Under his code name “Plumber,” fresh-faced and zealous U.S. Navy pilot Charlie Plumb made more than 100 successful carrier landings and flew 74 triumphant missions throughout the Vietnam War. But on his 75th mission on May 19, 1967—five days before he was to return home—the then-24-year-old was shot down by a surface-to-aircraft missile over Hanoi.
“I had a 90-second transition from the skies to the earth,” Plumb said as he remembered how he prayed for his wife as he fell. Simultaneously, he tore off his radio antenna and shredded his small book of flight names and schedules so that the enemy could not call support and endanger more American lives. Then he hit a rice paddy, and bullets whizzed by his ears. “I was immediately swarmed by about 20 to 30 peasant farmers with machetes and hoses and rakes. They cut my flight gear off me until I was naked, and I was eventually hauled into an 8-by-8-foot prison cell. That was going to be home for a while.”
Plumb spent the next 2,103 days fighting for life inside a North Vietnamese prisoner of war camp. His existence was reduced to routine torture, compounded by the torment of mosquitoes and machetes that were never far from sight. Yet he refused to succumb or let his mind become a moral morass. Instead, he became something of a chaplain to his comrades, whose bodies wasted away beside his in the hot and scented primeval jungle, overgrown with thickets and mystery.
Born during World War II, Plumb, a farm child raised in Kansas, daydreamed about golden wings and flying the warplanes that captured his imagination during his early years. “I always tell people that I was a rich kid, although we didn’t have running water until I was about 7 years old. But I was rich in empathy and love,” Plumb reminisces. “My parents couldn’t afford college, so I got a scholarship to the Naval Academy. Within two days, I was on a Greyhound bus and pledging to defend the Constitution of the United States of America against all enemies.”
In the years before his deployment to Vietnam, Plumb was already rattling the cage. The newly-graduated interceptor pilot—who was trained to fly by the late Arizona Senator and Vietnam War POW John McCain—reported to Miramar Naval Air Station in San Diego to pilot the newfangled Phantom-F4, but he discovered there was a six-month wait.
“My buddy and I were not happy not flying airplanes; it just gets in your blood. But we knew how to fly the F9 Cougar, which is slow and not supersonic at all but designed for dogfighting. So, my buddy and I would save some gas at the end of each flight and lurk across the coast and wait for the F4 Phantoms to come out, and then we would dogfight these guys,” Plumb says. “It was highly illegal, but we were having fun—then the commander called us in.”
This rebellion ended up leading to the development of the Navy Fighter Weapons School, now better known as TOPGUN. While Plumb’s syllabus turned the kill ratio around in the far-flung bamboo chaparral of Vietnam, his flying prowess didn’t shield his own aircraft from being brought down in enemy terrain.
“They (his Vietnamese captors) would not give us books to read or a television or a radio. We were just made to sit there and contemplate our sins against the Republic of Vietnam,” Plumb continues. “Just being alone with yourself, with nothing to do, was a big-time change.”
Looking back, the night before his capture served as something of an omen. A group of U.S. airmen were sitting around, laughing about the probability of being shot down with the engineers, when the conversation took a serious turn. “We started asking each other what would happen, what happens to a man? We admitted we wouldn’t probably make it,” Plumb relates. “I had heard about all the torture and disease, and I said it was a mountain too high to climb. None of us thought we could survive a POW situation.”
However, as Plumb’s captivity continued in the swelter of the Vietnamese jungle, it was not the four military survival schools Plumb attended before his deployment that helped him through those dark and disorientating days. Instead, it was the cocktail of values instilled by his mother and father.
Plumb had undergone four types of military survival-training schools, known as SERE (survival, evasion, resistance and escape). However, they were of little value. “The schools were all based on World War II prison camps and were pretty useless. You always knew by Saturday morning you would be home with the family with milk and cookies. That was the difference. A real camp has no end to it,” Plumb notes. “But my earliest training came from my mother. She was a religious person and taught me a lot about forgiveness. And my dad was a World War II guy, and he taught me a lot about discipline. Those two things together—to stop blaming others for my situation and to take control of my thoughts—did more than any survival school.”
Holding on to the threads of sanity defined Plumb’s every moment as a POW. His face constantly swelled from insect bites, and his fragile frame curled into a fetal position on the filthy floors, writhing as the tightly sheathed twine turned his wrists black and blue.
Many of those fellow prisoners Plumb treasured fell like flies around him. Some succumbed to their injuries, and others drowned in water or even in their own blood. Flies fed off Plumb’s flesh, and the screams of others being whipped and tortured dug deep into his nightmares.
