Have you ever wondered how some people can withstand intense pressure and still maintain their composure?
Captain Plumb survived nearly six years of torture as a POW after being shot down over Hanoi five days before his deployment was to end. In this interview, he shares how self-discipline, self-control, and the ability to forgive were integral parts of his survival and future success. Plumb believes that everyone has the choice whether they succeed, fail or become a victim of circumstances, no matter where they might be.
Captain Charlie Plumb is one of the most sought-after achievement speakers of his time. His insights on how to cope with the difficulties and the opportunities in life have a positive impact on those who hear his message, those who read his books, and those who come to know him as a friend. Since his return home, more than 5,000 audiences in nearly every industry have been spellbound as fighter pilot keynote speaker Captain Charlie Plumb shares his story and the lessons he learned from it.
– Captain Charlie Plumb
Topics covered in the interview
Plateaus of pain
Love the Lord
Captain Charlie Plumb’s Bio
One of the most sought-after achievement speakers of his time, Captain Plumb’s presentations are as he is: sincere, straightforward, humorous, and tailored to motivate each specific audience he encounters. His insights on how to cope with the difficulties as well as the opportunities in life have a positive impact on those who hear his message, those who read his books, and those who come to know him as a friend.
Captain Charlie Plumb graduated from the Naval Academy at Annapolis and went on to be a fighter pilot flying the F-4 Phantom jet on 74 successful combat missions over Vietnam. On his 75th mission, with only five days before he was to return home, Plumb was shot down, captured, tortured, and imprisoned in an 8-by-8 foot cell. He spent the next 2,103 days as a Prisoner Of War in communist war prisons.
During his nearly six years of captivity, Captain Plumb distinguished himself among his fellow prisoners as a professional in underground communications, and served for two of those years as the chaplain in his camp. Since his return home, more than 5,000 audiences in nearly every industry have been spellbound as fighter pilot keynote speaker Captain Charlie Plumb shares his story and the lessons he learned from it.
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Capt. Charlie Plumb 0:00
And I was bleeding and sweating and crying all at the same time. And then my thought was, but if it doesn't get any worse than this, I'm going to survive. I'm still alive. I'm still breathing, I'm still thinking, I'm still in control. If it doesn't get any worse than this, I'll be alright. Then they tightened the ropes and it got worse.
Unknown Speaker 0:23
Welcome to the Susan Sly Project where entrepreneurs rule, startups launch, and the side hustle becomes the main hustle. Ladies and gentlemen, your host, Susan Sly.
Susan Sly 0:35
I want to ask you all a question. Do you ever suffer from self sabotage? Do the thoughts in your mind have more power over your actions, especially the negative ones? Well, my guest spent, it's amazing to me, 2103 days as a prisoner of war in Vietnam. And he's one of the most sought after speakers and authors in the world. He is someone I read about actually well over a decade ago, and I had set the intention that one day I wanted to meet him. So I've been preparing these questions, obviously, for a very long time. He is considered sincere, straightforward, humorous, and tailored to motivate each specific audience he encounters. So the bar is set really high for him. But the thing I want to say about this man, as you know, for the vast majority of people that can't fathom being shot down, and then captured and tortured, and imprisoned in an eight by eight cell, and then coming out to tell the tale. So my guest today is the one and only Captain Charlie Plumb. Captain Plumb, thank you for being here and thank you for your service.
Capt. Charlie Plumb 1:51
Susan, it's great to be with you. I'm honored just to be on your program.
Susan Sly 1:56
Well, thank you. And just so everyone is aware, after this, Captain Plumb is going flying. So we're going to have a rapid fire interview so we can get him out on his airplane. My first question for you is, is this-- why, in your opinion, do you feel people give up hope?
