By Raiza Giorgi
Capt. Charlie Plumb survived nearly six years as a prisoner of war in the Hanoi Hilton by recalling every memory and moment in his life that he could, then playing them over and over again, thinking of his wife and family back in the United States.
Recently, as he sat in his hangar at the Santa Ynez Airport, the former Vietnam War POW recounted his time growing up and the way he went from farm fields in Kansas to the Naval Academy and then through his harrowing ordeal in Vietnam.
“It’s hard for people to understand what we went through, no communication with the outside world, shoes on our feet, barely any clothing on our backs. So I relate it to the current time and ask students if they’ve ever left their cell phone, and most of them say they can’t imagine not having their phone near them and would be lost without it,” Plumb said.
Plumb is featured in the PBS documentary, “The Vietnam War,” which is available for streaming and broadcast on the station through Nov. 28. He has also written a book, “I’m No Hero,” in which he recounts his time in graphic detail.
Plumb grew up on a farm in Kansas but thought about flying airplanes. He knew if he wanted to become a pilot some day he would have to get a scholarship, so he worked hard to get an appointment to the Naval Academy.
“My bride and I had just gotten married right after I graduated flight training. I got the call and ended up going to the Naval Air Station in San Diego. I was to be flying the F-4 Phantom, and we were assigned to the USS Kitty Hawk departing for North Vietnam,” he recalled.
Plumb flew 74 successful missions, but just five days before he was to be sent home he was shot down over Hanoi on May 19, 1967.
“My co-pilot and I ejected near a rice paddy and that was good news, as most who got shot down in the jungle never made it out. I was captured and taken to the prison camp,” he said.
They were fed rice twice a day.
“Once a month we got a chunk of sow belly that still had hair and fat on it. I remember the first time I flicked it off, but during my six years there that ended up being the highlight of the month,” Plumb said.
Eating also became tricky because there were uncooked pieces of rice and bits of rock in their food. They had to chew slowly and carefully to avoid cracking a tooth and getting an infection.
For much of the time in his first four years as a POW, Plumb lived in solitary confinement. He would occasionally have a roommate but they often took those men away for some reason or another. It gave the prisoners purpose to tell each other about their lives and every detail they could remember.
“I had time. Time to think. Time to re-read every book, recall every song or movie and encounter I had,” Plumb said.
Even while isolated, POWs established a line of communication. That included tapping on the wall in Morse code and hiding notes in their “bathroom buckets.” Plumb even practiced calligraphy using a piece of bamboo, a mat and his own earwax.
“You can’t let your thoughts get the better of you. Do whatever is necessary to keep yourself sane, and I just had to take one day at a time. Some days were harder than others. We got tortured for information, and you just tell them bits of nonsense to keep you alive,” Plumb said.
Plumb was held for 2,103 days before he was released in early 1973.
“We were skeptical of everything they told us, even when the war ended and the peace treaty was signed. I remember they came in and measured our feet with toilet paper to get us the right sizes, and I still have those shoes,” Plumb said.
Just as Plumb thought he would get to go back to his wife, and his way of life before his capture, he was devastated to learn that wife had filed for divorce just a few months before his return.
“She was shunned from the wives club because those women knew their husbands were still alive, and having her around thinking I was dead, they didn’t want bad luck to come with her. I can’t even imagine,” Plumb said.
Even after all he had been through, Plumb said he felt the most awful for his wife because she had no idea he was alive. For more than a year and a half everyone thought he was dead.
Plumb’s younger brother kept in contact with her, mowed the lawn and did handyman work around the house, but since the brothers looked so much alike Plumb’s wife told him to stop.
Plumb eventually reconnected with his wife at a cafe in Kansas. She had a diamond ring on her finger and told Plumb she had gotten reacquainted with an old flame and going to marry him.
“I understood. It was hard. But looking back, if that never happened I wouldn’t have met my wife Susan and we wouldn’t have had four kids and now our three grandchildren,” he said.
Plumb, who lives in Westlake Village but spends much of his time in the Santa Ynez Valley, tours the country as a motivational speaker. He hopes that his story will help others who have been through traumatic experiences and help them see that there is a way to get through hard times.
“I am living proof that you can come back. There are a lot of guys that come out of the military and they feel they’ve lost their purpose because there is no next mission or assignment. There is, actually. You just have to find it,” he said.
Plumb’s mission now is to help others but also to enjoy his time flying over the Santa Ynez Valley whenever he can. His group of friends who meet in the valley love going to the Longhorn or some other local restaurant and talking about the good old days.
Plumb has received medals and decorations for his service, including two Purple Hearts, the Silver Star, Bronze Star, Legion of Merit, POW Medal, Combat Action Ribbon and others.
He has spoken to more than 5,000 audiences about his experiences.
For more information, log onto www.charlieplumb.com. To watch the documentary, log onto http://www.pbs.org/kenburns/the-vietnam-war/watch/