Soldier for Korean war, Missionary for Vietnam Warby Rit Nosotro First Published:: 2003
What is your name?
My name is Sam James.
When and where were you born and raised?
I was born in 1932 in Randolph County, North Carolina in a little town called Liberty. It was a town of 1,400 people
What are your religious convictions and how have these affected the path of your life?
My mother went to church- she was an organist and pianist- Methodist, Presbyterian- whoever needed an organist. She took us to Sunday school but really church didn’t mean a whole lot when I was growing up. My father didn’t go to church at all. So I didn’t really grow up in a Christian home. I was saved when I was 18 years old in the navy in Japan. I was saved by reading Matthew, Mark and Luke. That’s where my life began. Navigators in the navy discipled me and really grounded me in the word of God. I went to Wake Forest University, a very liberal college. It was still Baptist but the very liberal side of it. It really impacted my life because I saw what I didn’t want to believe. And then I went to Southeastern seminary when it was very liberal. There was a time when I was almost tempted to follow that theology, but I couldn’t do it. When I made my mind up, boy, that cemented me in the word of God! My call to missions happened when I became a Christian. I was on a ship in Yakosca Japan and when I gave my life to the Lord I knew I wanted to serve Him. And when I looked out at Japan at the lack of understanding of Jesus I knew I couldn’t put my life in the states where there were churches and Christ everywhere. I had to go where he was not known.
Was your family affected by the great depression?
Yes, I was born right in the middle of the great depression . My first memories are 1935-36 when we were almost coming out of the depression but still in it. My grandfather was a farmer so it didn’t affect him so much- he always had food on the table. My father was a butcher and he seemed to always have a job in that time when everybody else was out of work and uh we were very poor but he had a job and we always had a job. Often he took food to other people because he had access to food even though he wasn’t a Christian at the time. I think it made me appreciate what little people had. It probably made me more conscience of the use of money and the use of my life. I think most people are that way- there is a certain work ethic. My dad always said ‘if you got a job, you keep that job and work it, don’t ever get out of a job’.
Were racial issues significant where you grew up?
Oh yes! Randolph County was heavily black and segregation was everywhere. The theaters were separated- the blacks sat up in the balcony, the whites sat downstairs. There were separate drinking fountains for blacks and whites. Schools were totally segregated. I really felt sorry for the kids.
When did you first become aware of racism?
My first job was in a café in a gas station on the side of a highway. I was only 13 years old when I started working there after school and on Saturday. These big tanker trucks would come through hauling gasoline to the center of North Carolina. Some were driven by white drivers others were driven by black drivers. They would pull up to the café and the white drivers would come in, sit down, and eat. The black drivers driving the same rig for the same number of hours would come around to the back where I would give them food from a little window, and they would stand up and eat. That was when I really became aware of racism and the ugliness of it. Later when I pastored in North Carolina I went through some very traumatic times regarding race and trying to help my church come to a better understanding of God’s love for all people. I think growing up with blacks made me culturally sensitive. That is, when I later went to Vietnam, Japan and Europe I was very sensitive to the differences in cultures.
What travel experience have you had and which place was your favorite?
Well, when I was ten years old I got out on the road and I thumbed to Florida to work. Ten years old! Haha I don’t know why my mother let me do it. I only worked down there for a couple of weeks and then thumbed back. So that was my first trip away from home. I remember my dad came in and sat on the edge of the bed and said ‘son, I worked down in Florida when I was 24 and worked down there for three years. You are going to have a great time!’ He never did say ‘do you have any money? Do you have a ride?’ –No, he just said ‘you are going to have a great time!’ And since then I have had the privilege of going to about 95 different countries. It had been such a rich experience to go into those countries and look at the people and see their cultures and see how they respond to the Gospel. It’s been a rich experience. My favorite country would probably be China, specifically Hong Kong. It is the most fascinating city I have ever lived in. We lived there for eight years. I mean, I love Japan because I was saved there, but Hong Kong still has a fascination for me.
