Dates That Matter...

Back in Vietnam with Ex-P.O.W. Charlie Plumb

Plumb Lingberg 500Do you remember dates? I seem to recall the important ones—birthdays, anniversaries, or major historical events—but most dates just pass me by and I fail to see any course that they may plot or the meanings they reveal.

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I don’t think Friday, May 19, 1967, meant much to me – I was an eighth-grader at Beresford Junior High School but the day would end up meaning quite a bit to naval pilot, Lieutenant Charlie Plumb, who was flying an F-4 Phantom jet fighter on a combat mission over Hanoi, North Vietnam. While I was safely in my classroom that day dreaming about my upcoming weekend, Charlie Plumb was shot down by a surface-to-air missile just south of Hanoi. He was then captured, tortured, and placed in an eight-by-eight-foot prison cell. He would spend the next 2,103 days in captivity in communist prison camps. I went to high school.

In 1968 there were 16,899 American casualties in Vietnam—the most of any year. On November 26, 1969, President Nixon signed an amendment to the Military Selective Service Act of 1967 that established conscription via random selection (a lottery) based on one’s birthday. The days of the year were numbered from 1 to 366 for drawing purposes; the lower the number, the likelier the chances of being drafted into military service.

I remember February 2, 1972, the date of the fourth annual draft lottery. My draft classification was 1A. Student deferments for the draft had been dropped in 1971. I was prime for conscription. Casualties in Vietnam had dropped to 2,124 that same year—still too many. I was in my dormitory room at the University of South Dakota when my lottery number was drawn. It was 190. History would show that only those with a number 95 or lower were selected to be drafted into the service that year. My odds of ever going to Vietnam were significantly reduced.

On January 27, 1973, Secretary of Defense Melvin R. Laird announced the creation of an all-volunteer armed forces, negating the need for the military draft.

Charlie Plumb was released from the North Vietnamese prison system on February 18, 1973, and returned home.

Direct U.S. military involvement in Vietnam ended on August 15, 1973, further assuring there was very little chance of me serving any time in Southeast Asia.

On March 29, 1975, President Ford signed a proclamation eliminating the registration requirement for all 18- to 25-year-old male citizens. My odds of ever going to Nam just dropped to zero.

But here’s the thing about odds: Over time they’re subject to change.

 In this excerpt from Old Guys & Their Airplanes: "There. And Back" ex-Vietnam P.O.W. shows how he and fellow prisoners communicated.

See more excerpts at

Fast forward to July 12, 2015:  I’m in Vietnam in a former prison cell of the infamous prison the “Hanoi Hilton” (now a museum). In the same cell is Charlie Plumb; he has returned to Vietnam to visit the former sites of his captivity—his first visit since his release in 1973. We’re standing in what was his cell. He’s tapping on the wall to demonstrate how he and his fellow P.O.W.s communicated with one another. Charlie Plumb, along with nearly 600 captured Americans, would suffer unimaginable deprivation, treatment, torture, and pain during imprisonment. The previous day he had a conversation with the commandant of the very prison where we stood. Commandant D. was responsible for the administration of the treatment of Charlie and his fellow prisoners. I’m there to record these experiences for an upcoming episode of Old Guys & Their Airplanes. We hope to document Charlie’s recollections and discover what he has learned from them after 42 years.

For most of us, Charlie’s experience on May 19, 1967, would have been a very bad day. On the contrary, Charlie told us that day may have proved to be one of the best days of his life. He shared that the adversity he experienced in captivity formed him in a way that he couldn’t have imagined had that missile not exploded just inches from his plane. In Charlie Plumb’s words, “Adversity is a horrible thing to waste,” and he didn’t.

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Charlie Plumb is One of the most sought-after achievement speakers of his time.  (Captain Charlie Plumb website)

His life since Vietnam has been a testament to the strength of the human spirit, as he endured the most extreme hardships and used the experience to transform his life and career. That would have made for a great story even without a chance encounter on the last day of filming that would shed an incredibly bright beacon of light on the true meaning of freedom—It’s a chance encounter that made my traveling to a place I never thought I would go all worth it. You won’t want to miss what we discovered.

On Veterans Day, November 11, 2015, we will be releasing the next episode of Old Guys & Their Airplanes: “The Charlie Plumb Story—‘There. And Back.’” To see more excerpts,  click here.