Recalling Vietnam on Veterans Day: ‘The real heroes were guys like (Idaho’s) Nakayama’

Remembering Jim Nakayama

Lt. Col. Jim Harper of the Idaho Army National Guard speaks about Rigby resident who was killed 50 years ago in Vietnam (Video by John Sowell).
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Lt. Col. Jim Harper of the Idaho Army National Guard speaks about Rigby resident who was killed 50 years ago in Vietnam (Video by John Sowell).

Sept. 21, 1965: Boy, what a perilous job we just finished. This time we just had to go right behind our tent and chop out two bamboo stumps. Another job well done by the Combat Engineers. We’ve sure been snagging some good details lately. Oh, well, it’s better than going out of the perimeter and taking a chance on our lives. Not that I’m chicken, but right now I’ve got a beautiful wife and, soon will have a beautiful baby, and a wonderful future to come home to, so I don’t think I’ll give them up for this place.

We had a little action last night, and all it amounted to was the V.C. made liars out of our leaders. They (our leaders) have been telling us ever since we arrived here that the V.C. would never hit the 1st Cavalry because there are too many of us. Well, last night, old “Victor Charlie” dropped some mortar rounds and some machine gun fire right into the Division Headquarters area. No one was hurt, but they sure blew the hell out of the General’s latrine. Maybe it was planned that way … ha!

— Jim Nakayama, in a letter home to Idaho to his wife, Trudie

Fifty years have passed since Jim Nakayama wrote those words to his 18-year-old bride. Two months later, at 22, Nakayama died after being severely burned during a napalm attack that was friendly fire.

“It’s hard to believe how many years it’s been,” Trudie Olson said. “I still think about it a lot. I think part of why this year is somewhat different is besides the fact it’s the 50th anniversary of when Jim passed away, it’s basically the 50th anniversary of when the war really got going. The battle where he was killed was the first major battle of the Vietnam War.”

Nakayama and Olson met at Rigby High School. Jim, who graduated in 1961, was a couple of years older. They began dating when she was a senior and were married in 1965.

“One of the things I enjoy talking to people about is what an amazing guy he was. He was intelligent and he was very funny. He had a great sense of humor. ... He was really successful at football and track and just about everything he tried athletically. He was friendly and outgoing and he was very popular among his peers,” Olson said.

Sept. 21, 1965: Our division lost two men the other night in a battle and it was their own grenade that got them. The guys in the foxhole next to them said that they threw the grenade and the V.C. must have picked it up and thrown it right back cause it went off in the foxhole. Sure a lousy way to exit stage left. I’m just glad I’m not in the infantry. For once, I’m proud to be an Engineer … safe, right?

Lt. Col. Jim Harper of the Idaho Army National Guard speaks about Rigby resident who was killed 50 years ago in Vietnam (Video by John Sowell).

Nakayama enlisted in the Idaho Army National Guard shortly before he graduated. He was a member of Company A, 116th Engineer Battalion.

Two years later, he was promoted to corporal. In June 1964 he was commissioned as a second lieutenant after graduating from the Idaho Military Academy at Gowen Field in Boise. He spent the next 10 months as a platoon leader in Company B, 116th Engineer Battalion out of Rexburg.

“I remember Jimmy as a friendly person with a warm smile and, after all these years, I recall how immaculate and well-ordered his uniform was — a crisp, starched, neatly pressed uniform — and his presence commanded authority and confidence,” said Mark Klingler, of Boise, who served with Nakayama in Company B.

Nakayama resigned his commission in the National Guard in April 1965 and enlisted in the U.S. Army as a private first class.

“At the time that he signed up for the regular Army, neither he nor I knew that Vietnam was going to become the kind of conflict that it did,” Olson said. “He wanted to get his commission reinstated and then be literally a career military officer.”

Orders sending Nakayama back to the United States for officer training were in transit when he was killed.

Oct. 25, 1965: Guess I lucked out today once again. I’m sitting out at the rock quarry counting trucks and listening to my ever faithful radio. Nice job, huh? Must be a catch to it somewhere? I’ll enjoy it while it lasts.

