Podcast: “Real awakening for someone … brought up on John Wayne” – Mike Ferner

March 14, 2020

Mike Ferner was a Navy corpsman who interacted with planeloads of wounded servicemen returning to the US from Vietnam.

“The first time I walked up into that plane, I just almost fell over here looking down what would be the length of a commercial airliner. And on both sides, there were no seats, but just hooks for the stretchers to be placed on. And so, four or five high all the way down both sides of the plane were stretchers with wounded, you know? And it just took my breath away. … Seeing a couple hundred guys lined up in the chow hall for meals. And those were the lucky ones that could get out of bed. Maybe missing legs and arms, and everything else. But then you go up to the neurosurgery ward and the guys were there, who had spinal cord injuries, were never going to get out of bed the rest of their life. So, it was a real awakening for someone who had been brought up on John Wayne movies.”

“The day I reported to the ship is the same time I handed the chief petty officer my application to get out as a conscientious objector. So, that started things off on a not a good foot right away.”

Vietnam Full Disclosure

This Courage to Resist podcast was produced in collaboration with the Vietnam Full Disclosure effort of Veterans For Peace — “Towards an honest commemoration of the American war in Vietnam.” This year marks 50 years of GI resistance, in and out of uniform, for many of the courageous individuals featured. Interview and edit by Matthew Breems. Jeff Paterson, Executive Producer.

Note that Vietnam era photos shown are from archival sources. Mike didn’t keep any himself.

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We need to raise at least $12,500 to produce this year-long series of dozens of interviews so that this history is not lost!

Transcript

Mike Ferner:
And the first time I walked up into that plane, I just almost fell over here looking down what would be the length of a commercial airliner. And on both sides, there were no seats, but just hooks for the stretchers to be placed on. And so, four or five high all the way down both sides of the plane were stretchers with wounded, you know? And it just took my breath away.

Matthew Breems:
This is the Courage to Resist podcast. My name is Matthew Breems. This Courage to Resist podcast is produced in collaboration with the Vietnam Full Disclosure effort of Veterans For Peace. Mike Ferner, former Navy corpsman is the veteran on this episode of the Courage to Resist podcast.

Matthew Breems:
As Mike interacted with planeloads of wounded servicemen returning to the US, he began realizing what was really happening in Vietnam. Soon, he filed to become a conscientious objector. Finally, after months of openly sharing anti-war views and sending petitions to Congress, he was released from his duties in the Navy.

Matthew Breems:
Well, hello Mike, how are you doing today?

Mike Ferner:
Good. Looking out at a winter day and snow on the ground. It’s beautiful.

Matthew Breems:
How about you just start off by giving us the background on Mike Ferner. What did your growing up years look like for you? And how did that affect how you viewed the Vietnam conflict, once that entered your life?

Mike Ferner:
Well, I grew up in a rural part of Northwest Ohio, outside of Toledo, and my family was very Catholic and pretty conservative. So, given the popular culture at the time and the religious angle on it, which said that, “You weren’t supposed to kill anybody, but communists were fair game,” and having a headful of John Wayne movies as a young kid, when it was time that I was looking at the draft in 1968, and ’69, it was not too foreign an idea to go into military. And, of course, that’s what a lot of young men did at that time, and I figured my turn was coming.

Mike Ferner:
I went to high school, graduated in ’69, and I got enlisted in the Navy. It was a couple of months after I graduated from high school and was in bootcamp, before the end of 1969. I wanted to be a hospital corpsman because it seemed like a good thing to do. I knew that the Marines took their medics, their corpsman, from the Navy, and like I said, having a headful of John Wayne movies, I thought that would be an exciting thing to do, to go to Vietnam as a hospital corpsman. Luckily, that didn’t happen, but I did get assigned after a hospital corps school.

Mike Ferner:
I got assigned to a Navy hospital in Illinois. In Great Lakes, Illinois, it’s a big Navy hospital there, and really got my eyes opened as to what the military was about. In fact, the first day of hospital corps school really sent me back on my heels. Because we opened our instruction manual and it said, right there on the first page, that the duty of the Navy hospital corps was to keep as many men and as many guns as many days as possible. And for somebody who thought he was joining the medical service to do good things, that was a real eye opener.

