027: The Captain Charles Plumb: On Packing Your Mental Parachute, Forgiving the Enemy and Enjoying Solitude in Life
Known as The Captain, Charles Plumb piloted an F-4 Phantom and flew 74 successful combat missions against Vietnamese forces and became a top gun pilot. Listen to his stories of being a prisoner of war for six years and coming home as a war hero. Learn how he packed his mental parachute to survive the wars of his life.
We’ve got Charles Plumb, otherwise known as The Captain. The Captain is an original. He went to the Naval Academy in Indianapolis back in the day, and then went on and literally became the first Top Gun pilot and essentially helped start that program for them. He was the original Mav from the movie Top Gun, and ultimately went off into the Vietnam War. After 75 missions, he was shot down. As he was stumbling to Earth in his parachute, people were shooting at him. He was captured and ends up as a POW in what they call the Hanoi Hilton for just under six years; shackled, tortured, and the way that they communicated inside the jail cells. He’s very open. He’s very honest. He’s straightforward. It was just an absolute joy for me to drive up to Santa Inés and go into his hangar to see his little plane inside and visit his man cave. He’s got decorations and memorials, and just everything you can possibly think of from his long career. He’s still out there making it happen. He public speaks throughout the country, throughout the world. It was really an absolute joy to listen to this guy tell his tale of what happened to him over the course of his life.
As always, go in, rate and review on iTunes, Finding Your Summit. If you want to find out any more info on me, you can find me at MarkPattisonNFL.com. The podcast has continued to grow and I’m very appreciative of that. Without further ado, let’s talk to Charles, The Captain.
Listen to the podcast here:
The Captain Charles Plumb: On Packing Your Mental Parachute, Forgiving the Enemy and Enjoying Solitude in Life
This might be the most exceptional podcast I’m going to do this year. I really, really encourage you to just sit back, pinch yourself that you’re going to actually listen to this guy. I am with Charles Plumb, otherwise known as The Captain. The Captain, how are you doing?
Mark, it’s great being with you. I’m doing great.
I was in the North West. I was in Seattle a couple of weeks ago as the Huskies were playing UCLA. There’s an old buddy Dave Matter who came up to me, a fraternity buddy, a guy who I grew up with. He’s been listening to this podcast they’ve had out there. He came up to me and goes, “I’ve been listening to this podcast and I’m telling you there’s this one guy that you have to interview. Somehow or another, you have to make this happen.” I’m like, “Tell me more.” He goes, “You need to talk to Charles Plumb.” I said, “Who’s Charles Plumb?” He went through this whole thing about some of your history. He works for one of your real estate office, so apparently you’ve been up. You spoke with their corporate or something. He was just going on and on. I quickly retreated back to Southern California after the game. I typed in your name and I’m like, “I’ve got to have this guy on the podcast.” I reached out and I was so thankful. I just want to start with that, seriously, the amount of gratefulness that you’ve come on this thing. Your story is so amazing. I also thank Dave Matter for mentioning your name. Thank you.
Thank you and thank Dave on my behalf.
Your story is so intriguing and so fascinating. My dad who passed away unfortunately six years ago was an Air Force pilot and flew missions all over the world. You became a Top Gun pilot. He used to tell us stories at the dinner table about flying into Beirut and Afghanistan and all these other places and flying these different supplies. I wish my dad was here to be in this conversation because you guys would have absolutely hit it off.
I suspect he is looking down on us and listening to every word.
To his pilot buddies, he was known as Buddy Pattison. I’m sure Buddy is actually looking down on us. Let’s get into this. You wanted to go become a pilot, where did that start?
That actually started in grade school. I grew up in a tiny little town in Kansas and used to see these piper cubs fly over. I remember thinking, “Wouldn’t it be nice to ride in an airplane?” Immediately, my next thought was, “No, I’ll probably never be able to ride in an airplane.” At age seventeen, I needed an education and my parents couldn’t support to send me to college so I started looking for scholarships. I got an appointment to Annapolis, which was a big surprise to me. I got on that greyhound bus and two days later I was pledged in to defend the Constitution of the United States against all enemies, foreign and domestic, just like your dad did. I had no idea what a difficulty it would be to fulfill that commitment over the years. Four years at the Naval Academy, it was time to choose which direction we wanted to go in the navy.
I was recruited when I was in high school. I was a decent football player so I was being recruited by a number of different colleges. The Air Force Academy came after me. I remember that I had to get an appointment, I think, from the congressman of the district or the governor or something to make that happen. Is that the way they played?
It is. The congressman from Kansas in my district did it a bit little differently from most. A lot of them is a political appointment. Whoever their donors are and whoever their best friends are, they take their sons and now daughters and appoint them. In my case, it was a competitive thing. We all took a test and then my congressman sent five nominees to the Naval Academy, and the Naval Academy pick three of the five. I was actually the second alternate. The number one guy went to the Air Force Academy, as a matter of fact. The number two guy discovered women and so he’s out. He’s no good for the Navy. I was the second alternate and got the nod. That’s how I got into the Naval Academy. You look back on your life, I’m sure you do too, the little decision points in your life that could have gone either way, and it just change the whole rest of your career. Certainly, it sounds like it did for you. I’m getting into the mental part of all this. In high school, for me, I didn’t really have to work that hard at my craft, which is playing football. I just was more of a natural athlete. I didn’t really understand and figured that out until I got to the University of Washington and played under my, who would become a legendary head coach, Don James, about discipline, about working for things. Going to you, you go through these four years in the Naval Academy. Is that where you feel like you learned and where your mental toughness came from? Is that where you cut your teeth?
