News | Nov. 9, 2021

Packing Parachutes: A DIA MasterMinds conversation with Capt. Charlie Plumb

By Ranna Armstrong, DIA Public Affairs

Last month, the DIA workforce welcomed U.S. Navy veteran, former prisoner of war, and acclaimed motivational speaker and author Capt. Charlie Plumb for a MasterMinds session.  

In his opening remarks, DIA Director Lt. Gen. Scott Berrier acknowledged the U.S. Navy’s 246th birthday and introduced Plumb, highlighting his bravery and strength of character. Plumb was shot down and captured just five days before his scheduled return home from the Vietnam War. He survived 2,103 days as a POW, enduring torture, abuse and isolation before his release nearly six years later.  

A hush fell over the audience as Plumb began his harrowing tale of being shot down over enemy territory in 1967. He asked listeners to imagine his home of nearly six years — a cell enabling him to take three steps in one direction before running into a wall — the stench of the waste bucket, and the constant taste of salt from blood, sweat and tears. Bleeding from four open wounds, hungry and thirsty, he was racked with guilt for failing his mission and surrendering to the enemy.  

He was in this state of despair when he heard a strange, rhythmic cricket in the corner of his cell. The sound turned out to be a wire, persistently scratching the wall. He tugged it and the wire disappeared. A few minutes later, the wire returned with a rolled-up piece of toilet paper that held a written code and a note instructing him to memorize the code and eat the paper.  

That code became his language for the next six years.  

The man on the other side of the wire, U.S. naval aviator Lt. Cmdr. Robert Schumaker, told him, “You’ve just joined the finest team you’ve ever been on.” As Plumb connected with Schumaker and the other Americans, that metal wire sparked an inner resilience.  

Schumaker — who would spend eight years as a POW in Vietnam and rise to the rank of rear admiral — told Plumb that whenever he returned from being tortured, he needed to “get on that wall.” While it was helpful to share intelligence about interrogations, the greatest benefit in sharing the experience lay in the simple, yet vital, validation of knowing another person was aware of his continued existence. 

Despite the confining walls of his cell, Plumb found a brotherhood among the other prisoners. They passed the time by sharing facts about their personal lives, playing modified card games and discussing inspirational texts. Whenever a new American arrived, they passed along the most coveted information of all: current events.  

The enemy’s attempts to break their spirit with false news reports failed due to the Americans’ communication system and blunders on the part of their captors. After receiving a fake newspaper touting how the USSR’s successful launch to the moon utilized robots instead of humans like the United States had, shouts of joy erupted throughout the prison as they realized President John F. Kennedy’s promise to put a man on the moon had come to fruition.  

At the conclusion of the war, the POWs were freed. Two years after his return to the United States, Plumb ran into a man who told him he was the rigger who packed his parachute.  

“Do you know of all the lives you saved?” Plumb asked the man. 

“No,” the sailor responded. “I don’t keep track. It’s enough to know I served.” 

In that moment, Plumb thought of all the people behind the scenes who helped him as a fighter pilot. Without the humble services of this parachute packer and others like him, Plumb would not have flown any missions, let alone survived his last.   

Plumb explained that support positions are vital to the success of any mission. 

“Each person at DIA is a parachute packer,” said Plumb, linking his life-saving parachute to the resources required to accomplish any assignment. “Intelligence was so important in my war. We can’t do our jobs without yours.” 

To achieve resilience and readiness, Plumb explained, your parachute needs to be packed. He attributed his positive attitude to influential people from his childhood. His mother taught him the importance of forgiveness, and his father taught him self-discipline. Plumb survived the prison camp by applying those lessons on a daily basis and maintaining that, no matter how dire his situation, he could still choose his attitude.  

Plumb credits Schumaker, his first American contact at the POW camp, with packing his parachute with the most critical supplies he needed at that time — communication and connection.