Were you or anyone you knew in WW2?
Yes, a lot of people I knew were in the war, but where it impacted me was I was 9 years old in 1941 when Pearl Harbor was bombed. They had a special edition of the newspaper that came out very quickly after that Sunday morning that Pearl Harbor was bombed. I sold those extra newspapers. You know, yellin’ ‘extra!’ and everybody was buying this newspaper. From that point on I think it shaped my patriotism and love of America more than anything I can imagine. Oh, and I was the only person in the whole part of the country that could play the bugle. So when they started bringing bodies back in 1945 they had to have somebody to play taps. The American Legion called on me and I played taps for I can’t tell you how many funerals of guys that were brought back. They would even let me out of school to go play taps. It was a pretty moving time with the families there to grieve. You know, for a 13-14 year old that was really something.
How were you involved in the Korean War?
I graduated from high school in 1950 and the Korean War started in June of 1950. I just knew I was going to be drafted. So I actually thumbed to New York City to stay with my uncle and get a job so I could go to college. I didn’t like school, I was failing everything, and so I joined the navy. The primary reason was because I didn’t want to go into the army. I lied about my age- you had to be 17 and I was only 16. So, I changed my birth certificate and my dad signed for me. So at 16 I got on a destroyer and went to Puerto Rico and all these places. I was in the navy for a total of six years. For three of those years and during all of the Korean War I was in the Korea area. I was at sea most of my time in the navy. One year I was on Adak in the Aleutian Islands. Adak is just a rock out in the middle of nowhere with all men which is tough on a 20 year old. Haha. Adak only had one flower. I have hundreds of slides of that one flower! In my last year in the navy I was with the office of naval intelligence. I would take a submarine (laughs and says…you won’t believe this, hehe my life has been something) to the submarines we had out in the Barring Sea that were monitoring radio broadcasts out of Russia. I would pick up the communication bags and bring those back to Adak where we would encode it all again and send it to Washington. So I was cleared for top-secret code, which meant I could take those messages and decode them and then recode them to send to Washington. Anyway, my time on Adak really allowed me to grow as a Christian.
How did living in Vietnam affect your opinion of the war?
Well, when we first went to Vietnam in 1962 there were not too many Americans in the country. There were war clouds on the horizon. The Vietnamese were fighting some but not much. We saw it grow and get worse until 1965 when all the dependents were pulled out of Vietnam. Within three months they went from like 12,000 Americans in the whole country to 600,000 military personnel in the country. You can imagine what that did. I remember, I think it was 1965 maybe, when we saw our first American body. He was lying in the crossroads and his helmet had blown off and I saw that blonde hair. I mean, I had seen them bringing in Vietnamese bodies but I had not seen an American. I think it really did something to me to see that first death there. I had wished we would not go into Vietnam to fight a war. The country had no airports except for the one in South Vietnam, it had no big ports, there were no major roads from city to city for men to travel, it was just an impossible situation. There were jungles, thick jungles, with elephants, tigers and every animal you could think of. It was not a good place. It was just going to be a bad situation. I just hoped that we wouldn’t get involved there…but we did. I felt we probably could have ‘won the war’ in 1968 but I think there was so much publicity against the war that we kind of lost heart or whatever. It was a political war. If it had been left to the military we could have kept Vietnam from becoming communist but there was so much politics involved. It was like we were fighting with one arm behind our back.
One way it impacted me was we had a lot of (American) guys that came to our home for dinner or just to hang out on a Saturday night and they would get killed the next week. So we had a lot of grief in knowing people and constantly seeing them getting killed.
How did the war affect your ministry?
