In the United States, Charles Nelson may not have been allowed in the same restaurant as the man whose life he saved in Vietnam.
While training as an Air Force medic at South Carolina’s Shaw Air Force Base hospital from 1969 to 1971, Nelson, who is black, often drove to Washington, D.C. He would pack his lunch for the road, unsure which places to eat would welcome an African American.
Along his route, signs for “colored” entrances and separate facilities remained, despite the 1964 Civil Rights Act. He saw a billboard along one North Carolina highway featuring a hooded Klan member on a rearing horse, which read, “Smithfield, North Carolina: No n—–, Jews or dogs after dark.”
When he arrived in Vietnam in July 1971, Nelson didn’t see such open discrimination. He says that though he noticed whites getting better job assignments, the racial divide “wasn’t as pronounced as it was when I left America.”
As a medic at Tan Son Nhut Air Base, Nelson once comforted a white man in his arms for two hours, his finger jammed inside the bullet wound in the man’s chest to prevent his lung from collapsing.
In one place, segregation was turned on its head: White servicemembers were forbidden from entering “Soul Alley” outside Saigon, which catered to black troops. “They had girls who learned how to cook potato salad and collard greens and ribs,” Nelson said. “It was crazy.”
Although black and white troops were comrades in the war zone, Nelson saw the racial divides reappear on his flight home to the U.S. “Slowly but surely, you could see the people going to their own sections,” Nelson says. “By the time we got to Treasure Island, San Francisco, the white guys were on one side of the plane, the black guys were on the other side, the Hispanic guys were in another little section, and all of a sudden we didn’t know each other. There was no more speaking to each other, none of that.”