THE MAN WHO MATCHED OUR MOUNTAINS
Cpt. John Ferrier’s final act was a deed of unforgettable courage and sacrifice.
by Ed Mack Miller
The Denver Post
December 3, 1961
Out of the sun, packed in diamond and flying as one, the Minute Men dove at nearly the speed of sound toward a tiny emerald patch on Ohio’s unwrinkled crazyquilt below.
It was a little after nine in the morning of June 7th, 1958, and the target the Air National Guard’s jet precision team was diving at was famed Wright-Patterson Air Force Base, just outside Dayton, Ohio.
On the ground several thousand faces looked upward as Colonel Walt Williams, leader of the Denver-based Sabrejet team, gauged the high-speed pullout. Guests of honor at the airshow this morning were the members of the class of ’59, U.S. Military.
For the young West Point cadets and for the multitude of civilians who watched, the corps de ballet perfection of the red Sabre acro-team was a thing of awe and wonder. For the Minute Men pilots, Walt Williams, Captain Bob Cherry, Lieutenant Bob Odle, Captain John Ferrier, and Major Win Coomer, it was routine, for they had given their show hundreds of times before several million people from Spokane, Washington, to Jacksonville, Florida, and from Burlington, Vermont, to Honolulu, showing the people of the United States how proficient a reserve unit can be, telling with speed and thrills and swift smoke-strokes across the sky the Air National Guard story. For the Minute Men this was just another show, but they were glad the crowd was good, the skies were clear, and the air was morning-smooth.
Low across the fresh green grass the jet team streaked, far ahead of the planes’ own noise.
Judging the pull up, Colonel Williams pressed the microphone button on top his throttle: “Smoke on--now.”
Then the diamond of planes was pulling straight up into the turquoise sky, a bushy tail of white smoke pluming out behind the formation.
The crowd gasped as one when the four ships suddenly broke apart, rolling to the four points of the compass and leaving a beautiful, smoky fleur-de-lis inscribed on the background blue of the sky.
This was the Minute Men’s famed “flower burst” maneuver. For a minute the crowd relaxed, gazing at the tranquil beauty of the huge white flower that had grown from the verdant Ohio grasslands to fill the great bowl of sky.
Out on the end of his arm of the flower, Colonel Williams turned his Sabre hard, cut off the smoke trail, and dropped the nose of his F-86 to pick up speed for the low-altitude cross-over maneuver. Then glancing back over his shoulder, he froze.
Far across the sky to the east, John Ferrier’s plane was rolling. He was in trouble. And his plane was headed right for the small town of Fairborn, on the edge of Patterson field. In a moment the lovely morning turned to horror. Everyone saw, everyone understood. One of the planes was out of control.
Racing his Sabre in the direction of the crippled plane, Colonel Williams raised his voice over the mike. “Bail out, Johnny, bail out!” There was still plenty of time, still plenty of room. Twice more Williams issued the command. Each time he was answered by a blip of smoke. He grasped the sense of it immediately. John Ferrier couldn’t reach the mike button on the throttle because he had both hands tugging on a control stick that was locked full-throw right. But the smoke button was on the stick, and he was answering the only way he could--squeezing it to tell Walt he thought he could pull out...that he couldn’t let his airplane go into the houses of Fairborn.
Captain John T. Ferrier’s Sabre jet hit the ground equidistant from four houses. There was hardly any place other than that one backyard garden where he could have hit without killing people.
There was a tremendous explosion which knocked a woman and several children to the ground. But no one was hurt--with the exception of Captain Ferrier. He was killed instantly.
Major Win Coomer, who had flown with Ferrier for years, both in the Air National Guard and on United Airlines, and had served a combat tour with him in Korea, was the first Minute Man to land at Patterson AFB after the crash. He got a car and raced to the crash scene.
He found a neighborhood still stunned from the awful thing that had happened. But there was no resentment as it ordinarily the case when a peaceful community is torn by a crash. A steady stream of people came to tall, handsome graying Win Coomer who stood--still in his flying suit--beside the smoking, gaping hole in the ground where his best friend had died. And, humbly, they all said the same thing: This man died for us.
“A bunch of us were standing together, watching the show,” an elderly man told Coomer, “when he started to roll. He was headed straight for us. For a second I felt that we looked right at each other.” There were tears in the man’s eyes. “Then he pulled up right over us and put it in…there.”
Ferrier’s teammates figured he used the plane’s rudders to steer the crippled plane away from the people and houses.