Capt. Charlie Plumb 2:13
It's all a mindset, you know that you talk about that a lot. You know, it's a decision to give up hope. And I, you know, there were, I had a lot of opportunities to give up hope during the nearly six years, I was a prisoner of war. And I kept talking to myself, you know, and in thinking to myself, listen, I'm good enough, I'm strong enough, I can overcome this. In fact, not only can I overcome this problem that I have, that I can emerge from this a better person than I was before I came into this prison camp. And so I kept telling myself that over and over, and when things got tough, you know, the enemy would torture me with ropes and irons and whips. And, and, and I just had, had to keep that in my mind that it's going to get better than this. I know that it will. And it's all in my mind. It's just a question of the decisions that I make not the things that surround me, but the decisions that I make about the things around me that will, that will create an environment of success for me.
Susan Sly 3:19
And that is applicable to so many things. I know we have listeners who are perhaps going through chemotherapy. I have a, one of my employees, his wife is going through Red Dragon chemo, and she's exhausted and in a lot of pain, but she's so positive. She's just, and I love what you said about it being a decision. When you were, when you were being tortured, when anyone's under physical pain, they can either amplify that pain by their thoughts and focusing on their pain, or they can focus elsewhere. And all of the clinical studies illustrate that choosing to focus elsewhere actually does numb the body's processing of the pain. So how did you do that?
Capt. Charlie Plumb 4:06
You know, I set up what I call plateaus of pain. And we get to a point in those ropes and irons, and I would think man, this really hurts. This hurts a lot. And I was bleeding and sweating and crying all at the same time. And then my thought was but, if it doesn't get any worse than this, I'm going to survive. I'm still alive. I'm still breathing. I'm still thinking, I'm still in control. If it doesn't get any worse than this, I'll be alright. Then they tighten the ropes and it got worse. And then I said well, yeah, it's worse now but I'm still alive. I'm still breathing. I'm still, I still have control. I, you know, my mind is still active. If it doesn't get any worse than this I'll be able to survive, and then it got worse. So I set up these levels of of pain, these plateaus that I would get in and then believe in myself that, hey, if it doesn't get any worse than this, I'm gonna be alright. Yeah. And of course, eventually that they loosened the ropes, and then they gave me some freedom from that. But I use that in life as well, when I get, when I, when I get upset, and I don't get upset very much, I very rarely get ever get angry, I'm just really a pretty mellow guy. But when someone cuts me off, you know, on the freeway, or that kind of thing that happens to all of us, you know, we just settle down and sort of coach ourselves and just say, hey, you know, if it doesn't get any worse than this, I'm gonna be alright.
Susan Sly 5:41
Yeah, it's that perspective. Right? Before you were captured, did you have this type of resilient mindset prior to or was it something you developed under duress?
Capt. Charlie Plumb 5:56
You know, that's a very good question. And, and when you, when you change a day at a time, it's tough to really look back and say, well, when did that happen to you, sas there a moment in your life? I grew up a farm kid in Kansas. We didn't have indoor plumbing until I was seven years old. And so I was, I was rich in many ways, but not materially. I was rich in a family and the unity and the love that I had, and we were, had a very strong faith in my family. And, you know, we sang together, and it was a very cohesive unit. And so I think I had that foundation when I went into the prison camp. But I think that, that, that the torture, and the, and the prison experience, sort of validated, validated a lot of the principles that I had learned as a child. And of course, you know, one of them, again, was just, you know, self control. I, I am the master of my fate, I'm the captain of my soul.
Susan Sly 6:55
The self control is interesting as a topic, especially in today's world. So there are so many distractions, and, you know, the science talks about dopamine, it's that, you know, hormone of, of pleasure. So if, if someone likes my post or comments on my post, then I get that dopamine hit, right? And, and we see, and all the studies are illustrating, you know, the drug addiction is on the rise. COVID, you know, alcoholism was on the rise, obesity is on the rise. A lot of these things are symptomatic of a lack of self control. So someone who is listening right now, what advice would you give to someone who says Captain Plumb, I have not developed that self control muscle and, you know, we're not going to have anyone be in prison for over 2100 days, but how does someone, what tips would you give to develop self control?