Mike Ferner:
So that when I started working in a hospital and saw the hundreds of young men that came back from Vietnam in pieces, was something that really opened my eyes. And I was fortunate to have as friends at that time, some fellow corp man who had gone to college and used their college deferments to stay out of the draft. But when they got out of college, they saw the draft staring them in the face. And so, they enlisted in the Navy and they became corpsman. These guys had been through college and were a lot more up on what was going on in the world. And I was coming from a rural background in Ohio, so, I learned a lot from them. About politics, about music, and drugs, and a lot of what was going on, and the culture at that time. And I started thinking for myself for the first time.

Mike Ferner:
There was one example that really sticks with me to this day. That when I think about it, really summed up a lot of what I learned from working in that hospital. The Navy base there was not far from a Naval air station in Glenview, Illinois, and the medevac planes. And these would come in from the hospital in Japan, where they shipped wounded soldiers too, out of Vietnam as soon as they got them stabilized. They’d go to Japan, and then they would fly them home to the United States. And we would go out to pick them up from our hospital.

Mike Ferner:
The first time I walked up into that plane, I just almost fell over here looking down what would be the length of a commercial airliner. And on both sides there were no seats but just hooks for the stretchers to be placed on. And so, four or five high all the way down, both sides of the plane were stretchers with wounded. And it just took my breath away. That, and taking care of the wounded every day. I worked on a surgical ward and I worked in a psychiatric ward. And just learning what you learn when you do that kind of work.

Mike Ferner:
Seeing a couple hundred guys lined up in the chow hall for meals. And those were the lucky ones that could get out of bed. Maybe missing legs and arms, and everything else. But then you go up to the neurosurgery ward and the guys were there, who had spinal cord injuries, were never going to get out of bed the rest of their life. So, it was a real awakening for someone who had been brought up on John Wayne movies, and had a really, I would say a typically false view of what war was like, and then got a chance to see the real thing.

Matthew Breems:
Was your opposition to the war more of a gradual awakening, or was there a moment that was kind of your aha moment? Like, “This is not okay.”

Mike Ferner:
Well, it was gradual. When I read that opening of the hospital corp manual, about keeping as many men and as many guns as many days as possible, that was a bit of a wake up. And then what I was describing, what I was seeing every day working in the hospital. But I do remember one day someone brought in a copy of a New York Times article. And this was probably in maybe late ’71.

Mike Ferner:
The basis of the article was a long description of what was called McNamara’s battlefield. And that was the electronic battlefield that McNamara said he was going to lay down in the demilitarized zone, keep North Vietnamese soldiers from getting into South Vietnam. And that was all the latest computers and sensors, and everything you could imagine, other than soldiers, to guard this demilitarized zone and basically blow up anybody that wandered into it.

Mike Ferner:
And a part of that article described the weaponry that was going to be used. And they were talking about using plastic fragmentation. In other words, a cluster bomb or a land mine, instead of having steel pellets or anything like that, they would have plastic. Plastic darts, or hunks of plastic. And the reason for this was so they couldn’t be found when they were X-rayed.

Mike Ferner:
And I just thought this was the most ghoulish thing I had heard, because there seemed to be a sort of internal logic, crazy as it was, within the military. That you go out and kill and wound as many of the other side as possible, and they do the same thing to you. But once you were wounded, you had a special… And even according to the Geneva conventions, actually, you had a special status, and you were no longer a combatant. And you were taken care of.

Mike Ferner:
And here we were introducing a weapon that would allow us to wound Vietnamese in such a way that it would not be able to be taken care of. And I read that and I just said, “That’s it. I’m not participating in this anymore.” And I found out what you needed to do to become a conscientious objector, and got some counseling on that. And started filling out the applications for it.

Matthew Breems:
I know that even after you applied to become a conscientious objector, that was not an immediate event for you. Describe that process, and what did you start doing after you filed to be a CO?

Mike Ferner:
Well, it took me probably two or three months to draft an application that was suitable. And then right about that time, when I was finishing drafting it, I got orders to an aircraft carrier in San Francisco Bay. The Hancock was the name of the carrier. I finished putting my CO application in order and reported to the ship. The day I reported to the ship is the same time I handed the chief petty officer my application to get out as a conscientious objector. So, that started things off on a not a good foot right away.

