Dr. John Peters is retiring from Battle Mountain General Hospital, and those residents who are lucky enough to know him, know he isn’t your usual country doctor.
Peters has led a remarkable life, one of adventure and danger but above all, helping those in need in parts of the world troubled by natural disasters and war.
From an early age, he was motivated to stand up for the underdog.
“When I was 12 years old, my parents moved from a little one-room schoolhouse town in Iowa to a big Los Angeles grammar school,” said Peters. “The local 8th-grade bully decided to make me his victim for the year. For weeks, I walked for miles out of the way home to avoid him but one day he caught me and beat the hell out of me. I was sitting in the dirt with a bloody nose and thought, ‘I never fought back. I never defended myself.’ I’d seen a movie where bad bikers had taken over the town, and the good biker took his motorcycle apart, and with the chain, defeated all the bullies. That night, I took my bicycle apart, wrapped the chain in electrician’s tape, wrapped it around my waist under my clothes and went to school. This time I walked home, and he was waiting. To make a long story short, he decided not to be a bully anymore. I learned what I thought was an important lesson: With the right training, like the movie, and the right tools, like my chain, you can defeat the bullies of the world. So, I grew up that way, and from that point on, I never walked away from a fight. I always felt for the underdog because I had been one.”
Peters became a parachutist and a pilot, and has had 722 jumps. Asked if he was ever afraid, Peters stated, “Yes, every jump I made scared the hell out of me, but my pride was greater than my fear.”
“I did a lot of skydiving at first,” Peters said, “but when I graduated from medical school in 1959, I joined a group of people who put down the bullies of the world.”
Peters’ true life stories have been one adventure after another.
Peters recounted, “Another change occurred in 1970. There was a big earthquake in a remote area of the Andes Mountains in Peru which happened in the middle of their winter. There was no access to the damaged area on the east side of the 22,000-feet range. Roads were gone, there were no airports, and the lowest passes into the area were too high for helicopters. They had no idea what was going on up there, let alone what the damage was, and there were rumors of a smallpox epidemic. They hadn’t seen a doctor since 1941, so there were a lot of people who weren’t immunized.
“Sport jumping was a big thing in the 1970s all over the world, and 30 doctors and nurses volunteered to jump into the disaster area. They jumped, and six of them apparently were killed, half of them badly injured. In desperation, they contacted a medical rescue group to assist them in finding medical personnel with high altitude jump experience. The U.S. was there, and they were building an airstrip in the main damage area between the Cordillera Blanca and the Cordillera Negra.
“I was delivering a baby in Montrose, Colorado at 2 a.m. and the phone rang, and a man named Jerry Heming spoke. He said the Peruvian government was requesting medical personnel with high altitude jump experience, and he heard I qualified. He said it was high risk, no pay, but the coffee was great. I asked, ‘When do I leave?’ and he said I was already booked on a flight, and 24 of us flew to Lima. A second team came down a few days later headed by Bob Brown, who had just got back from Vietnam.
“The area they wanted us to parachute into was very remote, there were no air maps available, and after a series of minor mishaps, only 12 of us eventually parachuted into the area. We would circle and assay damage, and we’d set up a little field hospital where we were needed most. In our briefing they told us the lowest pass was 12,500 feet and we asked if they put us in there, how would they get us out, and they said they thought they could by helicopter. If they couldn’t, we couldn’t get across the mountains in winter; we’d have to walk 600 miles to Iquitos, to the Amazon River, through the jungle. Finally, the Peruvian president said they’d use their DC-3 aircraft, the old Gooney Birds, which had a single-engine ceiling of 8,000 feet; if they got engine trouble on the east side of the Andes, they weren’t coming back. Plus, the storm clouds would roll in at noon and block off the mountains, so we had to get an early start. And we only had one tank of oxygen and 12 hoses we could suck on. We got a late start. All 10 guys said they’d jump in Sihuas, move down south if they could, and let me know what was happening. We parachuted 10 guys out. On our parachute harness, we carried a red smoke bomb and a yellow smoke bomb. If you were OK, you’d pop the yellow bomb. If you were hurt and conscious, you’d pop the red one. If we saw no smoke, you were either dead or unconscious. We dropped these 10 guys. The pilot made one circle and we saw two yellow smokes, and that pilot refused to go back; he headed home. And he was right because the pass was closed as soon as we got there. Three days in a row, we got different pilots, we got different rivers, because no one really knew, until finally a pilot showed up who said he was from Sihuas and could find his hometown, and he did.
“Moore and I parachuted out; I went first, and it was kind of unusual because we were trying to make it to the top of a 14,000-foot ridge, and we went out at 15,000 feet. There was a big thermal coming up out of the canyon; I was in the air for 12 and a half minutes – normally you’re in the air three minutes – and I drifted way off the drop zone, and I got a bunch of rocks but there was a little space with cactus, and I made it into that. I ended up at 9,000 feet, so I had about a 2,000-foot climb down into town. Moore made it to the top of the ridge OK, but we lost all our equipment. It fell between us, and some Indians stole it. There was a local shaman who had herbs. They didn’t find us for 10 days. The only radio we had was a little CB radio with a range of 5 miles, and we could hear airplanes near us, calling for us, but they could never see us. On the tenth day, the 10 guys who were dropped on the wrong side of the 14,000-foot mountains had traded their parachute gear and survival gear for guides and donkeys, and they actually came over the mountains and arrived in town. All 12 of us survived. On the 14th day, the planes started getting close enough to hear us and started dropping stuff to us. They did not have a smallpox epidemic – it was a chicken pox epidemic, and measles; 11 kids had died, as we had no antibiotics. Then they started dropping us supplies, and then we did some good.”
The adventures continued as Peters visited troubled locations in all parts of the world. “Four years later we parachuted into Honduras after a hurricane; the Dominican Republic after a hurricane; Nicaragua after earthquakes,” said Peters.
One of the team members of the group that parachuted into the Andes was Bob Brown, who founded Soldier of Fortune magazine, and Brown and Peters had become good friends. Peters became a contributing editor and wrote stories for Soldier of Fortune. “Once I got hooked up with the magazine,” said Peters, “we were involved in eight different civil wars all over the world. I trained military corpsmen. We trained them in combat, while they were fighting. I was in Afghanistan five times. Burma, three times. Nicaragua, four times, during their war. El Salvador, eight times. Guatemala, after the earthquake in 1976. I wrote a story about that. We went to Rwanda. To Rhodesia, now called Zimbabwe.”
Peters has written many articles and worked on a book. “I contacted 60 agents and none of them would take me because they didn’t believe all that stuff had happened.”
Asked about the possibility of a movie, Peters said he has been flown to Hollywood to investigate opportunities from three different movie companies, but nothing ever came of it. “All of them insisted on full control of the scripts which included making Bob Brown my antagonist. He’s always been a good friend and I’m not going to do that, so I refused to sign a contract.”
Peters, who plans to stay in Battle Mountain, said he was thinking about writing a self-help book entitled “How Not to Live Your Life.”
A retirement party for Dr. Peters will be held from 10 a.m. to 3 p.m. on Saturday, July 27 at Elquist Park in Battle Mountain, and everyone is welcome.