Keynote speakers for Pierre Claeyssens event remember ultimate sacrifices
After spending more than 2,000 days as a prisoner of war, Capt. Charlie Plumb can talk a bit about freedom.
The F-4 Phantom jet fighter pilot will do just that today at the Santa Barbara Cemetery, where the Pierre Claeyssens Veterans Foundation will feature him as a keynote speaker during its Fourth of July celebration. The outdoor event will take place from noon to 1 p.m. today at the cemetery, 901 Channel Drive.
For Capt. Plumb, today is one of the most important days of his life.
“It’s always an important day in my life, and there are so many important days in my life — like the day I was set free out of prison and regained my freedoms, and that’s the 18th of February, of course, which is my wife’s birthday, so I can always remember that,” Capt. Plumb told the News-Press, chuckling. “Veterans Day, of course; Memorial Day; Fourth of July — those are all good days on my calendar and reasons why I get in a hot shower and come out very thankful for freedom.”
The Kansas native graduated from the Naval Academy and completed Navy Flight Training before reporting to Miramar Naval Air Station in San Diego, where he flew the first adversarial flights in the development of what was soon called The Navy Fighter Weapons School, now known as “TOPGUN.” The captain’s squadron, the Aardvarks, launched on the aircraft carrier USS Kitty Hawk with Fighter Squadron 114 to fly the Navy’s hottest airplane, the F-4 Phantom Jet.
Capt. Plumb (code named “Plumber”) flew 74 successful combat missions over North Vietnam and made more than 100 carrier landings.
However, on that 75th mission, five days before the end of his tour, the fighter pilot was shot down over Hanoi, taken prisoner and tortured.
He spent the next six years in North Vietnamese prisoner of war camps. His first cell was only 8 feet long and 8 feet wide.
The POW said that while he was in the prison camp, he had a lot of time to think.
“I found myself wondering, ‘Why am I here?’” Capt. Plumb said. “The answer was easy: ‘I’m serving my country.’ And then I challenged myself: ‘What is this country you’re serving?’ And I began to think about the people I love and the freedoms I once enjoyed.
“Then my mind wondered, ‘Who’s responsible for these freedoms we all enjoy?’”
For him, answering that question got very personal.
He said his mind focused on the men and women who wore the same uniform as him, who offered up their wealth and lives to “launch this great nation.”
“And so, languishing in a prison cell, a long way from home, I was humbled at the thought of such sacrifice made for all of us,” Capt. Plumb said. “On this Independence Day, let’s celebrate with gratitude the patriots who fought and continue to fight for our way of life.”
The war hero said that because of the pandemic, he believes people understand the value of having the freedom to get out of the house, go to the store, go to church or go to a baseball game, “all the freedoms that we enjoy, and they didn’t come easy.”
“Over the six years in that prison camp, I thought a lot about people that made all this possible and the folks that risked their life, their liberty and their possessions so that we might have this freedom to communicate, worship and get together on the Fourth of July,” Capt. Plumb said. “It’s just really incumbent upon all of us to reflect on that heritage and why we have it, and especially for young people, because they can lose it.”
Along with a former fighter pilot and prisoner of war, today’s event will feature the commander of Space Launch Delta 30 and Western Launch and Test Range at Vandenberg Space Force Base — Col. Robert A. Long.
Col. Long commands spacelift and range operations in support of national and combatant commander requirements, along with supporting operational and developmental missile system testing for the Department of Defense. The colonel is responsible for $8.4 billion in assets, a $280 million annual budget, installations spanning more than 118,000 acres and more than 11,000 military, civilian and contractor personnel.
He shared that it’s his honor to speak at today’s ceremony.
“Freedom is a blessing and the independence that we enjoy today would not have been possible without those that sacrificed so that we could live in a free country,” Col. Long said. “Their dedication reminds us that preserving America’s liberties comes with a heavy cost.”
Col. Long has won numerous major awards and decorations, including the Defense Superior Service Medal, Defense Meritorious Service Medal with two oak leaf clusters, Air Force Meritorious Service Medal with two oak leaf clusters, Joint Service Commendation Medal and Air Force Commendation Medal.
He entered the Air Force as a distinguished graduate of the University of Washington AFROTC program, with a bachelor’s in electrical engineering. He has held a series of operational, staff and command assignments in ICBM, satellite and launch operations, including duties in the National Reconnaissance Office, DoD Executive Agent for Space Staff and the Office of the Under Secretary of Defense for Research & Engineering.
Furthermore, he earned his master’s in aerospace engineering from the University of Colorado at Colorado Springs and graduated from the College of Naval Command and Staff, the School for Advanced Air and Space Studies and the Eisenhower School.
Prior to his current role, he was the deputy commander of Space Delta 5 at Vandenberg.
He spoke of the importance of remembering the men and women who had to fight for the freedoms Americans can now enjoy.
“Today, as we celebrate our nation’s birth, we honor their service and strive to be worthy of their tremendous sacrifices,” Col. Long said. “Being a part of this wonderful community, serving alongside each of you, past and present, is a privilege I’m humbled to take part in.”
MORE FOURTH OF JULY COVERAGE
— Parades are back in Solvang and Montecito. And a Fourth of July celebration will feature speakers in downtown Isla Vista. Stories, A2.
— Veteran combat medic dedicates his life to service. B1.
— Writers wish the United States a happy 245th birthday. See the Voices section in today’s News-Press.
— See Monday’s News-Press for coverage of the Pierre Claeyssens Veterans Foundation celebration and fireworks at Santa Barbara’s West Beach.