Mike Ferner:
After a few weeks, it became pretty clear that the Navy was just going to ignore that. And unless I could do something to convince them that they should take that application seriously and discharge me, that they were just going to ignore it and I would wind up being on that ship when it went back to Vietnam. So, I started telling the lifers and the officers right off the bat, I said, “If I don’t get discharged before this goes back to Vietnam,” I said, “I’m going to sit down right here and you guys can pick me up and put me in the break, because you’re not going to get any more participation out of me.”

Mike Ferner:
I had to figure out when I was going to draw that line before I got orders to this ship. I didn’t know, should I go out to it, or not even do that? So, I went out, waited for the ship from Vietnam, and I decided… I had handed my application when I reported, but I was not going to go back. I was not going to go to Vietnam when that ship went back. I figured that out. That’s where I was going to draw the line. And I just started doing whatever I could think of to become a pain in the ass so they would discharge me before the ship went back to Vietnam.

Matthew Breems:
And what were some of those things that you did to make yourself an annoyance?

Mike Ferner:
Well, I was very open about talking about being a conscientious objector and opposing the war. And it’s not like that was unheard of by that time in the progress of the war, but it was still unusual. And I had to go through a period on the ship where I really started doubting my own sanity, to be honest. Because I thought, “Here I am, there’s 3,500 guys on this ship. And as far as I know, me and my one friend that was a corpsman were the only people that were opposed to the war.” And I thought, “What the hell is wrong with me? In here, I’m the only one that I know of, that’s trying to get out.” And all of the peer pressure from the lifers, and everything that you’ve been told through life at that time tells you to do your duty.

Mike Ferner:
Finally, when I got my head straight on that, I felt a feeling of really being liberated. And I felt, “Okay, I can do this. I can take them on. I’m going to file the regulations to get out as a conscientious objector, but I’m not going to make any bones about it where I stand.” So, I would just talk about this. In fact, one time I put in a written request to the captain of the ship to be able to distribute literature among my shipmates, about how to become a conscientious objector. Of course, that flipped him out and was denied, but I just kept doing whatever I could. I was on duty one day in the sick bay. We had sick call every morning, and the guys who needed to have some kind of medical attention reported to sick call. And I realized that being in that position, I had the authority to write 24 hour bed passes.

Mike Ferner:
And so, I just started convincing everybody that came in there, that they had abdominal pains and they ought to get 24 hours in bed. The chief from the galley came up and he said, “What are you trying to do? Shut down the mess decks?” And I said, “Well, no, but that wouldn’t be a bad idea.” So, I just was out there doing everything that I could think of. Then, when the ship started going out for sea trials after it had been in dry dock for a month or two, it would go out for sea trials for a couple of weeks at a time.

Mike Ferner:
And my one friend in the medical division and I would get up in the middle of the night and just, everything that wasn’t tied down on the deck, we would throw over. We didn’t know anything about the mechanics of the ship, but we just thought we would do whatever damage that we could, and continued doing that. We put up posters against the war. And just, basically, I said, “Anything that wasn’t tied down, we threw over, ripped out.” And it was ineffective, but we didn’t know what else to do.

Matthew Breems:
So, eventually, they did accept your application to become a conscientious objector. Tell us what finally tipped the scales in your favor.

Mike Ferner:
Well, after about four months on the ship, then it was going out for sea trials and air operations. And clearly, getting ready to go back to Vietnam, I was running out of ideas. So, the only other thing I could think of was, I started a petition to Congress. And saying that ship had no business going back to Vietnam, and this, that, and the other reason. And within a couple of days, got a couple of hundred signatures.

Mike Ferner:
Finally, a word of that got up to the captain and they said, “Okay, get rid of him.” And I was gone the next day. They escorted me off the ship, and escorted me off the Navy base. And when I was leaving, they wanted me to sign what’s called a ban and bar order saying that I had done something terrible and was never allowed back on that base. And I said, “No, I’m not going to sign it because I was only using my first amendment rights to petition. And there’s nothing wrong with that.”

