J. CHARLES PLUMB
The Stuart Journal
POW Turned Motivational Speaker Credits Attitude to
By Louis Hillary Park - Staff Writer
When a Soviet-built missile slammed into the tail of his
state-of-the-art fighter jet, Lt. (J.G.) Charlie Plumb was too busy to notice
the fireball that surrounded his F-4 Phantom.
Thousands of feet over Hanoi, Plumb suddenly found himself upside down and
riding 3,000 gallons of burning jet fuel that had thundered into flame in about
as long as it takes to light a match.
"My eyes were so fixed on the instruments -- all the dials were spinning -- that
I don't even remember seeing the fire," says Plumb, a Navy aviator who, on May
19, 1967, was flying his 75th mission over North Vietnam. "But (my commander)
said it was pretty spectacular."
So was Plumb's recovery.
With most of his controls locked, he stomped the rudder and managed to get the
blazing plane upright long enough for he and his radar man to eject. Both men
survived but floated down into the hands of the angry North Vietnamese, who
would keep Plumb a prisoner of war for the next six years.
It was in those hard, harsh places of steel and stone, of bamboo and dirt, of
leg irons and loneliness, that Plumb tapped an inner strength that allowed him
not only to survive but to thrive.
Today, Capt. J. Charles Plumb, USN (retired), calls on that same inner strength
as one of the country's most sought-after motivational speakers.
He also is the author of four books -- including "I'm No Hero," the story of his
years in captivity -- and several audio and video cassettes.
On Saturday, Plumb will be at The Grace Place church in Stuart to speak at the
All-American Mentor Celebration presented by Mentors of Martin and the
Governor's Mentoring Initiative.
"Charlie Plumb is upbeat, he's humorous and his message packs a powerful punch,"
says Kelly McIntyre of the United Way Volunteer and Community Resource Center,
who is coordinating the event. "He talks about how to make your life more
positive for you and the people around you, and that's what mentoring is all
Growing up a Kansas farm boy of the 1950s, "I was mentored by a number of people
-- coaches, teachers, preachers, mom and dad -- so that's really where I gained
my basic philosophy of life," says the 59-year-old Plumb. "I went through four
survival schools in the military to teach me how to survive as a prisoner of
war. But I think far more important than any of those was the mentoring I
received as a kid.
"The military training was good, but it doesn't get to the core of survival --
to issues of faith, confidence, security and communication."
Mentors of every kind are the ones who often forever shape youngsters, says
Plumb. "That's one of the reasons I can really get behind this program. This is
where the clay is molded."
The clay of Charlie Plumb's life was molded in the shade of grain silos in the
rolling gold of the American Midwest, and later beside the crab-laden waters of
Chesapeake Bay at the U.S. Naval Academy in Annapolis, MD.
By 1966, Plumb had married his high school sweetheart and was in San Diego
helping train other jet jockeys how to dogfight at the Navy Fighter Weapons
School, which would come to be known as "Top Gun." By the late spring of '67, he
was flying off the deck of the aircraft carrier Kitty Hawk, sailing on "Yankee
Station" 90 miles off North Vietnam.
When dawn began to light the South China Sea and the Kitty Hawk turned her bow
into the wind on the early morning of May 19, Plumb was only five days away from
rotating out of the war zone. But this was another big mission, with the U.S. putting
into the air nearly every piece of flying hardware it had in Southeast Asia as
part of "Operation Rolling Thunder."
The job of Plumb and his squadron was to keep the Russian-built MIG fighters off
the American bombers as they hit targets in south Hanoi, which was then the most
heavily defended city on Earth.
Everything was fine, just another day at the office. The little white earpiece
of the Radio Shack radar detector he wore inside his flight suit was firmly in
place, ready to warn of incoming missiles.
But once over Hanoi that May day, the air was so thick with flak and so alive
with missiles that the detector was useless. When Plumb gave chase to what he
thought was a MIG, one of the swarming SAMs shattered the rear of the plane.
It would be 2,103 days before Plumb returned to American soil.
During that time, he was moved from prison to prison, often living in a
windowless 8-foot-by-8-foot cell -- a rusty, 2-gallon bucket the only toilet
facility for up to four men. He endured torture and loneliness but his
circumstances did not break him.
"It started out pretty bleak," he says now. "But you still can choose (how you
handle anything). ... It comes down to the basics of faith and self-esteem.
"After three months, I didn't even see it as adversity."
When Plumb returned to the United States in 1973, a reporter helped him see that
he had a powerful story to tell, and he's been telling it ever since -- to more
than 4,000 audiences around the country.
"It gave me a mission," says Plumb, father of two teenagers. "It gave me
a way to share and to connect, especially with young people."
At the Mentor Celebration, "I'll be talking about frustration, loneliness,
getting cut off from your support group. I'll be talking about fear," he says.
"The normal things that teenagers, and really everyone, goes through.
"I truly believe you can be just as cut off in your own world as a disadvantaged
teenager, as a professional, or as a parent as I was over there in the prison cells. ... You can build your own
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Contact: Susan@CharliePlumb.com (818