I had a similar path. I breezed through high school. I certainly wasn’t an athlete or even a great student. I didn’t try very hard. It was only when I got to the Naval Academy that I realized that if you’re going to be effective, if you’re going to have a career, if you’re going to have a life, you’re going to have to get discipline. You’re going to have to knuckle down and do some things. It was a great awakening for me to go to Annapolis. I’d never had any military discipline. My father was a tough dad and so I had his discipline. My mother taught me a lot about forgiveness, which I needed. We can talk a little bit more about that in my POW years because forgiveness, I think it’s one of the reasons that I came out of there as whole and as healthy as I did. Discipline from my dad and forgiveness from my mother. The Naval Academy melded all those things together. The military discipline that I’d never seen before: stand up straight, about face, wear your uniform, cut your hair, shine your shoes, all these things that were foreign to me. Just like playing for you, that must have been for you. You find from coaches like that that if you really are going to achieve, you’re going to have to get serious about it. That’s where I got serious about it.
For me, it was an absolute shock to my system. I showed up the first day of fall camp, two days. I hadn’t done anything more than I did in the past and do some water skiing and catch a few balls. I looked out there and I was so far in over my head. At that point, it’s the moment of truth. Your life’s about choices. What kind of choice do you want to make? Do you want to be one of those guys that plays and contributes, or do you want to be the other guys that just wash out? You go through four years of that and then as you come out, what are your choices? Can you exit or can you go for further education?
There are several choices, but you do have a commitment to the military. You have to stay in. You can either stay in with Navy Line. That means you’re going to be aboard the ship. That’s what most of the Naval Academy graduates do. You can go Marine Corp. We had about 10% of our guys go into that. There’s no Marine Corp Academy per se. Their academy graduates are actually Naval Academy graduates. We had about 100 guys go Marine Corp. You can go Submarines, you can go Supply Corp, you can go on to school and get a master’s degree in something, or you can go fly. By that time, I have had a couple of introductory flights in the Navy that really thrilled me. I thought, “This is really reaching for the moon. If I can get into flight training, that’s what I’ll do.” I was fortunate enough from the Naval Academy to be, again, about 10% of the graduates in my class went down to Pensacola for aviation training. I picked up on that and did fairly well in flying. Eighteen months of that, I learned to fly on aircraft carriers, which of course is a trick onto itself.
I can imagine you’ve got to land on 50 yards of surface. I’m sure it’s more than that but it’s pretty intense.
The total length of an aircraft carrier is about 1,000 feet. The landing area is about 300 feet, like a football field. I’m landing on a football field and of course you’ve got four wires stretched across that football field. Your tail hook catches the wire and slows you to a stop, if you’re lucky. If you’re not so lucky, you add power and you’d pop back in the sky and you drive around one more time if you’ve still got some gas. That’s an interesting life, eighteen months of that. At that point then, another big milestone in my life is selecting the type of airplane I was going to fly. The Navy, like your dad, I had an option of flying a cargo or patrol or communications or fighters. I wanted to fly fighters. At the end of flight training, I applied for it and got orders to the F-4 Phantom Replacement Air Group in Miramar, California in San Diego.
What year was this?
I graduated in ’64 so this must have been in ’66. Flight training was in several bases: Pensacola, Florida; Beeville, Texas; Meridian, Mississippi. I got my wings of gold and then came out to San Diego where I helped start the Top Gun school at that time.
How do you do that? They had an idea that they wanted to create an elite group of pilots.
It all stemmed from the Vietnam War. We had built airplanes for the Cold War. Our airplanes and the one I flew, the F-4 Phantom, didn’t have any guns on it. In fact, it didn’t have any kind of short range weapons at all. We had missiles to go out twenty miles where you couldn’t even see your target. I wore a space suit to fly because I was going above 50,000 feet to launch off the aircraft carriers, go out for 400, 500 miles, shoot down the Russian bombers, make a slow turn, and come back to the aircraft carrier. That was my mission. There was nothing about dog fighting, nothing about hassling with other airplanes because at the time, in the cold war, we thought we’d never see another World War II dogfight. It was almost by accident.
When I was assigned to the F-4, there was a pool of students to be learning to fly the F-4. There weren’t enough airplanes around so I had a six-month wait in flying the F-4 Phantom. My buddy Paul Crookie and I were a little impatient to fly airplanes, so we went down to the flight line at Miramar and found these old F-9 Cougars. This is a Korean War airplane that we had trained in in out flight training. They were using it as an instrument training airplane. We knew how to fly this airplane so we signed on with the instrument squadron. It was really very boring because you’re teaching kids to fly in the suit, and so it’s a straight-leveled boring holes in the sky. We had saved a little gas each day and we lurked off the coast of San Diego and we would attack the F-4s as they were coming off the line. Of course, they didn’t know how to fight. That wasn’t trained. They weren’t trained to be a dog fighter. We would attack these guys and just wipe them out every time because we were light, we were quick and we were small. They were big, heavy and fast. If we’d get them just as they got their wheels up, we’d wipe them out.
When you say wipe them out, that’s like a simulation, right?
Yeah, we simulate and we’re shooting them down, get on their tail. That’s what no fighter pilot wants you to get on their tail because that’s a shooting position.
I’m thinking of the movie, Top Gun, where Tom Cruise and Goose and those guys are going up there and they have all these dog fights as they’re practicing. Of course, they’re not actually shooting them down, they just put them in their sights, they hit the button, the red light, and theoretically they’ve shot them down.
