Former Sumter resident met McCain as POW in Vietnam War



Many are mourning the death of the late Sen. John McCain after he died of brain cancer on Aug. 25, including one former Sumterite who knew him personally as they were prisoners of war together.

McCain may be most well known for running as the Republican presidential candidate in 2008 against now-former President Barack Obama.

John Fer, a retired member of the Air Force and former Sumterite who now lives in New Market, Maryland, knew McCain personally; both were prisoners of war during the Vietnam War. The two met at what the American soldiers called Camp Unity in Hanoi, the country's capital.

On Feb. 4, 1967, Vietnamese missiles shot down Fer's plane. Three of his crew members were killed, and the rest of the crew was ejected and was taken hostage.

Fer said when McCain was shot down in October 1967, he broke his arm, shoulder and leg and almost drowned in a lake. He was in bad shape when the Vietnamese found him, he said, and the reason they kept him alive was because his father was an admiral, the commander of the Pacific to be exact. The Vietnamese wanted to release him early, but McCain refused because he said it would be disloyal to be released for that reason, Fer said.

The two got to know each other well while they were imprisoned.

"John (McCain) loved poetry, literature and U.S. history," Fer said. "We talked about movies; he loved John Wayne and the military."

In November 1971, Fer, McCain and many other POWs were moved to the Hanoi Hilton, a camp Fer had been contained in before.

It was there that McCain and Fer became bridge partners; Fer said the camp would have packages of cards delivered.

The two also learned different languages, geography, math, auto mechanics, aerodynamics, meat cutting and other skills from other POWs imprisoned in the camp.

However, many of the POWs were tortured. When POWs did not provide information other than that which they were obligated - name, rank, service number and date of birth - the Vietnamese would torture them to extract more vital information. According to Fer, everyone there was tortured.

"We continued to stay there until the signing of the peace agreement on Jan. 27, 1973," Fer said. "I was a POW for six years and one month."

Fer was released from containment on March 4, 1973, along with 105 other POWs in the second wave of releases after the treaty was signed. The first wave, which included the release of McCain, occurred on Feb. 12, 1973. There were four waves total, with 566 POWs being returned to the United States.

After retiring from the military in 1990, Fer moved to Sumter where he was the principal of St. Anne Catholic School for 10 years. In 2000, he moved back to San Pedro, California, where he was a principal at a school for three years.

Fer said he has nothing but good things to say about McCain's personality and leadership qualities.

"He was mentally and physically tough and never complained," Fer said. "My time with him was all beneficial; I learned a lot from him. He stressed good leadership and told me to study my craft and military history."

Fer also said McCain told him that, as a leader, you're responsible for keeping your eye on the mission and taking care of your men.