Mike Ferner:
Coincidentally, I had been documenting all of the things that I was doing, and the ACLU was looking for a first amendment test case at that time, because other servicemen were having their first amendment rights trampled on. And so, they took my case and they won it in the lower district court, and the Navy appealed it. They won it on appeal, the Navy appealed it to the Supreme Court. And the Supreme Court said, “No, too bad, if you’re in the military, you don’t have first amendment rights.” But it was another attempt to do what we could to disengage the war machinery.

Matthew Breems:
That’s really interesting, when you stop and think about it. That the very liberties and freedoms you’re fighting for are denied to you while you’re fighting for them.

Mike Ferner:
That’s a good way to put it, and there has to be a corollary to that, that any conscientious veteran for peace member would pretty much automatically have to say, which is, it’s not really what you’re fighting for. You’re not fighting to defend our freedoms. That’s just the story that’s told to people back home so that they’ll put up with all this.

Mike Ferner:
You’re fighting for empire, and you’re fighting for corporations. You’re fighting to keep people under the thumb of the empire around the world. You might believe that you’re fighting to defend American freedoms, because that’s what you’ve been told all your life before you get in the military, but that’s not really what you’re defending.

Matthew Breems:
As your time in the Navy ended, and they let you go as a conscientious objector, what does the next chapter in your life look like for you, as an activist?

Mike Ferner:
Well, I stayed in California for several months after I got out, and worked with a group called The Carrier Project. It was a project of the American Friends Service Committee, and they were active in trying to actually keep carriers from leaving San Francisco Bay and going over to Vietnam. And they weren’t successful in stopping them, but they would put dozens or hundreds of boats out in the paths of these ships and certainly draw people’s attention to the fact that this was going on.

Mike Ferner:
At the time, I was married and had an infant daughter, and my wife wanted to come back to Ohio. So, I did, and stayed very interested in those sorts of politics. Got involved in the environmental movement in the mid ’70s. And opposing nuclear power plants in the early ’80s, when US start arming the contras in Nicaragua, and dictators in El Salvador and Guatemala were being trained at the school of the Americas, and then going back and killing their own people.

Mike Ferner:
I got involved with Veterans For Peace early, actually the year it got started. Became active in that, and speaking out locally and being active in VFP nationally. And ’89, I got elected to City Council here in Toledo. And I had stood on street corners many times, passing out leaflets against military spending in wars, and the whole business. And always thought, if I was in a position to do something more than that, that I would take advantage of it. So, I sponsored a resolution on City Council, that got hotly debated and finally passed, urging Congress not to go to war at the Persian Gulf War in 1990, which Bush The Elder did.

Mike Ferner:
But it was a way of raising that issue locally and talking about… I can remember one of my City Council colleagues said, “What were you doing that for, it’s not a local issue?” I said, “It’s not a local issue.” I said, “It’s just our young men that are going over there, and it’s our tax payers that are paying for it. So, it looks to me like it’s a local issue. Plus we don’t have any money to do anything here in the city because it’s all going to the military.” So, it was a really good platform to raise those kinds of issues as an elected official.

Matthew Breems:
As an elected official, having access to city funds, where they’re coming from and where they’re going, any idea what percentage of funds, as far as taxes and stuff, are going to military spending at that time?

Mike Ferner:
Actually, when I was in office… I was in office for four years, and towards the end of that time, I became aware of… Through the American Friends Service Committee, again, I became aware of, I think it was called the Priorities Project. And they were starting to put the numbers together, as to what could be afforded for cities, or education, or wherever you wanted to spend it, if it wasn’t being blown out in military.

Mike Ferner:
And so, I started applying some of those numbers to our city budget, and saying, “Look, we’re spending this much money in tax, and if this wasn’t all going to the military, we’d be able to improve the infrastructure, or whatever it was that we were voting money for at the time.” And I wouldn’t raise at every council meeting, but I did find ways of talking about that publicly. So, try to get people to be thinking about it.

Mike Ferner:
In ’92, the US Conference of Mayors, believe it or not, endorsed a demonstration in Washington, that was intended to put pressure on Congress to start turning around some of the money that was going to the military. Of course, that was right after the Soviet Union fell apart and there was supposed to be this peace dividend, which never materialized. But it got to the point where the US Conference of Mayors, even, recognized that the military spending was not anything of particular value to the needs of cities.