That’s exactly what we were doing. We came back from a very successful mission one day, Paul and I, and we were giving ourselves high fives wearing our Snoopy goggles and our white scarves. In the ray room of this instrument training squadron had big, big letters, “Plumb and Crookie, report to the commanding officer of the F-4 Squadron immediately.” We knew we were in trouble. Here were two kids, we were 23 or 24 years old, in sweaty flight suits and we’re knocking on the door of the commanding officer of the F-4 Squadron, the big airplanes, the fancy ones. I’ll never forget this guy. He’s sitting there at his desk and he’s looking over the top of his glasses. He was in a sweaty flight suit too, which should have been our first indication to what happened. He said, “You’re the two guys out there in the F-9s?” “Yes, sir. We were.” “Did you follow an F-4 through an entire loop?” “Yes, sir. We did.” “Did you have your guns trained on that F-4 the entire time?” “Yes, sir.” “Do you know who was in that F-4?” We thought we were toast. He said, “I just came back from Vietnam. You guys look an awful lot like MiGs over there.”
It was true. This airplane we were flying, the F-9 Cougar, was about the size and shape of a MiG airplane, which was the main airplane we were fighting against in Vietnam. He said, “Our kill ratio is terrible because we don’t know how to fight this airplane. You want to come back tomorrow and do the same thing?” That’s how Top Gun got started. It was just a couple of snotty-nosed kids out there playing games and found out that there was a reason. It was very successful. Top Gun turned the whole kill ratio around because there was a way to fight these big airplanes. It was just that we didn’t know how. It was all in the training.
How many other guys did they bring into that program?
Over the years, several hundred. It’s not quite like the movie. First of all, there was never any Best Top Gun here. You didn’t get a prize like you saw in the movie. What it was was each squadron in the Navy, and there are more than probably 50 fighter squadrons in the Navy, would send one or two guys to this school to train the trainer. The two guys or gals now would go through Top Gun, and of course they still do it today, then they would go back to their squadrons and train everybody else what they had learned at the Navy Fighter Weapons School.
I did see a picture with you and Tom Skerritt, the actor of the movie.
I was in Seattle speaking at Windermere two or three months ago. It’s a real estate company up there. I was surprised that Tom Skerritt who was Jester in the movie which was the role that I played, the adversarial role. He was the bad guy and that’s what I did, I was the enemy. He introduced me, as a matter of fact, at Windermere. It was really, really cool. Of course, they showed clips from Top Gun and then I showed up in my flight suit. That’s probably why Dave remembers that.
You graduate, so to speak, from this Top Gun school that you essentially helped create. When did you get drafted into the Vietnam War?
I joined the squadron six months after I went through the Replacement Air Group in Miramar. That would have been mid-1966. I joined the squadron and they were between deployments. The way it works is they bring an aircraft carrier back for about six months and we train and train. Then we get back on the aircraft carrier and go back to work. I joined the squadron and about probably three-fourths of the pilots in the squadron had already been to Vietnam, but now they were going back. I was joining them because they’ve had several casualties so I was a replacement pilot.
Did that scare you?
No. I was never afraid. If I was afraid, I wasn’t smart enough to realize I was afraid. I was excited about doing that. I was flying the hottest airplane in the world. I’m thinking that there’s not one-tenth or 1% of anybody in the world can do what I’m doing. I just felt so proud and of course the patriotic thing, too. I’m fighting for freedom. I’m fighting for my country. I’m fighting for our way of life. Of course, the fact that I felt like I was bullet-proof and felt like I’d never get shot.
[Tweet “The only way you can go into combat is to believe that you’re going to survive.”]
In reality, when I look back on it, I don’t think we could have done what we did thinking that we were going to be shot down. I think the only way you can go into combat is to believe that you’re going to survive. You hear different stories about guys having a death wish or that kind of thing, but for me I just didn’t think they had a gun big enough to shoot down Charlie Plumb.
This is slightly different. When you’re playing in the NFL or Major League, the minute that you lose your confidence, you’re done. This conversation came up about receivers out there. I’ve seen it one after the other where guys just get clocked. You’re done. The same thing with you. It’s that supreme confidence that you’re talking about to enable you to survive and get through and know that you’re going to win even though you don’t know the outcome.
I think it’s life itself. A lot of times we go into situations, and if you think you’re going to lose, it’s just a self-fulfilling prophecy.
Now you take off on the US Kitty Hawk and off you go. You fly 74 missions. What did that entail?
Usually there were two missions a day and we would fly four weeks at a time. You go four straight weeks on the line just working every day. The mission itself would be an hour and a half or two hours long. There was an hour to two-hour brief and an hour to two-hour debrief, and all of that. Add all that up, you’ve got about a ten-hour day. That’s only one of your jobs. Every navy pilot has collateral duty. I also was in charge with the maintenance crew. We were repairing battle-damaged airplanes and airplanes that had problems, and so I had to spend time with my crew as well. It’s a pretty busy life, a pretty hectic life on aircraft carrier.
When you went off in these missions, you would go in and you were bombing or providing support or all of the above?
The F-4 Phantom designed, as I’ve mentioned, as a high-altitude supersonic interceptor was outfitted with racks so that we could drop bombs and rockets. The plane wasn’t designed to do that, but they felt that that’s what they needed in an airplane and that’s what we became. Of the four-week cruise, we would spend two weeks as fighters and then two weeks as attack. For two weeks, we’d take off with air to air missiles to protect the strike group, and then two weeks we would take off with bombs. We would be the strike group. We would be the air to ground bombs and rockets. Our missions were supporting troops. We would go in and fly close to the army and Marine Corps on the ground. They would shoot up a flare, a smoke signal, and say, “The enemy is just two clicks to the north of the smoke,” and we would go. Most of the time, we could never see what we were hitting because we were too high. We were releasing at 5,000 feet. We pull out at about 2,500 feet. Most of the time, the fact that forward air control would always tell us how close we were and what we did. They were always very, very happy to see us come because lots of times, these guys are pinned down. The enemy was just all around them, and so we were their savior. A lot of guys, as a matter of fact, since that time tell me how thankful they were when they saw the F-4 Phantoms come in.
