Chevy Chase Native, Doctor Held World Spotlight While in Charge of Iran Hostages
Interviewee: Fritz Plugge
Date: Around March 2010
Interviewed and transcribed (from audio recording) by: Joan Solomon Janshego
Fritz Plugge passed away at age 78 on Sept. 27, 2010, about six months after this interview. We did not have an opportunity to have him review the verbatim transcript, as is our usual policy. We have summarized it here.
His official name was Brigadier General (Dr.) FredrickW. Plugge IV. But the parishioners at St. Paul’s Lutheran Church knew him as “Fritz.” He seldom missed a Sunday, sitting on the right side near the front of the church. He coordinated his jackets to match the colors at the altar. His green jacket was particularly memorable.
But a white jacket was what Fritz usually wore as a doctor. An iconic photo of Fritz shows him wearing his doctor’s jacket, standing besides President Carter. This photo was taken in January 1981 when he made news as Chief of Hospital Services at USAF Hospital Wiesbaden at the time that the American hostages were freed from Iran. The freed hostages were sent to Wiesbaden for initial medical evaluation.
Fritz fielded the questions of reporters from around the world who came to Wiesbaden to cover the story. He played host to former President Jimmy Carter, Vice President Walter Mondale and Secretary of State Cyrus Vance as they visited the hospital.
But Fritz said that his biggest concern was the health and safety of the hostages. “They had been in prison for months. I was letting them ventilate. I thought the hospital and the staff had worked together in an extremelyprofessional manner. I was very proud of them,” Fritz said.
Fritz Plugge’s copy of the front page of Stars & Stripes, signed by 52 hostages
Fritz said in an interview with a reporter from the Command Post newspaper on September 13, 1991, “…taking care of the patient, giving them the professional service they deserve and need” is the most important thing. He added “if someone were to write his epitaph today, he would want it to say simply…he stood for quality.”
Although Fritz was demanding as to the level of service he expected from his staff, he was clearly loved. We found a plaque in his home from the enlistedstaff dated 1981. It was dedicated to “Our Dr. Plugge” It said, in part ,“You have instilledan awareness in us to unite as a team, to battle the daily challenges. A teacher you are, and loved by all of us”
Pastor Omholt, of St. Paul’s Lutheran Church, says that he first became aware of Fritz in the 1980’s when the church began receiving money from a certain Air Force general who was stationed in California.
Fritz began regularly attendingSt,. Paul’s Lutheran Church after he retired from the Air Force in 1991, and Fritz clearly loved the church. He gave generously – not only in his weekly envelopes but also for special causes such as St. Paul’s Homeless Shelter, paying off both organs, and, together with his cousin, Dallas Dean, the stain glass windows that commemorates St. Paul’s history.
Former Music Director, David Hearne, recalls telling Fritz that the newly renovated choir rehearsal room could use new chairs. Fritz asked how much that would cost. When David replied, “5,000,” Fritz said, “buy it,” and he promptly sent the church a check.
His final generous contribution was the gift of his Chevy Chase, MD condo.
As a child and young adult, he went to church at Luther Place in downtown Washington – although he grew up at McKinley Street in Chevy Chase, DC. The Luther Place connection was due to his grandparents, who worshipped there as they lived on 13th Street NW.
Fritz’s paternal grandfather was a businessman of Dutch ancestry, who bought 40 acres in Chevy Chase in the early 1900’s. His grandmother, who died in 1916, refused to live in Chevy Chase because she considered it “too country,” according to Fritz’s cousin, Dallas Dean. Their grandfather had seven sons, and he gave each son 2 lots from his acreage – at the intersection of Nebraska and Rittenhouse. His dream was for each of his sons to build a house on the property. However, only Dallas ‘s father, Norman – chose to build on the property. Fritz’ father decided to purchase a home on McKinley Street.
But three of Fritz’s uncles lived in Chevy Chase – Wilbur on Northampton Street, Gordon on Military Road and Norman on Nebraska. So Fritz’s childhood was centered on a large extended family living within blocks of his home.
In the summertime, the extended family would meet at his grandfather’s summerhouse- Sandgates – that sat high on a hill overlooking the Patuxent River in southern Maryland. At Christmas, the family get-togethers were at his grandfather’s l3th Street, NW townhouse.
Fritz was a good student at Lafayette Elementary, Alice Deal Junior High and Wilson High School. When asked which teacher influenced him the most, he said: “Quite frankly, I think that my education is due to the fact that I had the mother I had. She was very pro- education. She was the only one in her family who completed high school. “
In a February 2, 1990. Command Post article, Fritz was quoted as saying that education is the “common denominator that opens the doors to opportunity.” He said, “In our society, regardless of the socio-economic background you came from, education is the key to success.”
His mother’s grandparents immigrated to this country from Germany, and she was fluent in German. Fritz took German in high school and talked to her in German. particularly when studying for a test.
Fritz earned a Bachelor of Arts degree from the University of Pennsylvania in 1953 and a Doctor of Medicine degree from the University of Maryland in 1957. His interest in medicine came from his uncle Frederick, for whom he was named. Uncle Frederick was a dentist in New Jersey. At first, Fritz thought he would be a dentist but then he changed his mind, aiming higher.
After completing his residency in June 1961, he entered active duty as a general surgeon and was assigned to the 7505th USAF Hospital, Royal Air Force Station, Burderop, England.
In October 1968 he was assigned to Malcolm Grow USAF Medical Center, Andrews AFRB, MD. as chief of general surgery. During this assignment, he established a teaching affiliation with George Washington University’s Department of Surgery and served on the faculty as professor of surgery from 1973 to 1978. He contributed to the establishment of the Uniformed Services’ University of the Health Services in Bethesda MD and was appointed to the faculty as associate professor of surgery.
During hisassignment to Malcolm Grow USAF Medical Center, he provided physician support to missions involving Ronald Reagan, then California governor, Vice President Gerald Ford, and first lady Rosalyn Carter.
In September 1978, he was assigned to USAF Hospital Wiesbaden as chief of hospital services.
Fritz assumed command of the David Grant USAF Medical Center, Travis AFB, Calif. In 1981.
In April 1985, he became Director of Medical Inspection, Headquarters Air Force Inspectionand Safety Center, Norton AFB , California.
Fritz was promoted to brigadier general July 1, 1987 and retired from the Air Force on October 1, 1991.
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