How’s my lovely wife getting along? Isn’t it about time for our son or daughter to be born yet? Gee, seems like I’ve been waiting for five years. Course, I can imagine how you feel. Sure wish he or she would hurry up and get here. I’m really getting excited knowing I’m going to be a father soon. … Man, is it ever hot and rainy here … worse than Ft. Benning. I’m growing feathers and webbed feet and beginning to quack. Wish I could be back there at home so I could roll around in the snow.

When Nakayama left Fort Benning, Ga., for Vietnam in August 1965, a now-pregnant Olson was living with her parents outside Rigby, where she planned to stay until the child was born.

Nov. 2, 1965: So always remember that I love you so much that it really hurts to be separated like this. I miss those precious nights that I was able to come home to my wife … I miss the warmth and happiness of the time and love that we shared. I honestly believe that knowing I’ve many more evenings and days like those to enjoy in the future has kept me going over here. I’m so happy to know that I’ve got you (and the baby) to come home to. I love you (both) very much.

The napalm attack that led to Jim Nakayama’s death was recounted in the 1992 book “We Were Soldiers Once ... And Young,” by Lt. Gen. Harold Moore, a battalion commander in Vietnam, and Joe Galloway, a war correspondent for United Press International. The book was the basis for the 2002 Mel Gibson film “We Were Soldiers.”

Galloway met Nakayama on Nov. 15, the day of the attack. The Idaho soldier told the reporter his wife was scheduled to give birth to their child that day. Nakayama didn’t realize Nikki had arrived early, on Nov. 7. A letter announcing her birth had not yet arrived.

Nov. 5, 1965: How’s the good life treating you? Wish I could be there to enjoy it with you. Just can’t seem to adjust to this jungle environment. I’m so restless and nervous it’s driving me crazy. All day we work our butts off under the miserable sun. All night, we lay awake listening to the sounds of this ugly war. Sometimes the firing is real close and at any time we expect someone to start hollering, “Get your gear, we move out in five minutes.” So we lay there waiting and sweating it out. On the nights we have been called, I always went off by myself and asked for help to see me through the mess I’m headed for. It hurts to think I may never see you again. It’s hard to explain what I feel inside when I know I could very well be going to my death. …

The Army had discovered two regiments — more than 2,000 soldiers — of well-trained North Vietnamese near the Cambodian border. There were about 400 Army troops in the la Drang Valley.

The next day, Nakayama used explosives to knock down trees to broaden a helicopter landing area known as Landing Zone X-Ray. Soon after, two F-100 Super Sabres flew overhead, one of them dropping napalm canisters.

In his book, Galloway wrote that moments before the drop, he had walked over to talk with the engineers while they were in their foxholes.

“Now, those same men were dancing in the fire,” Galloway wrote.

Nov. 9, 1965: Are we Mama-san and Papa-san yet? Sure is taking a long time. Just wait till I get home. I’ll teach that young un a thing or two about being on time. If it seems like I’m writing in circles, it’s cause I’m trying to keep my mind off tomorrow. That feeling in my stomach is worse than ever … worse than the first time I had to go out on a mission. I guess no one actually gets used to going into combat, huh?

Our mission is to work around or in the Special Forces camp at Plei Me. That’s where the Company is going. Im off the radio for now cause they’ve made me a demolition specialist so I’ll be attached to the Infantry. As far as I know, I’ll stay with their S-3 operations and if they need me, they’ll call, and I’ll go out and then back, so I should be fairly safe.

I’m being attached to the 7th Cavalry, and they’re a bunch of ‘go getters,’ so don’t worry. I’ll be fine and will try to keep you posted on what’s happening. I love you … am I jumping the gun by saying I love “Darik or Nikki?” Take care, darling, and know how much I miss you. Please don’t worry if you don’t hear from me for a while.