I’ve not been to Vietnam myself but I have buddies in Vietnam. One of the things that they do over there now is they take you on tours of all this underground that’s just like a whole city down below. These tight little tunnels that you can barely crawl in, that people in those days were just coming out left and right and you have no idea where those entry and exit holes were. Now let’s talk about your 75th mission.
It was called an Alpha Strike and it was a big deal. Everybody wanted to be on Alpha Strike. It was sanctioned by the Joint Chief of Staff, so it was straight from the Pentagon. It gave us targets that were very important targets. Lots of our targets weren’t very important. We were hitting little bridges that would be rebuilt the next day or little supply lines that we never knew how effective we were. An Alpha Strike was the place to be. I felt pretty fortunate to be on this strike. This was the first two weeks, so I was in air-to-air defense. I was carrying missiles to shoot down other airplanes. I didn’t have any bombs but I was protecting the bomb group. I was on the far left side of this big armada of airplanes. A surface-to-air missile picked me up and came right at my tail, blew up some 12,000 pounds of jet fuel I had on board. My co-pilot and I came tumbling out of the sky. I ejected, he ejected, our parachutes opened in 90 seconds. I went from king of the skies, Top Gun fighter pilot, to prisoner of war.
Tell me what you’re going through. What’s in your mind when you get hit and now you’re floating from the sky down to Earth in these Vietnam jungles?
I just remember being totally almost out of body, “How can this be happening to me?” I’m thinking, “This has got to be a dream because I can never be shot down. I can never go through this.” Then my next thought was, “How do I get out of this?” In one of your podcasts, you talked, “How did I get here and what am I going to do about it?” That was what’s going through my mind, “How did I get here? What am I going to do about it?” The “how did I get here?” faded away really quickly when they started shooting at me. They’re shooting from the ground, small arms fire, rifles and pistols. I’m hearing these bullets crack past my ears, so I’m jiggling around in this parachute wondering if I’m going to be alive for the next millisecond. Then I started looking around for some way out of this. I’m trying to memorize everything I see. I was above a rice paddy but there were tree lines on the side of the rice paddy and there was a little village there. I’m looking at this place and then I decided, “No, the best thing I can do right now is just bow my head and say a prayer.” That’s what I did. Took a deep breath, let about half of it out, bowed my head, and asked for a little extra strength that day from above.
You did not get hit going down?
I didn’t get hit, no.
What about your co-pilot?
He didn’t get hit either but he got burned fairly severely. I got a little burned from the explosion of all the jet fuel. He had some pretty bad burns on his back but he survived. He was going to get through it.
Now you come to Earth and you’re on the ground, and you’re in this, obviously, enemy territory. How soon was it before they picked you up?
Immediately. They were shooting at me so they saw exactly where I was coming down. Within seconds, they were on top of me. I actually landed in the water, in the mud of the rice paddy, about waist-deep in the rice paddy. They just waited out in the rice paddy. There were mostly farmers at first, machetes and rakes and shovels and pickaxes and that kind of thing. They were coming after me. I had a .38 revolver with me and a bandolier of shells, but there were too many of them. There was no way that I was ever going to shoot my way out of this. I gave up and they captured me and stripped me of everything I had. They took my flight gear, my clothing, my personal possessions, and eventually they even took my name. They gave me a name from their language to humiliate me for the next six years.
When they landed on you, you’re on this rice paddy, all these guys are coming around you, did they beat you?
Yeah, they were very angry and so they beat me. When the militia finally showed up with their bayonets and their guns, they started poking me with their bayonets. I ended up with four open wounds when I got to the prison camp just from the beatings.
Where was this prison camp?
It was in Downtown Hanoi. It was what we later named the Hanoi Hilton. The name was Hỏa Lò, which meant fiery furnace. The French had built this camp for the Vietnamese in the 1850s in their big war of the Vietnamese. It was an old, old prison camp built primarily for smaller people than us. Everything was smaller. The ceilings were smaller, the manacles that we wore, the handcuffs were not big enough for our wrists, and the shackles on our ankles were for smaller people. They were used on us anyway. That’s something else that was tearing into my skin, the shackles and the manacles.
You were in this prison camp for six years, which was 2,103 days. Were you shackled every single day?
No. It was primarily from the beginning, the first few weeks. They would come up with a purge. They would come up with some reason to punish us and they’d put you in shackles for another few days. I was one of the lucky ones. I was very junior when I was shot down. I was Lieutenant Junior grade. The more senior guys had it a lot tougher. Several of our guys, Jeremiah Denton, who was one of the POWs there was in solitary confinement for four and a half years, and about two of those years he was shackled to his board bed.
I was going to ask you about that in terms of solitary confinement or were you generally with a group?
Most of the time I had a roommate or two or three. Again, I was one of the lucky ones. I was only in solitary for a few weeks or maybe a month or two, on and off.
Were they torturing you quite a bit? They were trying to suck information?
Yup. They started torturing everybody. Everybody who was shot down for the first five years of that war and got tortured, which is something that to this day the Vietnamese deny. I went back to Vietnam two years ago and found that none of their population would admit that Americans were ever tortured there. They didn’t call it torture. They call it punishment. If we didn’t tell them military secrets then they punished us because we wouldn’t tell them secrets. They punished us until you told them something.
Were you making most of that stuff up?
