Remembering Marine veteran whose 30-year military career ended as a POW in Vietnam
Having a family member serve in the U.S. military during wartime can be a nerve wracking and emotional experience. John Wertz’s family is no stranger to this. Wertz’s grandfather, John Frederick Jr., was a Chief Warrant Officer in the U.S. Marine Corps. He served in three wars and later died in captivity as a prisoner of war.
John Frederick Jr.’s 30-year military career spanned World War II, the Korean War, and the Vietnam War. Wertz remembers his grandfather’s humble beginnings that led him to military service.
“Growing up as the son of a farmer in Illinois, my grandpa did not have many options,” Wertz says. “It was either become a farmer or join the military for people in that position, so he followed his two older brothers who also served.”
While Frederick Jr. had followed his two older brothers into military service, he chose a different path. On May 7, 1942, he enlisted in the Marine Corps.
“My grandpa’s two older brothers had enlisted in the Air Force but he wanted to go to the Marines,” Wertz says. “I do not know why he wanted to serve the Marines in particular, but that was where he enlisted himself.”
During World War II, Frederick Jr. served as a tail gunner for TBF and TBM carrier bombers in the Pacific Theater. Once World War II ended, he remained in Asia and participated in missions in China during their communist takeover. During the Korean War, Frederick Jr. spent the first year of the war as an Airborne Intercept Operator. After the war, he was stationed in Cherry Point, North Carolina., then Patuxent River, Maryland as part of a Marine detachment working on the F4H-1 Phantom II project. He finally returned to Cherry Point, North Carolina until the outbreak of the Vietnam War.
On December 1, 1965, Frederick Jr. deployed to Vietnam. On December 7, 1965, his plane was shot down on his return to Da Nang Air Base following a night-time escort mission. Frederick Jr. survived the plane crash, but he sustained multiple injuries and was taken as a prisoner of war. His time as a prisoner of war came to symbolize his dedication to the United States. He refused to give in to his captors’ threats or coercions despite the consequences he faced.
“During his crash, my grandpa burnt both of his hands very badly,” Wertz added. “His captors offered to give him proper medical attention if he did what they wanted, but he refused.”
While in captivity, Frederick Jr. was able to speak with the Marine Corps and those on the outside through his coded letters.
“My grandmother was actually able to reach my grandfather when he was in captivity because he and the Marines — along with the Navy — had their own clandestine communications network,” Wertz describes. “He used coded letters to speak with the Marine Corps and my grandmother. She and my grandpa were partners in it. James and Sybil Stockdale were also involved in this communication system.”
James Stockdale was shot down in 1965 and would be held as a prisoner of war for almost eight years. He was released as a part of Operation Homecoming in 1973. His wife, Sybil, became an advocate for families of POW and MIA service members. She founded the National League of POW/MIA Families, which remains active.
In 1972, Frederick Jr. contracted Japanese meningitis B and fell into a coma. His captors transported him to a Hanoi Hospital but Frederick Jr. likely died on the way. His body was returned home on March 13, 1974.
Today, Frederick Jr.’s legacy lives on. He was posthumously awarded the Navy Cross, Silver Star, Legion of Merit x 2, Bronze Star, Purple Heart x 2, Navy Commendation Medal and Prisoner of War Medal. To this day, Frederick Jr. is one of the most highly decorated, if not the highest decorated Warrant Officer in Marine Corps history, and his family remembers him as a hero.
“I was named after my grandpa,” Wertz says. “My mother and her siblings went to The Wall in 1999 when they dedicated a room at The Basic School at Quantico to my grandfather.” Wertz and his brother also went to see his name on The Wall on Veterans Day in 2005.
The name of John Frederick. Jr. is inscribed on Panel 3E, Line 136 of the Vietnam Veterans Memorial.
Visiting The Wall also brought up a lot of emotion for Wertz, and made him think of other families in his position.
“It’s hard to describe the emotions,” he tried to explain. “Seeing my grandpa’s name was one thing but seeing all the other names on The Wall was very powerful because I thought of all the families of these men and women.”
Wertz believes that The Wall reflects a need to always support those who serve, even in times of controversy.
“We always need to support those who are willing to serve even if we don’t agree with the war,” he said. “Even if you do not agree with going to war, you have to honor the people who are willing to sacrifice anything for our country, because at the end of the day, they are still the ones making the sacrifice.”
This is just one story of a service member who made the ultimate sacrifice during the Vietnam War. More than 1,600 remain unaccounted for. You can help honor their memory by sponsoring a candle to be laid at The Wall on Sept. 15, also known as POW/MIA Recognition Day. Sponsor a candle here.
This story was written by Scott Lynch