In the late 1960s and early 1970s, many Americans answered the call of duty to serve in Vietnam, including many from North Dakota.
While a few were drafted, roughly two-thirds of Vietnam veterans enlisted voluntarily.
Jim Nelson is originally from Garrison and enlisted into the Navy at the ripe age of 17, back in November of 1968.
He said he received a letter after joining in what was called extended entry.
“The letter said that I’m coming for a physical. I went and got my physical, then I went into this room and I raised my hand and took my oath, and the next thing I knew, I’m on an airplane, going to San Diego, California,” Nelson said.
And thus, his Naval career began.
He had never been on an airplane before and said it was a little nerve-racking. He also got married upon graduating from boot camp.
“And that was the thing to do back then in those days is…you had to get married before you went off to war,” Nelson said.
He was originally slotted as a Hospital Corpsman — essentially a Naval medic — but things changed once he got to Balboa.
“I looked down the hallway, and all I can see were casts of people. And I was on the floor for about a week, and I started looking at names,” said Nelson.
Most of the names he read were hospitalmen that were attached to Marine Corps units in Vietnam.
Afterward, he requested orders to the fleet, and that’s where he became a signalman (or a Sailor that works as a visual communications specialist).
His time in the Navy took him all over the Pacific, including historical sites such as Pearl Harbor and Korea.
And of course, Vietnam. It was then 1969.
“When I first saw Vietnam, it was almost like I was going back into Pearl Harbor. It was just beautiful. I mean it was surreal, palm trees and you’d have never known there was a war,” said Nelson.
However, at night, he said that’s when he was able to see the flashes from the gunfire.
One year after the initial Tet Offensive of 1968, he was tasked to aid the Marines in another flare-up near Saigon, receiving some much-needed R&R near Thailand afterward.
However, in a war zone, there’s only so much relaxation.
“Somebody made a wrong turn and the USS Frankie Evans was cut in half, and 74 sailors passed away that night,” Nelson said.
He said his ship, the USS James E Kyes, was one of, if not the first, ship on the scene to provide assistance and save the lives of the remaining sailors.
“When I started scanning the water, I couldn’t believe what I saw. It was just debris and just personal items and wreckage from the ship,” said Nelson.
The front half of the USS Frankie Evans sunk in 10 minutes.
In 1971 after three cruises to Vietnam and reaching the rank of Second Class Petty Officer — or E-5 — it was time for Nelson to leave the Navy, but that doesn’t mean that his service to the community and his country was done.
He took a job at the local Montgomery Ward in Minot and wanted to go to school.
“I didn’t know what to go to school for, so law enforcement sounded like a good fit at the time,” said Nelson.
He was hired as a dispatcher at the Ward County Sheriff’s Department, but the demands on the job led him to put school on hold.
He worked at 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 furthered his education.
“I went to school, finished my associate’s, got two bachelors, both in education — one in history, one in social science. And then a friend of mine that was on the sheriff’s department that was under me, that I trained, happened to be a professor of a class I took, and he talked me into going for a master’s in criminal justice, so I thought OK, that sounds like a good deal,” said Nelson.
While retired in the classical sense of the word, Nelson still spends his days taking care of others that have answered the call of duty.
He is a member of AMVETS and joined an organization called the 50th Commemoration of the Vietnam War.
“Since 2013, I’ve been looking for the family members of the KIA’s in Vietnam. There were 198 from North Dakota, and I started looking for family members. To date, I have found all but 40,” he said.
He said that in his house, there is no such thing as retirement.
His grandson has made the decision to join the United States Marine Corps, following in his grandfather’s footsteps.