Yeah. First of all, I didn’t know any military secret. I was so junior, they didn’t tell me secrets, which is probably wise. I started making things up. It was one of the things that we all did, as a matter of fact, to start to lie to them. We found out that it worked, that they would take our lies away. It seemed that in that culture, they’re so proud. We would lie to them and after they found out we had lied, they were embarrassed to accept the fact that we’d pulled a wool over there eyes, that we had tricked them. They wouldn’t admit that we had tricked them. They didn’t come back with any retaliation. It’s weird the way it was.
How do you survive six years of this because you have no idea what the outcome is going to be?
That’s true. That is probably the worst part. I’d been through four different survival schools in the military and they teach you to be a prisoner of war. They tell you the techniques that you’re supposed to use. All four of these schools, however, assumed that we were going to be in a compound situation, like the World War II Hogan’s Heroes kind of prison camp. You’re all fenced in and you get out and you play volleyball and baseball, that kind of stuff during the day and then you go back into your barracks at night. It was none of that. It was all jail cells. It was individual jail cells. You never saw anybody else outside your cell, and you were not supposed to communicate with anybody else. Even if you had a roommate, you were supposed to whisper so that nobody else could hear you. We were separated. That was a really big problem because you don’t have that support group. The solution to the problem, of course, was our communication system. Even before I got there, they had come up with a code where they would tap on walls and certain taps for certain letters of the alphabet or abbreviations. We communicated that way.
Is that what is known, I read this and I didn’t know what this meant, underground communicator?
Yeah, underground communicator. That’s one of the things that I did and was appointed to perfect this method of transferring information from one cell to the next, and then one cell block to the next, and one camp to the next. It was just really amazing how creative we got with our codes, to the point where about a year before I was released, about year number five or maybe early in year number six I was there. They moved us all to a new camp. They had built this camp specifically so that we couldn’t communicate with anybody else. It all had double walls and vent holes that didn’t look into any other cell. Within about a day and a half, 200 guys knew the name, rank, serial number of the other 199 guys in that camp. We were just that good at codes. Any noise that we ever heard or could make, we would make a code out of it. For instance, if you get outside to chop wood for a fire, you’d chop in this code of numbers representing letters. Chop-chop. Chop-chop-chop. Chop. Each one of those two numbers would mean a letter. We had a radio station. The whole camp could hear you chopping. It was a thing of beauty.
We’d write notes on pieces of toilet paper, which is really about the only thing we had. We never had a piece of paper or pencil. We’d make ink out of brick dust or ashes with a quill pen made out of bamboo just sanded down to a wedge. We would write a note and wrap it around a rock and heave that rock from one building to another. We call that air mail. My favorite code was when we found out that the enemy all had tuberculosis and they were always coughing and spitting. They had assumed that we did the same thing, that it was natural. When we just found out that we could cough and spit but we couldn’t talk. We decided we’ll make a code out of this. We designated various letters of the alphabet or abbreviations to be represented by combinations of coughs, sneezes, spits or wheezes. We’d wake up in the morning and hear the guys next door spit, that means, “Good morning, how are you?”
The human spirit was alive and well.
It really was. That’s one of the reasons that we came back in such good health mentally and physically. Today, the doctors and the psychiatrists tell us that we’re healthier mentally and physically than if we hadn’t been shot down. Pretty amazing that 30.6% of all Vietnam combatants have PTSD, Post-Traumatic Stress Disorder. Of the prisoners of war, 4% of us have PTSD. Pretty amazing when you consider that Post-Traumatic Stress Disorder, what could be more stressful than six years in a prison camp? Yet, we came back healthier than if we hadn’t been there. The reason that the psychiatrists and the psychologists, people that know more about this than I do, they think it’s because of the communication and the leadership and the unity that we had over there. The leaders, they were amazing how they redefined our whole purpose and said, “We are not victims of circumstance beyond our control. We are not on the defensive here. We are on the offensive. We are fighter pilots. We are combatants. We will pursue this war until our last breath. Pull up your big boy pants, let’s get on with it.” That was the attitude of our leadership. What that did was it just unified everybody around this purpose. It was amazing how we needed a positive purpose. What that did for us was it brought us all together. The communication was a vital part of that because had we not been able to communicate with each other in those camps, I don’t think half of us would have survived.
My mom and I were talking about another subject but it dealt around the whole subject of community. This is essentially what you’re talking about.
Of course, in the military you’ve got a pretty tight community to begin with, specifically in particular branches of the military. The Marines, of course, are very close. Submariners are really a tight-knit group and Aviators as well. We were all pilots and so we all had this mental attitude, this genre of a swash-buckling swaggering pilot. In order to keep that community going, that support group was established by the communications. Once you could communicate with another guy and tell him not just the positive things that were going on but the negative things as well.
One of the rules of the camp that Americans came up with, and this is primarily James Stockdale who came up with ways that you need to respond when you’re a prisoner of war, this is the way to act. One of the things was called “Get on the wall.” What that meant was that when you went to a torture session and they beat the living daylights out of you, when you get back to your cell, get on the wall and communicate what happened. What that did of course was it allowed everybody else to know what questions that they asked, what answers seem to appease them, how did you get out of it. At the same time, it was therapy for the guy that had just been tortured to find a support group. It absolutely worked in spades. Community was vital.
How did you become the, I’m not sure if you’re the only one or one of them, the chaplain?
There were several chaplains. I was just one because of the particular group that I was in. I was appointed there. At the Naval Academy I had been a part of an organization called The Officers’ Christian Union. This is an organization with in the Navy to train lay leaders to conduct services aboard ships where real chaplains weren’t available. It’s largely the structure and the methods of a church service. I was in an aircraft carrier. In fact, we had several chaplains on the aircraft carrier but the smaller ships didn’t have chaplains of their own. Guys that had been through this training would organize a church service. Once I got into the prison camp, I knew how to do this and then so I was appointed chaplain of my unit. Every Sunday morning and every Wednesday evening, we would have a church service. Of course we had to hide from the Vietnamese to do this because they would not allow us any kind of religion at all. Communism was their religion and that’s what they wanted us to believe in.
