The Vietnam War was a divisive war in many ways and characterized by large protests and violent riots. I remember walking out of my room as a student at George Washington University in Washington D.C. and seeing cars turned over and on fire and the National Guard standing 4 deep three blocks away ready sweep the campus and arrest anyone standing out in the open.
It was not a war fought by the 1% as wars are today. The draft made sure of that. Over 50,000 Americans were killed and when they returned, many were spit upon and looked down on.
When we founded our company in 1980, America was working hard to forget the Vietnam War. But not us. We discovered living in California, Charles Plumb, a Naval Fighter pilot, was shot down over Vietnam and became a prisoner of war in Vietnam for nearly six years.
Charlie had been kept in solitary confinement in an eight-foot-square cell and routinely tortured. Yet he found a way to connect with his fellow prisoners. It was a lesson of heroism and bravery we thought all Americans should and needed to hear firsthand. Here is the inspiring background to Charlie’s story.
I grew up on a farm in the middle of Kansas. We were poor, our house had three rooms, and we couldn’t afford an indoor toilet until I was ten.
There was a girl at school – I’ll call her Kathy – who lived about a mile out past us, and her family was poorer than we were.
One day, when she thought we weren’t home, Kathy walked into our house (nobody had locks on their doors in those days). She headed straight into the kitchen and opened the refrigerator, getting ready to steal some food. That’s when my Mom walked in and caught her.
When I heard the story I was angry and wanted to tell Kathy’s family. Mom said that was out of the question. In fact, she had sat Kathy down, explained that stealing was wrong, and then made her a nice lunch. That’s the type of person that she was.
Although I didn’t appreciate it then, my mother’s example served me well years later when I faced a challenge that almost broke me.
Call of Duty
On November 5, 1966, I left for my tour of duty. The Vietnam War was raging, and I knew I’d be serving on an aircraft carrier off that country’s coast.
My official designation during my early training was “interceptor pilot.” This is a different role than that of a fighter pilot, who engages in midair dogfights.
I sailed for Southeast Asia on the aircraft carrier Kitty Hawk with a squadron of seventeen pilots and seventeen co-pilots.
It’s not the Challenge, It’s How You Respond
By May 19, 1967, slightly more than six months after leaving the Naval Academy, I’d flown seventy-four successful combat missions off the Kitty Hawk. I had five days left on my tour, five days until I would be heading back to the States. Then my life changed forever.
I was part of large strike force heading to an ammunition depot just south of Hanoi. At that time, Hanoi was the most heavily defended city in the world. It had radar-guided missiles and antiaircraft artillery on every street corner.
My job that day wasn’t to bomb; it was to keep the “enemy” fighter pilots (MIGs) away from the rest of the squadron. I thought I saw a MIG, and I went down after it. It turned out to be one of our planes, but by the time I realized that I was outside the range of our anti-missile electronics, the system that jammed their radar.
Suddenly, all that ground fire knew my position. Within seconds I was hit by a surface-to-air missile. It tore into my fuel tank, and 12,000 pounds of fuel exploded. I was in the middle of a fireball, nose-diving towards earth. I ejected, as did my copilot. Our parachutes opened, and we floated down into enemy territory.
I landed in a field and was quickly surrounded by a crowd of farmers. The farmers locked me up in a schoolhouse until the bombing run was over and the skies were quiet. Then the militia showed up. I was hogtied, stripped of everything but my uniform, and taken by jeep to a prison camp in Hanoi. I briefly saw my co-pilot there and was relieved he had survived.
Becoming a POW
For the first few days, they kept me in a holding cell. I was in shock, I couldn’t believe this was happening, it had to be a dream. My denial didn’t last long because it’s hard to deny physical pain.
The first torture they put all prisoners through was something we called the rope trick. They put shackles around my ankles and manacled my wrists behind my back. Then they ran a rope up from my ankles, over my shoulders, and down to my wrists. They kept tightening the rope until my feet were right up in front of my face. My elbows were jammed together behind my back, my shoulders out of joint, and I look up and see my hands. As you can imagine, it’s excruciating.