Mike Ferner:
And some cities, particularly along the East Coast, were sending buses of citizens to the demonstration. And I tried to get Toledo to send the bus, and I didn’t get the support on City Council, but the Mayor let me use his car, so I filled it full of local peace activists, drove to Washington for the demonstration.

Matthew Breems:
And any ways that you have stayed engaged in anti-war activity in these last years?

Mike Ferner:
A friend of mine told me about a group that at the time was called Voices in the Wilderness, and it’s now called Voices for Creative Nonviolence. But throughout the time of the sanctions against Iraq, from 1990, up until the invasion of Iraq, 2003, the US had screwed, tighter and tighter, the sanctions on Iraq. And this group was just phenomenal.

Mike Ferner:
It was a small group of Catholic worker activists that organized this. And in seven years’ time, they organized 70 delegations to Iraq, taking supplies of one sort or another to purposely violate the sanctions. And when it looked like a war was going to commence at any time, around the end of 2002, the beginning of 2003, they were going to send in one more delegation. And that’s when I first heard about them, and I was fortunate to get taken on as a delegation member in what became the last delegation before the bombing of Baghdad, in March of 2003.

Mike Ferner:
And I got to meet people who had dedicated their lives to nonviolent interventions in many places around the world, not just Iraq. And, really, was impressed with what they were doing and stayed involved with them. I went back to… I was in Iraq for a month, just prior to the shock and awe bombing in March of 2003. And 10 months later, I went back for two months, to do some writing and interview people. And wound up writing and getting lucky, and getting a book published about the people that I interviewed in Iraq, during those two trips.

Mike Ferner:
Then in 2006, Kathy Kelly, who was the main organizer in the Voices group had been asking me to participate in fast, from time to time. And I kept putting her off. And finally one time I said, “Well, I guess I better say yeah.” And I said, “Okay, how long does it for?” And she said, “Five weeks.” I said, “You got to be kidding.” And, of course, they picked the dead of winter too, starting in January, and going for five weeks through the beginning of March. So, I went to DC with a half a dozen other Voices members, and we fasted. It was quite an experience.

Mike Ferner:
I had water and tea for five weeks, lost 35 pounds. And we had a big banner that announced what we were doing, and what day of the fast we were on. And we stood out in front of the Capitol building and passed out flyers to people coming in, and tried to get attention to the war spending that was going on. And I got arrested interrupting congressional hearings a couple of times.

Mike Ferner:
And Veterans For Peace did a couple of actions in DC, where we were at the White House and, oh, about 130 of us got arrested, along with Dan Ellsberg, and Ray McGovern, and a number of other people. So, I was really involved at that level. And when I was back home in Toledo, found people here in town, who, including my wife Sue, who were interested and willing to get arrested in nonviolent civil disobedience. And so, we did that more than once here in town.

Mike Ferner:
And as with everybody who’s involved in this work, it’s terribly disappointing when you feel you haven’t been able to turn things around, but it’s something you just have to do. I think it was an old union organizer, a friend of his saw him holding a candle outside the White House with a group of anti-war protestors one time, and asked him, “Do you think this is going to change the world?” And he said, “I don’t do this to change the world, I do this to keep the world from changing me.” And that’s important.

Mike Ferner:
It’s important to have a community of people, whether it’s in your own city or that you’re connected to in other parts of the country, that have similar values so you can withstand the current culture which just comes at you every day telling you that, “Everything should be for sale, and we should be making the most money possible. And human life is expendable.” So, it’s important to be able to feel like you’re at least part of something that has the energy to continue speaking the truth and witnessing too, the humanity and the planet.

Matthew Breems:
Mike, thank you so much for taking the time to share your story of activism on the podcast. It was great talking with you.

Mike Ferner:
Well, thank you. That’s a good opportunity, and I appreciate being asked.

Matthew Breems:
This Courage to Resist podcast was produced in collaboration with the Vietnam Full Disclosure effort of Veterans For Peace. This year marks 50 years of GI resistance to the US war in Vietnam, in and out of uniform, for many of the courageous individuals featured.

Matthew Breems:
This episode was recorded and edited by Matthew Breems. Special thanks to executive producer, Jeff Paterson. Visit vietnamfulldisclosure.org, and couragetoresist.org, for past episodes, more information, and to offer your support.