It was almost surprising, somewhat even disgusting, how they seem to copy things from the Christian religion to apply to their communism. In fact, an interpreter told me one time that they thought that Jesus Christ was actually a communist, a person of the people and everybody was equal and wearing sandals around; the communistic ways. We were going to resist all of that. I found and the other guys did too, that faith was the baseline of the value system that we needed. When everything else is gone, our fancy airplanes or our fancy uniforms, our families, and everything else is gone, what you start to look to are those things that you used to think were ethereal. The pie in the sky stuff becomes very real to you when everything else is gone. That’s what we found. We found that our religion was very important in keeping our sanity, in keeping a positive nature, and in keeping the hope and faith alive that there was a master plan to all of this and there would me meaning and there would be value in it.
Talk about having your faith completely tested all the way to the end.
People ask me, “Did you find religion in the prison camp?” No, I didn’t find it. I think that in a lot of ways I validated it. I found that prayer really works and that so much of the Bible that I had memorized and I’m trying out these Bible verses and I’m thinking, “Is that really true?” Not to get religious with you, but Romans 8:28 says, “All things happen for good to those that love the Lord.” I’m thinking, “You mean even in a prison camp, something can happen for good and all I have to do is love the Lord?” It became a puzzle, a challenge for me to think, “Let’s see if this Bible verse really works.” Rather than finding religion, I think I validated it.
Obviously, you didn’t have a lot of distractions. The family’s not calling to you to go to the soccer game, so you have a lot of time to really think and meditate and really think about deep things affecting your life and what is the meaning of life.
In fact, I miss that sometimes. I’m a mountain biker. I know you’re a mountain climber. I got some trails. I don’t do the real heavy stuff but I go on in single-tracking, got a nice bike. In about two to three days a week whenever I can do it, I’ll go up and ride ten or fifteen miles in the mountains. I do it alone. I’ve tried biking with other guys but I like the solitude of it all. It reminds me a little bit of those days when I was in the prison camp where you do reflect. I think everybody needs a few minutes every day just to think about life, “Why am I here?”
[Tweet “I think everybody needs a few minutes every day just to think about life. Why am I here?”]
The name of this podcast is Finding Your Summit. It’s all about overcoming adversity. Certainly you’ve had your share in finding your way in life. When I was going through my junk five or six years ago, I retreated to the mountains. On these long expeditions, you’re tethered usually about 50 feet from each other and it’s hours and hours and hours of solitude. Team environment but you’ve got a lot of time to think, a lot of time to think about life and what’s real. It certainly helped me get through a lot of things, so I totally appreciate what you’re saying.
If you tried to count the number of inputs that we all have on our daily life, the sounds, the feels, the smells, the sight and the language, everything’s bombarding us, particularly in this electronic age. In a prison camp or on a climb, when you’re tethered twenty feet away, you really don’t have that many inputs. You don’t have that many people yelling at you or radios or TVs or noise that’s going on.
Let’s move to your exit. Now you’ve been in this prison six years, 2,000 plus days. How do you receive the news? How does that all happen?
We’d been tricked several times. The enemy would come in and say, “The war’s over. You’re going home. All you have to do is sign this confession that you bombed schools and hospitals, and then we’ll let you go. By the way, here’s a clause that you used chemical weapons on us too.” It was all a sham. They didn’t intend to ever release us. We got a little bit callous whenever they told us we were going home. That’s what you thought about all the time as, “When am I getting out of here? When am I going to find out? How am I going to react?” You thought about going home so much of the time, so that when the war finally ended, we were a little skeptical to believe it. We had one group where I was thinking that every time the food improved, they were trying to fatten us up and we’re going to go home. We call those the gastronomers. Food did improve. We basically survived on two bowls of rice a day. About two or three months before we came home, they gave us some canned fish like canned tuna and they let us outside to put a little color in our face. We thought something was up.
It wasn’t until they came in and they laid a sheet of toilet paper, this is the old European wrapping paper we used for toilet paper, and they said, “Put your foot on this.” They traced around our foot. We hadn’t had shoes for six years. They’re going to measure us to make some shoes, and they did. That was the first indication that they came in to measure our feet for shoes. Of course, about that same time was the Christmas bombing of 1972. They turned the B-52s loose on Hanoi. It was amazing. The guards really never paid much attention to little airplanes, but the B-52s were dropping 100,000 pounds of bombs at one run and it just tore them up. It actually forced them to the peace table. Even though a lot of these bombs came fairly close to our prison camps, we were just really overjoyed that something was happening.
Sure enough, the camp commander came in, this guy we call The Rat, and he wasn’t angry as he always was and he didn’t have a guard behind him with an AK-47 ready to mow us down. He tried to smile, as a matter of fact. He said, “Today is the day you’re going home.” We said, “No. Thank you very much, but we’re not going home until all the sick, injured and enlisted men have left this camp.” That was one of our rules as well as prisoners of war. This is something that we talked about a lot was what order are we going home in. The leadership came up with this order that we will be released. First of all, sick and injured. Second of all, enlisted men. Then, officers by shoot down date, not by date of rank but the shoot down date. The guys that were there the longest were going to go home the first. We demanded to see the list of the first plane-load of guys. At the same time, Kissinger, who was orchestrating all this apparently got really upset because he was trying any way he possibly could to get us out of there, and now we were refusing to go home. He was pretty upset with our little tactic as well. We finally hammered that out and we found out this is for real and so we have authority to go. We got on a big C-141 cargo jet and 90 minutes later I was in Clark Air Force Base in the Philippines being set free.