Capt. Charlie Plumb 7:57
That's a great question. And, and something I really believe in. My father, World War Two era guy, okay. And he was quite a disciplinarian. My mother was a very religious person, and she taught me a lot about forgiveness. And those two items, discipline and forgiveness would serve me well, in the prison camp. I needed them both, you know, seriously. But to give someone advice about discipline, I would say what my father told me. He said, he said, you know, challenges in your life can, can be very beneficial to you that if you discipline yourself, you actually will give yourself more options in life. And I didn't believe that at the time. Because I mean, to me, the definition of discipline is restriction, you know. When you discipline someone, or even when you discipline yourself, you narrow the guidelines. But what he said was, right, was that when you, when you use self discipline, you have more options. If you discipline yourself to lose weight, you know, if you discipline yourself to stay healthy, then you have a lot more options in life. You don't get diabetes, you know, you don't get problems with your joints, you know, if you're, that you do when you're 50 pounds overweight. And so that kind of discipline actually gives you the freedom, I think. And if you can believe that, you know, if you can really believe that, hey, if I can get through these experiences by making the right choices and disciplining myself to stay with the course, and don't deviate from what I know is right. And I think that's where a lot of people go wrong, is that they know what's right. There's no question about that. It's just they don't have the self discipline to stay the course.
Susan Sly 9:52
Yeah, I love what you said. Discipline gives you more options, and I'm glad you mentioned diabetes. So, my father, who is one of my mentors, he's almost 82. And he's, he listens to every show. And he's he's an outstanding person. He was an engineer in his career. I was raised with tremendous discipline. I was raised by a very strict grandmother and a very strict father. And we owned a family restaurant. And so we worked seven days a week, and there wasn't a job in a restaurant I hadn't done from folding napkins to cleaning toilets, all of it. But you mentioned self discipline. So both my father and my late mother, were type 1 diabetic, Captain Plumb. So I made a decision. I'm turning 50. With everyone knows next year, you're all invited, I don't know what I'm doing yet but it's going to be good. And, and I refuse to entertain the idea that I too, will be diabetic. And so it's about that discipline. And also, and I want to ask you about this, I had to change my identity. I used to be the person that read the menu and looked at the desserts first. So I had to change my identity to someone who didn't identify as someone who even ate dessert, and many of my close friends know, I just don't. I don't eat it. I don't like how I feel. So let me ask you this. You, I've read that you forgave your captors, the men who tortured you violently, and you forgave them. How did you do that?
Capt. Charlie Plumb 11:33
It's, yeah, I am a Christian. And of course, forgiveness is a very foundation, I think of the Christian belief. But I found in the prison camp, it was more than just a religion to forgive. It was self preservation, it was survival to forgive. Once we established communication in the prison camp, we were tapping on walls in a secret code that we had developed. And we were passing around patriotic quotes, and poetry and Bible verses, and one of the quotes that I got, which was very meaningful in my life, and this is, at a time, this is several months in the prison camp where I was very bitter. Just so angry about this enemy, that it was violating the Geneva Convention and torturing prisoners, and I was the brunt of all this and I felt like I was the victim of circumstances beyond my control. And, and Lieutenant Bob Shumaker, he's an admiral now, was tapping on the wall, and he tapped to me this quote, he said, you know, Charlie, he said, acid does more harm in the vessel it's stored than on the subject it's poured. Hmm. What that meant to me was that all this vitriol all that I harbor in my heart against these people that have been torturing me, he's gonna hurt me more than it hurts them, and the vessel story in this acid. And it's, you know, and the irony of the whole thing is, it probably made them them feel good if I was killing myself. And I made a promise to myself, that moment, I promised myself if I die in this prison, they gotta work for it, I'm not gonna kill myself. I'm not gonna do the, do the dirty work here. They dragged me out here, feet first, man, they gotta, they got a job on their hand, I'm not dying, because of this attitude that I've got. And so from then on, and this was just a few months into the prison camp. From then on, you know, I, I forgave everyone and I, and I continue to do that today. I went back to Vietnam, four years, five years ago, I had been asked to come back there to, to see the camp commander, the guy who had been in charge of all of our torture, we call him the rat. He was a rat. And they asked me a couple of years straight, and I decided I really didn't want to do that. Then they said, well, bring your family, and we'll make a vacation for you. And so I took three of my four kids over there to Hanoi, Vietnam, and I met this guy who'd been in charge of all our torture. Well, and I think the people that asked me to come thought that I would want to punch this guy out. And, and I think that my family, you know, my kids, even after, I mean, they've been listening to me talk to them for many, many years, thought that I would be very upset to meet the guy who would inflict all this pain on me, but I'd forgiven him a long time ago. And when I saw the guy, he wanted to hug me. And you know, he stepped back and he said, I'm really happy to see that you're alive and, and well, and my proudest moment, he said, I was your, I was your award, he said, from 1968 to 1972. He said, my proudest achievement was to keep you happy and healthy. And I said, Wait a minute, Baba, it's me, you don't remember? But you know, he, he'd gone past it. And I'd gone past that we became great friends.
