In the late 1960s and early 1970s, many Americans answered the call of duty to serve in Vietnam, many from North Dakota.
While a few were recruited, about two-thirds of Vietnam’s veterans enlisted voluntarily.
Jim Nelson is a native of Garrison and enlisted in the Navy at the age of 17, in November 1968.
He said he received a letter after joining what was called the extended entry.
âThe letter said I was coming for a medical exam. I went for my checkup, then I walked into that room and put my hand up and took the oath, and the next thing I knew, I’m on a plane, I’m going to San Diego. , California, âNelson said.
And so, his naval career began.
He had never taken a plane before and said it was a little scary. He also got married after graduating from training camp.
âAnd that was the right thing to do then back then, isâ¦ you had to get married before you went to war,â Nelson said.
He was originally named the Hospital Corpsman – basically a naval medic – but things changed once he got to Balboa.
âI looked down the hall, and all I can see are casts of people. And I was on the ground for about a week, and I started looking for names, âNelson said.
Most of the names he read were hospital men who were attached to Marine Corps units in Vietnam.
Subsequently, he requested orders from the fleet, and it was there that he became a flagman (or a sailor who works as a visual communications specialist).
His time in the Navy took him all over the Pacific, including historic sites such as Pearl Harbor and Korea.
And of course, Vietnam. It was then in 1969.
âWhen I first saw Vietnam, it was almost like returning to Pearl Harbor. It was just beautiful. I mean, it was surreal, palm trees and you never would have known there was a war, âNelson said.
However, at night he said that was when he was able to see the lightning from the gunshots.
A year after the initial Tet offensive of 1968, he was tasked with assisting the Marines in another push near Saigon, subsequently receiving much needed R&R near Thailand.
However, in a war zone, detente is limited.
âSomeone took a wrong turn and the USS Frankie Evans was cut in half, and 74 sailors died that night,â Nelson said.
He said his ship, the USS James E Kyes, was one of, if not the first, on the scene to provide assistance and save the lives of the remaining sailors.
âWhen I started to peer into the water, I couldn’t believe what I saw. It was just debris, personal items and wreckage from the ship, âsaid Nelson.
The front half of the USS Frankie Evans sank in 10 minutes.
In 1971, after three cruises to Vietnam and achieving the rank of Petty Officer Second Class – or E-5 – it was time for Nelson to leave the Navy, but that did not mean that his service to the community and to his country was ended.
He took a job at the local Montgomery neighborhood in Minot and wanted to go to school.
âI didn’t know why to go to school, so law enforcement seemed like a good solution at the time,â Nelson said.
He was hired as a dispatcher in the Ward County Sheriff’s Department, but the demands of the job caused him to suspend school.
He worked in the department for seven and a half years, reaching the rank of sergeant.
After years of hard work, Nelson not only served the community, he also continued his education.
âI went to school, finished my associate’s degree, got two bachelor’s degrees, both in education – one in history, one in social sciences. And then a friend of mine who was in the sheriff’s department that was under my command, which I trained, turned out to be a teacher in a course that I took, and he convinced me to do a master’s degree in criminal justice, so I thought okay, that sounds like a good deal, âNelson said.
Retired in the classic sense of the word, Nelson still spends his days caring for others who have answered the call to duty.
He is a member of AMVETS and joined an organization called the 50th Vietnam War Commemoration.
âSince 2013, I have been looking for members of the KIA family in Vietnam. There were 198 from North Dakota, and I started looking for family members. So far I’ve found all but 40, âhe said.
He said that at home there is no retirement.
His grandson made the decision to join the United States Marine Corps, following in his grandfather’s footsteps.