I’m sure you must have gone out and had a great time and had a big meal.
You would think. They were pretty skeptical about who we might be after that kind of an experience. First of all, they thought we might all be brainwashed. Secondly, the fact, “If they’re not brainwashed, they’re probably suicidal.” Of course, a lot of us received some very troubling news when we touched down at Clark Air Force Base, finding out that our wives of six or seven or eight and a half years had filed for divorce. That happened to me. They were very reluctant to release us at first. They thought we probably couldn’t eat normal food so, believe it or not, they had a lot of baby food, mostly mashed up rice, for us to eat. All we wanted was a big greasy cheese burger, fries and chocolate malt.
It was two days there at Clark and they had really rolled out the red carpet for us there. They had military tailors that sized us up for uniforms because we couldn’t wear our regular uniforms, we were so skinny when we came out of there. They made these uniforms for us just while we were there in the two days. I’ll never forget that hospital we ran at Clark Air Force Base was just plastered wall to wall with letters and pictures and drawings from school kids that welcomed us home. As I recall, they were four or five-storey hospital, just every wing have this wall to wall letters and pictures. I found a bunch of them to me personally. A couple of us asked if we could go to the local school and tell them thanks. That was the first civilians I really saw, the school kids. We went out and talked to the school kids and said thanks for remembering us.
There’s another quote that you have that I want to ask you about because there’s a great story behind it. That’s all about who packed your parachute?
That is really an interesting story and surprising. Several years after I came home, I was in a restaurant in Kansas City where I used to live. A fellow kept looking at me and I caught his eye, but I did not recognize this guy. He came over to our table and he looked at me with a stern look on his face, and he said, “You’re Captain Plumb.” I said, “Yes, sir. I’m Captain Plumb.” He started giving me my bio. “You flew jet fighters in Vietnam, part of the Top Gun outfit, shot down off the aircraft carrier Kitty Hawk,” a whole list of me. He knew me very well. He said, “You parachuted into enemy hands and you spent six years as a prisoner of war.” I looked up just befuddled and I said, “How did you know all that?” He said, “I packed your parachute.” I was dumbfounded. I couldn’t speak. I staggered to my feet and reached out a very grateful hand of thanks. He came up with just the proper words. He grabbed my hand and them he pumped my arm and he said, “I guess it worked.” I said, “Yes, sir. Indeed it did.”
He saved your life.
He did. I said, “I’ve said a lot of prayers of thanks for your nimble fingers but I had no idea I’d ever have the opportunity of expressing my gratitude in person.” A tradition at the time in the navy is that if you use a parachute, you go back to the rigger, the guy who packs it is called a parachute rigger, and you buy him a bottle of booze. I bought him the obligatory bottle of booze that night. We sat there and got philosophical about the whole thing because, of course, I’m just showering him with praise because he saved my life. He said, “I’m probably not the only parachute packer in your life.” He said, “You look back to your parents. Your dad had taught you discipline and your mom had taught you forgiveness, and the coach that told you that you could do anything you set your mind to do.” He said, “I just packed your physical parachute. Those people packed your mental parachute, your spiritual parachute, your psychological parachute. They’re the ones that really prepared you for that challenge in your life.” That’s the metaphor that I came away with was that “Who packed your parachute and how is your parachute packed?” That leads right in to finding your summit because you need a lot of help and nobody makes it alone.
My dad used to always say it takes a village, and that’s essentially what you’re saying. There are multiple people in that village: my coach, my mom, my dad, my sister, my friends, my football coaches, all those things all built towards what you ultimately become. That certainly helped out in your case. I also read something, and I don’t know if this is true or not true, but there is something in there that I think you came full circle on that back in the day when you were just a hotshot maverick pilot, it’s like, “I’m a jet fighter and you’re just a sailor,” separating those two things out. As you full circle in life of coming of really understanding and becoming grateful about that we are all equal and we all have our place in life.
It was true that as jet fighter pilot, I thought those 5,000 men aboard that aircraft carrier were all in support of me. I thought that I was the reason that they had their jobs. I felt a little embarrassed when I finally met this guy that packed my parachute because I thought, “How many times might I have passed in the passageway of that ship and never said, “Good morning, how are you? How’s it going?” because he was just a lowly sailor and I was a Top Gun fighter pilot?” That night I told him, “I’m just really, really sorry that I didn’t have a relationship with you because you’re the guy that saved my life. Of all the people that I should respect and admire, it’s you.” I think that’s true with life. I try to live my life now recognizing that everybody has a purpose in life. It may not be my purpose and it may not be things that I even agree with, but everybody has a purpose and an option, and I think we need to respect that.
Was John McCain in that camp with you?
He was. As a matter of fact, John was my flight instructor. He taught me to fly jets, as a matter of fact, so I knew John McCain. In fact, I had gone to school with his brother Joe. Joe McCain was in my company at the Naval Academy, so I knew Joe really well. I had served under their father, the Admiral McCain. John was shot down five months after I was. I was the first guy to see him in the prison camp and recognize him and know that he was there. He was really torn up. He had seven broken bones when he was shot down and they were twisting his broken bones to torture the poor guy. When they found out that he was the son of an admiral, that really went bad on him. He’s really one of the toughest guys I think we had in that prison camp. It was unbelievable how strong he was, always in their face. He was just always causing trouble. Most of us, we’re trying to stay out of the limelight. In a prison camp, you don’t want them to know your name. He was always causing trouble.
He sure seems like he’s a guy, whether you agree or disagree, a guy with a very strong moral compass.
