A Prisoner's Story
POW John Fer Visits
Terminal Island Federal Correctional Institution
BY MATT DAVISON
Although I had been inside the
Federal Correctional Institution at Terminal Island in Southern
California many times, it was always during the day. Coming into
the institution at night is surreal, kind of like going to a night
baseball game. You can see clear across the north yard to where
men play handball and basketball, and you can see men move about
in their lit cells. The chaplain met us at the front entrance and
escorted John and I into the prison chapel, where chairs had been
set out. A podium and microphone were in place. Veterans
incarcerated lined up to sign in for the evening’s presentation.
Sixty veterans attended.
It was February 4, 1967, when
Captain John Fer and six other airmen were dispatched in a Douglas
EB66C Skywarrior over North Vietnam. About 40 miles from the China
border, in Bac Thai Province, the aircraft was hit by two missiles
from a mobile tracking station, breaking the aircraft in half.
Three of the airmen, including Fer, were captured. The remains of
two others later were recovered; and one remains missing. Bleeding
from shrapnel wounds and dressed only in shorts and undershirt,
Fer at first feared that the prevailing winds had taken him into
China, from which he would never emerge. Fortunately, that was not
Forty-five minutes after touch
down, Fer was surrounded by crowds of people waving aged rifles.
Marched by the militia along paths lined with peasants holding
sickles, he came to a building—the village head man’s house in
which a picture of Uncle Ho hung. Fer breathed a sigh of relief;
he was not in China. Chants of “war criminal” and “air pirate”
filled the air for three hours until a truck arrived with John’s
navigator inside. Both men were taken to Hanoi. It was February,
and it was cold.
An interrogator they called the
“Eagle” came into the room where Fer sat waiting. The Eagle asked
John what his unit was. John responded with name, rank, and
service number. He was smacked in the face. The Eagle asked a
second time for John’s unit. Again, John replied with his name,
rank, and service number. Again, he was smacked in the face, only
harder this time.
After a third attempt by the Eagle
failed, Fer was handcuffed and his arms stretched out behind him
and strapped so that all circulation was cut off. The Eagle left
the room, and John called out, “Okay, I’ll tell you the unit.” The
Eagle returned, untied Fer, and the circulation rushed back.
“What was your unit?”
“I can’t tell you that.”
Fer was back in the straps again. He learned that the key to
avoiding painful torture was to give false information. But you
had to remember what information you gave because the
interrogators took notes.
B-52 bombing runs from Guam
frightened the North Vietnamese captors and provided some
breathing space for Fer and the other POWs. While in isolation, he
began a prayer ritual. From a small piece of rope, he formed a
rosary, which became part of an early morning ritual of pacing
five steps up and back while praying, exercising, and praying
For the North Vietnamese, isolation
was key to breaking down allegiance to your country. For the POWs,
communications was instrumental in maintaining their sanity. A 5x5
alphabet matrix was developed, in which prisoners communicated by
tapping on the walls. If the message was understood, the recipient
tapped twice; if not, he tapped several times. It was a simple,
yet ingenious way to communicate. On Sundays, camp-wide church
services began with a tap on the wall signaling individual
recitation of the Lord’s Prayer followed by the Pledge of
Allegiance while facing east toward the United States. Before
sleep, tapping would spell out “Good Night, God Bless You”
(actually spelled out “GN, GBU”).
Another key to remaining sane was mental exercises. Learning
aerodynamics or a foreign language were great ways to maximize
quiet time. One POW memorized the 350 names of his fellow POWs
alphabetically. Fer learned Spanish, French, German, and Russian
during his stay.
Feeding the spirit was also vital.
Each religious denomination had a chaplain. John McCain was the
Presbyterian chaplain. Every Sunday, church services opened with a
prayer, reading of memorized scriptures, and hymns that were
written by a POW.
In six years, Fer was allowed only
four letters. No packages or photos were given to him. A solid
spiritual life, faith in God, and exercise kept him in balance. In
1973, it was all over.
In speaking to his audience at
Terminal Island, Fer reminded them that they had a lot in common.
They had served this nation, accepted their fate, and would move
forward in their lives. He reminded them that we are all sacred,
made in God’s image.
The question of one-on-one
psychological tactics was raised, and Fer said interrogators tried
to pit one POW against another. After a grilling took place, the
interrogated POW would tap out the questions to other POWs so they
could prepare their responses. Asked if the survivors held
reunions, Fer replied that they are held every five years. Many
are held in Southern California, but they are also held in
Washington, D.C., in a Vietnamese restaurant. What did he miss
most during his captivity? The sound of children’s laughter. Fer
later became an elementary school teacher, surrounded by the
laughter of children every day.
Fer admonished his audience of
veterans incarcerated to assert their own individuality, stay
strong in the face of adversity, and find the balance between the
spiritual and the intellectual in their lives. He urged the men
not to get caught up in self-pity and to realize that many are far
worse off than they.
He recalled a moment that he refers
to as a miracle, when he was bound in such a way that he thought
of himself as a basketball. He remembers a guard picking him up
like a basketball and tossing him into the corner of the room. In
excruciating pain, John said a prayer to the Blessed Virgin Mary.
When he finished, the guard returned, untied him, and left the
The veterans incarcerated called
Fer a hero, something he quickly dismissed. All sixty men came up
for handshakes, hugs, or autographs. One of the prisoners asked if
Fer would lead them in prayer, which he did without hesitation.