But it was the small moments—the moral victories and the camaraderie—which kept Plumb and his comrades from falling victim to insanity. “Even as POWs, what kept us alive was maintaining our patriotism. We were making little flags out of rags and saluting the flag and saying the Pledge. We never questioned why we were there,” Plumb says, stressing that he reminded himself over and over of these three critical words: “Return with honor.”
Despite North Vietnam having been a signatory to the 1949 Geneva Convention mandating “decent and humane treatment” of POWs, Plumb and his brothers in arms endured humiliating acts of torture that included long stretches of solitary confinement, rope binding, being burned by hot irons, whippings and waterboarding.
Yet Plumb would not, could not, be broken through nearly six years of captivity. One of the most defining moments of his elastic, timeless days spent behind bars was the moment—a couple of years into his imprisonment—that a stray bullet from an air raid above came through the ceiling. It left a 3-inch hole and a reminder of the world beyond his almost jet-black, windowless cell.
“Suddenly, there was this beam of light that came down on the floor, and suddenly, I had a sense of time. I had a clock to indicate if it was night or day, and I could pretty much tell the changing of the seasons by the angle of the sun,” Plumb explains. Just as importantly, that shaft of illumination that moved across his filthy cell floor allowed Plumb to establish a routine—when to rise and when to sleep, when to pray and when to exercise—which he credits for his psychological survival.
Furthermore, the young pilot spent months writing the memoir of his life in his mind, detailing his earliest memories of his grandmother’s gentle touch, the plot of every movie he had watched or book he had read, and recollections of every girl he had ever dated. Then, he spent more months imagining various post-war lives that he would make for himself. “I planned where I would live and the children I would have and my wish to go on flying and maybe make admiral someday,” Plumb says. “And then I thought up other plans just in case my wife had different visions of what she wanted.”
Also critical for the mental resilience of the dozens of American forces stuffed inside their fouled lockup were the clever communication systems they established through tapping. “When you have got nothing else to think about, you get very creative. We would devise codes that represented the different letters of the alphabet or abbreviations. Someone chopping wood would become chatter for us. This language became our lifeblood,” Plumb enthuses. “One time, as we were put into trucks to be moved to another prison camp, I tapped out my motto with my big toe. The guy next to me caught on, and it ended up coming back to me by 11 different people on that journey.”
The motto? “Keep the faith, baby,” Plumb laughs.
Plumb believes this mysterious, melodic means of communication kept them alive, focused and filled with purpose to carry on, if only to support one another. And while he emphasizes that thoughts of his wife and life beyond imprisonment kept his spirits lifted and that there wasn’t a single day that he thought he would die, there were days of deep depression and dimness.
The men were all subjected to that brutal torture method known as the “rope trick.” With ankles shackled, their starving, fragile frames were hoisted for days on end, their shoulders ripped from their sockets and their feet heaved over their heads. Sometimes the guards would jingle keys outside their cell doors, triggering the internal panic of not knowing if another purge was coming or if they would be the next to face slaughter.
Then, in February 1973, as part of a diplomatic agreement between Washington and Saigon known as “Operation Homecoming,” Plumb and his fellow prisoners were suddenly released. The first real indication had come a few days earlier when guards came in and traced the POWs’ raw feet on wrapping paper. “We never had shoes, and the rumor was that they were going to make shoes for us,” Plumb quips. “And they brought us this little bag with shoes and trousers; I had not seen a zipper in more than six years.”
Plumb, now 78, considers himself one of the lucky ones. The 14-year military engagement in Vietnam cost the lives of more than 58,000 Americans and some three million Vietnamese. More than 2,600 U.S.-allied soldiers were held captive throughout the conflict, and more than 1,500 are still missing somewhere inside the vast seas or contorted jungles of the region.
When he speaks about the long ordeal, Plumb’s voice rises a notch. He may be wandering through the shadows of shattered memories, but he is upbeat, and any pain or pity belongs to the past. “My message for anyone in such a situation is that as long as you have self-discipline, you have options—regardless of your surroundings. The options are in your control, the way you respond,” he explains. “You are winning until you quit.”
Plumb continued to fly A-4 Skyhawks, F/A-18 Hornets and A-7 Corsairs in the Navy Reserve upon his return, and he was subsequently awarded the Silver Star, the Bronze Star, two Purple Hearts, the Legion of Merit and the POW Medal for his service. Plumb also reached the rank of captain in the Naval Reserve before retiring after more than 30 years of duty. In 1973, he penned the bestselling memoir I’m No Hero.
And not a single day passes that Plumb does not treasure a warm shower or the water lapping by his Southern California home. He says, “I am a religious guy, and I believe that there is a master plan. I believe God had a plan for all the things I have been through.” As a final note, Plumb adds, “And the upside of being able to inspire others and share my story with so many people far and wide—I believe that far outweighs the downside.”