He has a very strong moral compass. While I don’t agree with some of his politics, I really respect him for being his own man, and he does.
How do you feel in terms of your enemy, which once was? Have you been able to forgive that?
Absolutely. As I mentioned, my mother taught me a lot about forgiveness. Even more than just a religious point of view, even more than Christian forgiveness, I found in the prison camps that forgiveness is a survival technique. It was maybe three or four months into that situation that I’m just boiling over with hate, just a heart-full of vitriol and acid. I established communication with this guy and we started passing patriotic quotes and Bible verses and songs and things like that just for something to do. One of the quotes that he passed me was really meaningful. The quote is, “Acid does more harm in the vessel it’s stored than on the subject it’s poured.” To me, that meant that I keep all this acid within me. I’m angry at the enemy and it’s not doing the enemy any harm. It’s doing me harm. I’m eating myself alive. I’ve got to learn to forgive this. Within the first three or four months, I had forgiven the enemy.
[Tweet “Acid does more harm in the vessel it’s stored than on the subject it’s poured.”]
As we all know, you can’t fly high with negativity on your back. There’s another woman that I did a pod with. Her name is Kathy Eldon. She’s got this crazy story. She’s just a dear soul and bright light. Her son was stoned to death in Somalia. He was working for Reuters. He just happened to be in the wrong place at the wrong time. The US had dropped some bombs. He just happened to be standing there and they were pissed and they came around and they stoned him. It would be years later that she understood this concept called bless and release. The same thing. She knew she couldn’t become all she could be without really setting that free. It was interesting and it’s great that you haven’t held on to that because you’d certainly be a different person today if you were just this angry guy.
It really is true. Here’s an interesting thing. All of my buddies, the guys I was in the prison camp with, the POWs, have that same attitude. I go to the Vietnam Wall in Washington, DC. I have a client out there that I visit every month, so I’m in the DC area once a month and I always go by the Vietnam Wall. I find veterans that show up that were not prisoners of war and they’re still so angry about it. Even World War II, some of the World War II guys are still angry against the Japanese, and they want me to be. They want me to be angry against my old enemy, my captor. I just can’t be. I don’t have that attitude. To me, that’s self-defeating, that kind of bitterness.
As a former NFL player, I’m watching a lot of these guys out there kneeling. You’re obviously dedicated to this country, a war hero. How do you feel about that?
I have mixed emotions. First of all, I felt like I was in uniform to defend their right to dissent. I was in uniform to protect the First Amendment. That is my true belief. On the other hand, it just really disappoints me because I feel like they’re not achieving anything by this. In a way, it’s just so counter-productive for them to try to make a point by degrading the national anthem or the flag or anything else that’s all American. I just feel like there’s so many other ways to get their point across besides getting political and anti-American with their action.
I’ve been asked that question quite a bit. That’s not my choice. That’s not what I would do. I’ve got mixed emotions about it too. I’m also not African-American and so I don’t know what that’s like to be, to live in that plight. I do think there’s other ways to protest. I wish they would make those choices. What are you going to do? It’s on-going. I’m not sure how it’s all going to play out.
It’s really interesting to watch because I don’t think they’re achieving any goals by what they’re doing. This is not really logical for me to turn a fairly large group of rednecks against them. Sternly patriotic people like most veterans, as a matter of fact, most veterans that I talk to really think that it’s a bad idea for them to take a knee.
I can understand that too because you protected our country.
We feel that way. It’s a slap in the face of a veteran to be doing what you’re doing. I understand their argument that, “We’re not slapping a veteran in the face. We’re not anti-American in doing what we’re doing. We have a platform. We’re trying to make a point.” I understand that. By the way, what you’re actually doing, maybe it’s the unintended consequence of what you’re doing, but by the way, it is a consequence of what you’re doing. You’re turning an awful lot of Americans off of NFL and your plight and your position and even your color. I think there’s a backlash to that that they haven’t considered.
What I do know is that we’re doing this podcast and the ‘bless and release’ whole concept. If that’s your choice, that’s your choice. I’m going to move to the light and talk about good things to come. I love my country, by the way. You’re the author of I’m No Hero and you’re out on the public speaking circuit. What else do you do?
I fly airplanes. I still fly. I have two little airplanes: an antique World War II airplane and an experimental airplane. I spend as much time as I can with my kids. I have four kids and three grandchildren. I’m catching in a few frequent flyer miles and taking 28 people to Hawaii for my birthday party. I spend a lot of my time on the road. I’ll speak seven times this month or eight all across the country, all around the world. That seems to never end. The interest in my story and the philosophy behind the resilience that I had just seems to appeal to a lot of people in business and in personal life.
It certainly appeals to me and it’s going to appeal to my audience. I think in one sense, we’re very like-minded in many ways. I really appreciate your plight, your journey. To me, you’re a complete American war hero. I’m honored and blessed to be in your presence and that you agreed to be on this podcast.
Thank you for that. I’ll throw that bouquet right back at you and anybody who’s been in the NFL. I always wanted to be an athlete but it didn’t happen. I was not brought up in an athletic home. My father was not an athlete and so I never picked up on that like I would love to have done. I have a lot of friends and I still follow a lot of college football, Roger Staubach, a good buddy of mine, a Navy guy, and a lot of the Navy players. I love the sport. I get a football out and throw it around once in a while.
I’m your guy. I can come up your home in my mountain bike and bring my football, so I can do that. For you, The Captain, much appreciated.
Thank you very much. Anybody who has any questions on anything, I’m very open and honest and try to be as transparent as I can. I answer all my emails. CharliePlumb.com is my website. It’s great being with you, Mark. I appreciate your interest.
Thank you so much.