To compound the agony, they lifted me a couple of feet off the floor and dropped me. Then there were the whippings. I was face down, naked, and two guys with heavy fan belts whipped me across my back and buttocks.
They were looking for information that my fellow prisoners and I didn’t have – i.e. what our next targets were, and how the aircraft carriers were being deployed. It wasn’t military policy to give flyers any of this information.
Once they realized we didn’t have any information, they used us for propaganda purposes. They wanted us to write letters in support of the antiwar movement in the States and to confess our sins in front of tribunals. Ironically, sometimes they tortured prisoners to get them to say that the treatment was good.
My Prison Cell
I was thrown into a cell was eight feet long and eight feet wide. There were two wooden bunk beds, so there could up to four guys in there. There was a bricked-up window. The toilet was a two-gallon bucket. If you were lucky, it had a lid. Our diet was two bowls of rice a day – sometimes it came with a little broth, maybe some turnips or cabbage.
At the foot of each bunk were shackles; It wasn’t uncommon for them to leave us in them for days. There was a single twenty-watt bulb hanging from the ceiling. It was a grim place, but at least I had company.
Then I was tossed into solitary confinement. That’s where my real education began. With all that time alone, my thoughts turned in some pretty dark directions. I felt sorry for myself and got bitter about my fate. I blamed the Vietcong. I blamed President Johnson for escalating the war. I blamed everybody. I felt powerless and hopeless. The cell was dark; there was no way to know what time it was. I became disorientated, and my mind started to play tricks on me. I thought I was hallucinating. This went on for several months.
When a String Becomes a Lifeline
Then one day, something amazing happened. I noticed a little piece of wire protruding through a tiny hole in the wall, just a little above the floor. It jiggled. I took hold of it and gave it a gentle tug. I got a gentle tug in return. It was the prisoner in the next cell, establishing communication.
Over the coming days, he slowly, methodically taught me a code. We started to “talk.” Our language was based on tugs and taps, a different sequence representing the different letters of the alphabet. We also worked out abbreviations. It was obviously cumbersome, but it worked.
That skinny little wire was literally my lifeline. It wasn’t the words that meant the most to me; it was knowing that someone was there, that I was alive, that somebody cared.
The cell next door held four people, and I “spoke” to all of them over the coming weeks and months. We’d start out with words of encouragement, then share our life stories. We talked about songs, movies, books. Someone would recount a film that he’d seen, filling in every detail. Some of the guys knew epic poetry, some knew history, and we taught each other. In fact, when we got back home the University of Maryland gave us credit – for courses that were taught by tugging on a wire.
Before my deployment, I’d been through four different survival programs. Everything I learned was useless. There’s no way to teach a person to be a prisoner of war. It’s like practicing bleeding. Even with the wire, it was tough being in that cell.
I had absolutely no control of what was happening to me physically. What I did control was my mind, my thought processes, and my attitude. In other words, I controlled my response to what I was going through. Most people will never be prisoners of war, but everyone goes through challenges. And we can make them better – or worse – by the way we respond.
What ultimately sustained me was thinking about my mother, Marjorie Plumb. She taught me forgiveness and grace. I remembered my schoolmate Kathy and how Mom had made her lunch for the better part of a year.
Growing up I sometimes mistook her kindness for weakness. In prison, I realized it was strength. And it gave me strength.
I started to practice forgiveness. And it wasn’t just towards the enemy. It was forgiving the mechanic that put my airplane together and the president who started the war and myself for getting shot down. The more I forgave, the less bitterness I felt, and the better I was able to cope with the brutal conditions.
I could choose to be bitter, to blame others, to curl up in the corner of my cell. I could expect the government to take care of me for the rest of my life. Or I could choose to become a better man. I chose life. I chose to turn adversity into strength.