It’s not uncommon to walk into an office and see proudly displayed photographs of its occupant shaking hands with world leaders such as Presidents George Bush or Bill Clinton or Sen. John McCain.
They are the kind of photos that speak to a person’s proximity to power. Vietnam War veteran John Fer, who spent six years as a prisoner of war and who shared a Hanoi Hilton cell with McCain, chose a different kind of decor. His office wall bears a beat-up poster that says, “Don’t pray for an easy life. Pray to be a strong person.”
Fer, a San Pedro resident and retired colonel who is scheduled to speak about his experiences today at a public meeting at the Los Alamitos Joint Forces Training Base, likes to tell people that being held prisoner in a North Vietnamese camp was the best thing that ever happened to him.
Admittedly, Fer is an optimist.
THE FIFTH QUESTION
“Being a POW was the best thing that ever happened to me,” insists Fer. “I was a young officer. I drove a nice car. I was flying planes and having a good time. When I got shot down, it was God saying, “Sir, not so fast. I want you to take a moment and think about some things.”
Fer, the son of a San Pedro fire captain, was doing what he loved—flying a plane in an electronic-data-gathering mission over North Vietnam on Feb. 4 in 1967—when his plane was shot down. According to the latest intelligence, there wasn’t supposed to be a missile within range of the plane, said Fer. He was flying outside the 25-mile threat ring around Hanoi.
“Bang, bang, bang, bang. They fired four missiles, killing three crew members in back,” said Fer.
Fer and his co-pilot were hit with shrapnel. They and another crew were taken prisoner. And that was when the torture began. It lasted for three days. It always began the same way with what the prisoners called "the fifth question."
As per the Geneva Conventions, prisoners of war can be asked name, rank, branch of service and date of birth. But when interrogators moved onto the fifth question, about the soldier’s unit, that’s when soldiers resisted, and that’s when the torture began, Fer said.
The torturers connected a strap to Fer’s hands—which were cuffed behind his back—and tightly wound the straps around his arms, pulling tighter and tighter until his arms were pulled together and his circulation was cut off. They then pulled his arms above his head and left him screaming in agony.
“I screamed and hollered for I don’t know how long,” Fer said.
When his interrogator returned, Fer admitted what unit he was in.
“I remember thinking, ‘Sir, you are a wimp. You gave in too soon.’ The pain was excruciating.”
After that, Fer simply lied to his interrogators, feeding false information time and time again, until he was finally taken to a cell for solitary confinement or ‘New Guy Village’ as the POWs called it.
For weeks, he lived in a tiny cell, getting outside for the few minutes it took to empty his waste bucket. But then his luck changed, and Fer was sent to the Vegas strip.
The earliest prisoners to fill the Hanoi Hilton were pilots from Nellis Air Force Base, and they named camp’s cells after casinos such as the Stardust and Riviera lining the Vegas strip.
Fer quickly learned the tapping code that inmates used to communicate. He learned the layout of the camp and who the senior officers were. He found out that the guy in the cell next to him had been captive since 1965.
“It was a striking realization that these POWs had been there since 1965,” Fer said. “I am an optimist, and I always thought the war would be over in six months, but I never focused on when I would get out.”
Fer was eventually moved to a larger cell called the “Zoo Annex,” which he shared with a handful of prisoners. He shared a cell with McCain for about two years.
The POWs talked about sports and family life and what they intended to do once they were free. Fer craved education. He decided he would go onto military school and earn a master’s degree. “The longer I stayed in there, the more time I had to make up,” he said.
But it was his father’s words that stuck with him throughout the torture and six years as a POW.
“I kept thinking about my dad’s words. He taught us to always acquit ourselves with honor. He always told us, ‘Don’t ever bring shame on the Fer family name.’”
So Fer tried not to think about the foods he missed, the friends and the good times.
“I exercised a lot, and I prayed a lot,” said Fer. “It was enough to keep me alive.”
Fer survived for more than six years in the camp until he and his fellow POWs were released in 1973 as part of peace negotiations between the United States and North Vietnam. The fact that the nation never forgot about him and fought for his release is what motivates Fer to accept invitations to speak about his experience.
“I consider myself blessed not to have any lingering effects from the experience,” said Fer.
Upon his release, Fer went on to serve 28 years in the Air Force, working with the Soviet Union to implement the Intermediate-Range Nuclear Forces Treaty.
He also went on to earn master’s degrees in political science and education. He became a teacher and elementary school principal.
One day, someone set him up on a blind date with Nancy Blumetti. Had his life not taken the course it had, that date never would have happened, said Fer, who married and had three children with Blumetti.
“That’s why being a POW was the best thing to ever happen to me,” added Fer.
Fer will speak today at the 3:30 Regional Military Affairs Committee at the Los Alamitos Joint Forces Training Base’s Building 15. The meeting, which is open to the public, will also include a farewell from Brig. Gen. Keith Jones, who was recently transferred from the base’s leadership position to Camp Roberts.Name: John Fer
Age: 73Family: Wife Nancy and three grown children Favorite Book: The Bible, "I am working on my third master's in Systematic Theology, and it's given me a great appreciation for the Bible...In Vietnam, we were never allowed to have a Bible."
Favorite Movie: "It's a Wonderful Life"Words To Live By: "It's better to fail for the right reasons than to succeed for the wrong ones," or, "Don't pray for an easy life. Pray to be a strong person."