It was a bold and courageous last act. But it was not an act alien to the nature of John T. Ferrier, who had been awarded one of the nation’s most outstanding medals of courage and bravery for risking his life “beyond the call of duty” in Korea to fly cover over a downed Marine pilot until helicopter rescue could come. On that sortie the pilot’s own fellow fliers had been afraid to fly down into the hell of flak and ground fire to keep the Communist ground troops from the downed airman. Ferrier and a fellow Air Force flier had taken their F-51s down voluntarily and “capped” the pilot until help had come, even though Ferrier had limped home with a rocket hole “as big as Korea” in his wing.
Denverites remembered Johnny Ferrier as an outstanding Colorado University “scatback” in football, as an All-City softball player, and an A.A.U. Champion handball player-and a wonderful family man who neither drank nor smoked (his worst expletives were “dad-gum it” or “dad-burn it”).
The number of cars in his funeral procession was the largest in the memory of the people who attended. Ferrier’s traffic was halted for miles. Many people came who had never known John Ferrier, but they had heard the story of his courageous death, and they came out of respect to the memory of a man who died a real hero. In a letter to John Ferrier’s widow, Governor Steve McNichols of Colorado wrote: “I know that you and your children can always be proud as we are of the fact that in his last moments he used his skill and his concern for humanity in protecting others from the terrible mishap.”
There were other letters of comfort for Tulie Ferrier and the three Ferrier children. Brigadier General Donald L. Hardy, commander of Wright-Patterson, said, “Eyewitness reports indicate that the plane was headed directly for people and houses in the area, and that a definite attempt was made by your husband to miss these. May you find comfort in the fact that his attempt was successful.”
A Dayton housewife wrote: “My prayer, ‘Please God, let there be a parachute’ when unanswered as I saw a burst of flame behind the trees. For this was a brave man who preferred to guide his plane into an open space away from his fellow man rather than save himself and chance the death of others.”
General Thomas D. White, chief of the U.S. Air Force, wrote: “May the thought of your husand’s faithfulness to his country bring increasing comfort to you as time passes.”
U.S. Senator Gordon Allott said: “His skill, both as a member of the Minute Men and as a United Airlines pilot has been a credit to himself and his family. His shining heroism in the split second over Ohio will serve as a constant example to all of us.”
It was Senator Allott who called long-distance from Washington on September 26, 1957, to inform Tulie Ferrier that the United States government had recognized John Ferrier’s final act of courage by awarding him, posthumously, the Distinguished Flying Cross.
The Denver Post, In an editorial entitled “The Highest Brand of Heroism,” said, “The manner of Captain John T. Ferrier’s dying deserves a salute of deepest respect,” and noted that Ferrier “sacrificed his life to save a possible score of others.”
“It was,” said The Post, “the kind of heroism that keeps the fine traditions of our fighting forces fresh.”
Shortly thereafter, the people of Davenport, Iowa, where the Minute Men had performed several times, established a “John Ferrier Trophy,” which is presented at the city’s annual Air Fair to the outstanding Boy Scout of the area.
This fall, as Ferrier’s fellow pilots of the Colorado Air National Guard return to active duty to insure the defense of their country, the people of Colorado can again remember Captain John T. Ferrier.
As one Air Guard officer commented, “An American poet, Sam Foss, once wrote, ‘Bring me men to match my mountains.’ Well, Ferrier was one of those men....
“We don’t have to fear any enemy as long as America can produce people of the stature of John Ferrier.”
(The article from The Denver Post concludes here. The remainder of this is by Joe White from his book Who’s Number One?, Tyndale House Publishers, Inc.; Wheaton, IL 1986, p122-123)
Shortly after the crash, Johnny’s wife wrote Kanakuk Kamps ... the following letter in which she referred to the “I’m Third” card ... that Johnny had received at camp many years before. The man in charge of the camp at that time was named Coach Bill Lantz. He talked “I’m Third” often and lived “I’m Third” every day.
Here’s a copy of Tulie Ferrier’s letter:
“Coach, I went through his billfold last night and found the old worn card which he always carried--”I’m Third”. He told me once he got it from you; you had stressed it at one of your camp sermons. Anyway, he may have had a few faults--but they were few and minor, but he followed that creed to the “T” and certainly to the very end. God is first, the other fellow second, and “I’m Third”--not just the day he died but long before that--certainly as long as I’ve known him. I’m going to carry that same card with me from now on and see if it won’t serve me as a reminder. I shouldn’t need it, but I’m sure I do as I have many more faults than he.”
God First. Others Second. And I’m Third
The happy way to live. The loving way to live. The only way to really live.