in which he paced the stage.

The presentation was sponsored by Viterbo’s D.B. Reinhart Institute for Ethics and Leadership. Director Rick Kyte told Lumen, “He has a message that is relevant for every­one.”

Earlier the same day Plumb met with a group of Viterbo honor stu­dents for lunch in the Fine Arts Cen­ter Hospitality Suite. Students were able to ask Plumb questions and converse with him on a personal level.

Plumb’s book, “I’m No Hero,” published in 1973, was available for purchase after the speech. All 50 available copies were bought and signed by Plumb, and many more were ordered that night.

Plumb caused the audience to gasp, “aww,” and laugh through­out the story of his experience. “I was sitting in a restaurant in Kan­sas City,” Plumb recalled, of a time after his return to the United States. “A man about two tables away kept looking at me. I didn’t recognize him. A few minutes into our meal he stood up and walked over to my ta­ble, looked down at me, pointed his finger in my face and said, ‘You’re Captain Plumb.’”

“I looked up and I said, ‘Yes sir, I’m Captain Plumb.’ He said, “You flew jet fighters in Vietnam. You were on the aircraft carrier Kitty Hawk. You were shot down. You parachuted into enemy hands and spent six years as a prisoner of war.”

“How in the world did you know that?” Plumb had asked the man. He paused as the Viterbo audience waited silently, then repeated the restaurant stranger’s words: “Be­cause, I packed your parachute.” Plumb went on to ask the audience if they took time to realize how many people “pack their parachutes”, or make a difference in their lives, ev­ery day.

A farm kid from Kansas, Plumb entered the Naval Academy straight out of high school at the age of 17. Four years later in 1964, he graduat­ed from the Academy with a degree in engineering and married his high school sweetheart.

Flight training followed for 1.5 years, and in 1966, Plumb flew his first adversarial flights in what is now called Top Gun. The Vietnam war began in 1963, with the United States first sending combat units in 1965. North Vietnam was trying to take over South Vietnam and create a united Vietnam. The United States was trying to keep South Vietnam a separate, pro-American nation.

One hundred carrier landings and 74 missions later, five days before he was scheduled to complete his tour of duty and return home to the Unit­ed States, Plumb was shot down over Hanoi in North Vietnam. A missile hit his aircraft from behind, causing it to spin out of control to the ground, Plumb told the audi­ence. He and his co-pilot, Gary An­derson, ejected and floated down to their captors. They were stripped of their possessions, dragged around nearby villages, and tortured for two days.

Plumb said in his Viterbo address that he was able to peek through cracks in his cell wall to see other people, but for the most part it was several months before he was face-to-face with another prisoner. For the following 2,103 days, the prison­ers were moved around from soli­tary confinement cells to larger cells with up to 57 men.

His body wasting away to 115 pounds, bleeding open wounds, suffering from boils, and with only a rag to cover his shrinking frame, Plumb gave in to frustrations un­til he was able to conquer his pes­simism and control his life. Plumb shared with the audience a piece of advice he gained from that experi­ence: “The choice is to either back away and become the victim…or step up to the plate and defeat the challenge.”

To cope with the stress of be­ing isolated from each other in the North Vietnam prison, secret com­munication was formed between the prisoners that allowed them to interact with each other and lift up their spirits. Plumb recalled being passed a piece of toilet paper with an alphabetical code written on it, which he was to memorize and then eat. The code allowed prisoners to tap out conversations to each other while they worked, right under the enemy’s nose. “That communica­tion was a life saver,” Plumb said.

The men always knew exactly which day it was, even though they could not get a glimpse of the out­side world, Plumb recalled. They celebrated holidays and birthdays together too, with imaginary birth­day cakes and presents.

“I saw some of the best leadership I have ever seen within the prison camp,” Plumb said. To keep them­selves busy every day, the POWs would do mental exercises such as resurrecting all of their memories, old books and movies, and dreaming about the future. When they were together they would hold “classes” where they would teach each other everything they knew about differ­ent subjects. They would also have “movie nights,” where they would retell movies in detail.

The American POWs were re­stricted to push-ups, sit-ups, and other simple exercises they could do in a small cell, Plumb told the Vit­erbo audience. The record for the most push-ups in a row in the camp was 1,200, and the record for most sit-ups in a row was 10,000.

“I’m not sure I would have made it if it were not for the other guys,” Plumb commented.

Plumb revealed that he is friends with Lieut. Commander John S. Mc­Cain III, the 2008 Republican candi­date for President, who was also a North Vietnam POW, McCain was captured in 1967, and spent 5 years in a prison camp.

Almost six years after Plumb’s plane was shot down, on Feb. 18, 1973, the soldiers were told that the war was over and they were al­lowed to go home. Plumb and his fellow POWs refused to leave until they knew every sick and wounded captive soldier had already been re­leased.

When Plumb returned home, he did not receive happy news. His wife had filed for divorce, merely months before his imprisonment was over. The event was just another bump in the road, Plumb said. His ex-wife remarried and Plumb him­self has since remarried and raised four children.

“I was a different person com­ing back from Vietnam than when I went. I say that in a very positive way,” Plumb explained.

As he finished his speech, Plumb gave a salute to the audience. He received a standing ovation and a line of people eager to meet him and give their thanks in the lobby.

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