Susan Sly 15:22
I love that you spoke about faith, because I'm a Christian too. So all of our listeners know. And I keep going back to Mark 11. What, you know, whatever you ask for in prayer, believe in it, have faith and you shall receive if you believe, if you, if you pray that this mountain be removed and cast into the sea, it will be cast in the see, but what everyone forgets is the 26th verse of that, which is, but first you have to forgive. So you can have what you want but you have to forgive. Was there a verse that got you through?
Capt. Charlie Plumb 15:56
You know, Romans 8:28 was was very beneficial, I think, and I, you know, had learned some Bible verses and I started as a matter of fact, at prison camp by trying to sing every hymn I could remember. I can remember 72 hymns all the way through. Well, and here's the deal-- is that it, when you have nothing else to do, you have no distractions. You know, you go back through your mind, and it's all there. It's just amazing. But 8:28 seemed to really resonate with me. All things work together for good for those who love the Lord, and I'm thinking, Wait a minute, even at prison camp, something here is going to work for good. And all I have to do is love the Lord. This can't be right. I'm going to try to, I'm going to try to prove this verse. And so I, I sort of challenged myself to think what, you know, what ever could come out positive from a situation like this and my responsibility's to love Lord. Yeah, that's pretty simple. Well, a study, here's an essay thing, A study was done several years ago about all the combatants in Vietnam. 30.6% have post traumatic stress disorder, PTSD, of the prisoners of war, 4% of us have PTSD. And it's mostly the guys who were shot down near the end of the war. We're only prisoners for a few weeks or a month or two. And so we've gone, 591 guys came home, we've gone to, to be CEOs of major corporations. We have 17 generals and seven admirals, most of us retired as senior grade military officers. We have two United States senators, two ambassadors from our number, a governor, several mayors, a vice presidential candidate, a presidential candidate, my old fire instructor, John McCain, and they're telling us that they were healthier mentally and physically than if we hadn't been shot down and captured. So things do work together for good even, even in a prison camp, things work together for good. And all you have to do is love the Lord.
Susan Sly 18:12
Amen to that. And Senator McCain, so I live not far from where he and Cindy used to live about two miles away, I guess. And, and the reason, one of the reasons my husband and I were able to immigrate to the US is because of Senator McCain. So it was, you know, I, I was very sad when he passed. And you know, and that's a, that's a whole other story. When we're talking about shifting our identity, you, in the prison camp, you shifted your identity, you became a chaplain. So it could have gone so many ways. I'm still a soldier, I am, you know, I'm a son. I'm a, you know, I'm a victim. You had a whole buffet of choices, Captain Plumb, in which to say, This is my identity right now. But you chose to serve. And that became your identity. How did you do that? How did you go from that person who is bitter and angry and being tortured to say, Well, I'm here. I'm going to serve everyone.
