GROTON, Conn. (Tribune News Service) — A standing-room-only crowd of veterans, family, friends and fellow shipmates in the U.S. Navy jammed the Noank Baptist Church on Saturday to remember the life of Ernest V. Plantz, a recipient of a Bronze Star and Purple Heart, and his “love, strength and courage.”
Plantz, one of the first inductees to the Connecticut Veterans Hall of Fame, died on Dec. 19 at his Gales Ferry home at age 95.
He spent three-and-a-half years in a Japanese prisoner-of-war camp after he and others on the crew of the USS Perch were captured.
Plantz weighed just 80 pounds when he was freed and needed 10 months in a Navy hospital to recuperate, yet went on to serve for 30 years in the Navy as soon as he was able.
He retired at the rank of lieutenant as director of advanced engineering at the Naval Submarine School in Groton.
“Ernie was a bullheaded, stubborn person, yet he was filled with love for all,” Jack Gallimore, base chaplain of the U.S. Submarine Veterans Groton Base, told an overflow crowd at the church.
Gallimore said he always made it a point to get a hug from Plantz whenever he could.
“I will miss that,” Gallimore said.
Two dozen submarine veterans in uniform stood in Plantz' honor at the front of the church. Trumpeters played "Taps" and "Reveille."
Caroline Plantz, Ernie Plantz' wife, said she thought her husband had suffered some hard knocks in life, but “he always said that he had a good life,” she said.
Ernie Plantz would remain in their hearts forever, Caroline Plantz said, citing the words of their 2-year-old grandson, who'd pointed upward and said, “Pop-pop, in heaven with the stars.”
Plantz' daughter, Nancy Grant, remembered her father as a humble, thoughtful and loyal dad who loved to garden, paid homage to his southern roots while cooking and delighted in a good prank.
She recalled how his hugs let his children know they were loved, and that when things were tough, “Dad always believed that things would get better.”
The Rev. Kevin Bedford, of Progressive Baptist Church, described how Plantz touched his life. Bedford recalled he once considered resigning the Navy, and told Plantz.
“I gave him my resignation, and he ripped it up and said, ‘Call me when you make commander,'” Bedford said. So Bedford did, and called Plantz.
Then, when Bedford’s father died, Plantz said to him, “I bet you didn’t know you had a second dad.”
Capt. Paul F. McHale described how Plantz, known as “the kid” for being the youngest man on the USS Perch, returned to the Navy despite his suffering as a prisoner of war.
The Perch was on its second war patrol when a Japanese destroyer escort forced it to submerge and was joined by other Japanese ships that dropped depth charges on it.
The sub was badly damaged but not destroyed because it sank into a muddy bottom. But the attack continued.
Then later, when the sub surfaced, the crew realized it could not submerge again. Plantz found himself in the water with his 59 shipmates, McHale said.
Seeing the USS Perch sink for the final time was, in Plantz’ words, “like watching your house burn,” McHale said.
Yet even after the misery that followed Plantz' capture, he returned to service on submarines.
“The man had a huge heart,” McHale said.
McHale said his oldest son interviewed Plantz for an English course once, and asked Plantz a question: Knowing he would be captured, spend three years in a POW camp and be tortured, would he still have joined the Navy?
Plantz told him absolutely.
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