When the flames died down, Galloway was among those who ran to help the injured soldiers. He helped load a badly burned Nakayama onto a helicopter piloted by Medal of Honor recipient Ed Freeman, who grew up in Mississippi and moved to Boise after he retired from the Army in 1969.

Nakayama died two days after he was injured, two days short of his 23rd birthday.

Nov. 10, 1965: Well, here I am deep, deep in the jungle of monsoon land. This Company of infantry may be good fighters but their organization leaves a little to be desired. We got up at 4:00 this morning and then spent the first half day waiting for the trucks that took us to the An Khe air strip where we waited most of the second half of the day for the helicopters to move us out. Right now, it’s evening and I’m sitting on a mat made of banana tree leaves getting ready for the night and reminding you of how much I love you.

We’re located in the jungle somewhere near Pleiku and the Cambodian border. Our only means of transportation is our feet and helicopters. We don’t have any means of mailing letters, so I’ll just keep writing as often as possible and mail them when we get back to base camp. … Please don’t worry … I’ll be fine. Are we parents yet? — Letter written but not yet mailed when Nakayama was fatally injured.

Sgt. George Nye, who was with Nakayama at la Drang, described him as a “real friend.”

“Every damned guy on Landing Zone X-Ray was a hero, but the real heroes were guys like Nakayama,” Galloway quoted Nye as saying. “I lost good people in there; they gave their all.”

Army officials notified Trudie at her parents’ home in the middle of the night. The telegram they delivered erroneously reported that Nakayama had been injured and was being evacuated to a military hospital in Texas.

“It would have been about two days later, we got the notification that he had passed away,” Olson said. “When we got the first message, I was extremely hopeful because I thought, well, this was really unfortunate but he will be at that hospital. I can see him and be with him and we can hope for the best.”

It wasn’t until Olson received her husband’s death certificate that she learned his real fate.

“In those days, there was very little information shared by the military about what was going on,” Olson said. “When I got the death certificate, it said that he had been killed by friendly fire, but no details whatsoever.”

At the time, Olson said she didn’t even know what the term “friendly fire” meant.

“To tell you the truth, I didn’t know any details at all about specifically what had happened until the book was written (in 1992). It was through the book and the movie that I finally learned some details about what had actually happened,” she said.

And discovering those details was difficult, she said.

“When I finally became exposed to the details about what happened, it was like reliving the pain all over again, especially to know that he suffered like he did. I assumed he must have suffered, but to think about a napalm bomb, it’s hard to imagine what that would have been like,” she said.

Nov. 14, 1965: Hi again. Well, I now have two impromptu combat jumps to my name. We landed right in the middle of some V.C., only they decided to run instead of fight, thank God. So all that happened were a few shots were exchanged, and then “poof,” nothing. Don’t worry … I’m staying pretty close to the ground and the grass and bushes are still about 10 feet high.

We’re camped on the edge of what some people might call water but it’s pretty putrid looking. Must be a creek or river, but it’s not on the maps. I’m still fine but missing you more than ever. Sure hope the good Lord has been taking care of you for me cause I ask Him to every night. This is Part 1 of my ongoing letter. Part 2 will come later.

Part 2, of course, never came.

On the 50th anniversary of Nakayama’s death, his widow said she still thinks about him.

“I would like people to know that he was smart and fun and funny and charming and generous, kind, compassionate, just an all-around great guy,” she said.

Anyone who knew him, liked him. They just enjoyed being around him because of the kind of person he was.

Trudie Olson, Jim Nakayama’s wife

Nikki Nakayama, who turned 50 on Saturday, said she learned a lot about her father from her mom and by spending time with her grandparents and her father’s siblings.

“His family would sit around and tell funny stories about him and memories they had of him in high school. If I was fishing with my grandfather, he would tell me stories about those two fishing,” she said.

More on Jim Nakayama

“We Were Soldiers Once ... And Young,” by Lt. Gen. Harold Moore and Joseph Galloway. Available at the Boise Public Library.

“We Were Soldiers,” movie starring Mel Gibson. Available from Netflix and at the Boise Public Library.