Capt. Charlie Plumb 19:24
Very good question. I'm not sure I can even answer that. It was sort of a matter of needs. I can see that there are a number of guys in that prison camp who needed a baseline, you know, they'd lost all the material things. But when you're a fighter pilot, and most of us were, you know, you live a high flying fast life. You know, we were jet fighter pilots zooming around at the speed of sound, living the life, the Top Gun life. And suddenly, in a descent in a parachute of two or three minutes, we were, our life was changed from king of the skies to the scum of the earth. And, and so folks didn't have the fancy airplane, they didn't have the nice uniform, they didn't have the baseline that they needed. And so I saw this need, and I saw that the guys were sort of floundering. And I thought, Well, if there's any way that I can give them hope, I'd had a little bit of instruction, and I'm certainly not, I'm not ordained. But I had some instruction at the Naval Academy and in the officers Christian Union. There aren't enough chaplains to go aboard every naval ship. And so they were training us to be lay leaders aboard ships where chaplains weren't available. And so I knew a little bit about the structure. I, I challenged a bunch of my Catholic buddies in the prison camp, they were the ones that knew all the Bible verses, you know, they'd been through the catechism and everything. And so they supply, they supplied the Bible, for me, in memory. And, and so I set to work. And it was very interesting to see the mood of these guys turn around when they had something to stand on, something solid, because everything solid is gone, you know. You're, everything that you, that you think is real, that you can see and feel and taste and experience is gone. And, and you have nothing and, and so you grasp, you know, for this effort. Really, it's the same thing in life sometimes when you're diagnosed with a terrible disease, or you go through a divorce and, and suddenly, you're just sort of hanging in that parachute, you know, you're looking up at the, at the panel that's holding you in the sky and looking down at the unknown, and you're scared to death. And, and so it was it was just that, that need for a foundation that I saw, and that if I can provide that, then it was a service that I felt, I felt blessed actually to be able to provide that service. That's beautiful.
Susan Sly 22:01
And I, I hope everyone who's listening really gets that concept that no matter what you're going through in your business or your life, maybe you're going through a divorce or the loss of a family member or an illness or a downturn in your business, there is always a way to serve, especially when you don't feel like it. And that changes everything. I want to shift gears. So we have entrepreneurs of all ages who follow the show. So we, you know, I've had you know, 12 year old entrepreneurs, we were talking about Harvey Mackay, my mentor. Harvey's turning 90 soon, I can't even believe it. I want to hear your best tips because you're writing, you're speaking, you're out there. What are your best tips for someone who wants to, I guess you know, have an encore career regardless of their age.
Capt. Charlie Plumb 22:57
Basically find a need and fill it. When I you know, when I came home, and people asked me to tell my story, I said it's a very boring story, you don't want to hear this, you know, find somebody that swam the English Channel or climbed Mount Everest then there's a story for you. It's been nearly six years and little bitty prison cell. There's no story there. I, I really, I truly did not think I, I, you know, I wrote my autobiography early on, and a guy came to me, said, you need to write your story. I said, it's not a story. You know, this is just a very boring time of my life, you know, to the time that I wanted to forget. Not how you write a story. Well, my book is in its 34th printing. Because he convinced me I had something to say. So what I found was early on as matter of fact, I was still in the hospital recovering, and they asked me to do a little press conference. And so I was surrounded by 150 photographers and reporters and this is just a, just a couple of weeks after I came home. And I told my story and on my way up to the hospital room the elevator door is closed and, but not before a young reporter sneaked in, and nose to nose with this young guy in this crowded elevator in hospital going up to my room and, and he was crying. The guy had lines of anguish in his brow and tears in his eyes. Mr. Plumb you, he said, you really got to me in there, man. I've had a miserable year. My family is falling apart. My job is just terrible. He said, I even wondered if I wanted to go on living. He said, you've given me hope. Well, I didn't quite know how to respond to that because I hadn't really intended to give anybody new hope. I'm just telling a boring story. But it told me this, that there is a reason you know, that there is a purpose you know, that there is a, an intent here. And if I can give somebody hope, then it's almost a calling, you know, it's, it's necessary for me if I had that ability, if I can help somebody out, you know, certainly I would, I would, I would give them hope. And, and in fact, and so that was the impetus for my starting to speak. And, and I've spoken over 5000 times since that day, and, and, of course, written books and articles all over, just because that guy told me that I had something to say that I didn't think I had to say, so, you know, find a need. And that was the need that I found that the connection between my story and stories of everyday life, because see, I don't think you have to be in a prison camp to be lonely. I don't think you have to be in a prison camp to lose communication with your loved ones. I don't think you have to be in a prison camp and feel like you've failed your mission. We all do that. You know, that's it's part of, it's part of the life process.
Susan Sly 26:06
It's so true. There are so many people who are lonely. They're on social media, they're, you know, they're, they're surrounded by opportunities to connect, but they're not connected. So I have a final question for you. And I have a whole bunch of notes. So my goodness. I knew you were amazing. But like, oh my goodness, anyway. So going back to Harvey. He called me a couple years ago. And he's like, Susan, I just finished every item on my bucket list. And he said, I went, wow. And he said there were 150 items. And I said, okay, he goes, ask me what I'm going to do next. I said, What are you going to do next? He said, I'm writing another one. And so I'm a big believer. One of the things for when I turned 50 actually, do you know what I'm doing? I've committed myself to learning 50 new things. I've almost died several times. I'm a Boston Marathon bombing survivor. I did a lot of forgiveness and prayer over the two young men who did that. And so I thought, how fun turning 50. I'm gonna learn, I'm gonna have 50 new experiences. So let me ask you this. If you had some items on your bucket list that people might be a bit surprised about, what would they be?
Capt. Charlie Plumb 27:37
Wow, you know, I've done, I've done most everything in life I wanted to do. I have lived and continue to live a very active beautiful life. I've never been to Saudi Arabia, I'd like to, I'd like, that's on my bucket list. I have four grandchildren now, obviously. And I'd, I'd like to be able to teach them to fly. Flying is a very spiritual experience for me. You know, when I first got my wings, I told you about my mother, a very simplistic person, not very well educated. And, and when I first got my navy wings and went by to see her and I was so proud. And she was proud of me as well. But she said, Son, when you're up there flying your jet so high, do you feel closer to God? And I thought to myself, silly lady, you know, God's not necessarily up there. And this guy, you know, he's all, but of course I didn't say that, but that's what I felt. Well, the longer I live, the more wisdom I see. Because when I fly, then look down into Earth, there's no evil here. There's no filth. There's no homeless. It's beautiful up there. And I really feel like that, mentally, I'm closer to God. And my mother was right.
Susan Sly 28:57
They often are. At least that's what I tell my children. Their mother's often right. Well, Captain Charlie Plumb, thank you so much for being here and, and I love that right after this you're going to be soaring up there in the sky, looking down at the beauty and and as Mark Divine said, you know, we all have to retain hope. And at times this world can feel very dark, but regardless, without hope the people perish. So, thank you Captain Plumb for being here. And I would love for everyone to connect. You can go to amazon.com and find Captain Plumb's books, and you can also--
Capt. Charlie Plumb 29:40
There's a better way, if you will, I have every book that's ordered from my office. So Charlieplumb.com and I'll personally autograph every book that, that's ordered from that one. So, C-H-A-R-L-I-E-P-L-U-M-B dot com
Susan Sly 29:59
And we will include that in the show notes. I'm about to place an order so, to my--
Capt. Charlie Plumb 30:04
Don't place an order. I'll send you an autographed copy, Susan. Thank you. and wish you happy birthday.
Susan Sly 30:10
Oh, thank you so much Captain Plumb. Thank you everyone for being here. If this show has lifted your heart and given you some hope, Captain Plumb and I would love for you to share it. Go ahead and tag us on social. And with that, God bless. Go rock your day and I will see you in the next episode.