When I came back on stateside I was asked to speak in Chapel at Southeastern Seminary. When I arrived there were actually students protesting me because I was in Vietnam. I remember preaching in chapel and one of my points was this: you can be a pacifist based on the teachings of Jesus. You can really study Him and become a pacifist. But if you are going to be a pacifist based on the teachings of Jesus, then you must take Jesus’ alternative to war. And what is that? He is the Prince of Peace, you have to take the great commission. I can’t imagine anyone refusing to go to war based on His teachings and not become a missionary. If you are going to take one part of His teachings you have to take all of it.
How did living in the middle of a war impact your family?
One night the communists took over our village at about 2 in the morning. That’s when it all broke loose. We had to get everybody on the floor and mattresses up and I thought; is that going to affect our kids in the future. And when we did get out of the house there were dead bodies everywhere. Lying in the sun for five days, and 100 degree heat, holes in their bodies, and I kept wondering if it was going to affect them in some way. But we didn’t let it affect us and I think it kind of carried over to them. They didn’t get distressed. It didn’t give them bad memories that affected them for the rest of their life, which it could have done. I think maybe it was letting them be deep in their belief in God and their trust in Him and their faith in the Lord and His sovereignty and being a family of prayer. I think all of that helped strengthen them to interpret things in a different light then they might have had they not had that faith. So it did impact our family in some remarkable ways.
How did the war impact your ability to get to these guys and
to do the mentoring?
Yes, I had to fly Air Vietnam. I had to fly these little 2 engine PC3 planes. We had to agree with the government that we would travel between cities by air not by train. I was almost killed three times in Vietnam. Once because I did go out of town but I went out and we prayed about it and I got military police from the Vietnamese and the American advice and I went down south in the Delta to speak to a school where I had lead the teacher to the Lord. She was the only Christian teacher in that school and she wrote me two straight years, would you come at Christmas and tell these students the real meaning of Christmas?….Man, that’s hard to turn down. I didn’t do it the first year but the second year I just couldn’t turn her down. And that’s where I got caught in a road block and you know I could tell that but I can’t do it here via story but…No matter what we did you couldn’t get away from the war. You know, near death experiences. If people really wanted to understand me they would have to understand those experiences because what you feel like when that is over is that God has given you [gets emotional here] O.k., God has given me another life. I would have lost this one, everything I would have ever done had been done, but God has let me have another life…not once but three times. And that’s what drives me. That’s what has driven me all of my life since that time. And to understand me is to understand that and when I am kind of hard on people…because they are not putting out their best, not doing anything, it comes from that. I don’t want to see people wasting their life when life is so tenuous anyway. And so that is a real understanding of who I am as a person. That’s what my ministry in Vietnam during the war did to me…for me.
How has the advancement of transportation affected your life?
Yeah, in 1962 when we went to the mission field we went by ship. Everybody went by ship in those days. There weren’t many planes that crossed the Pacific Ocean and they made island hops across but they were mostly propeller planes…very slow and very expensive. So we went by ship.
When was the first time you flew?
Our first furlough in 1966 we were able to fly. Took us forever to get there. We had an interesting experience. We were on the train going from Los Angeles to San Diego. We sat beside several people on that trip and later we were on a plane going to North Carolina from San Diego. Our daughter kept talking about the lady she sat beside on the train but I couldn’t remember who she was. Finally, she said, you know the lady who looks like us. She had sat beside a Chinese lady. Somehow in her mind we looked like Chinese or Vietnamese. She so identified with the Asian that she didn’t see the difference. These other people were Americans but this lady looked like us. It was a real revealing thing to me.
What color hair does your daughter have?
Blonde, curly blonde hair.
How did you respond to that?
I don’t know that I made a big deal about it. I just figured she would look in a mirror one day and say “hey, I’m different”.
Do you feel it is important to study history?
YES, yes and I am a great believer in that. Winston Churchill said this, I may not quote him exactly right, but I’ve always liked what he said. He said, “Those who ignore history are doomed to repeat it. Those who fail to give attention to history are doomed to repeat it.” That’s a tremendous statement. I think history becomes history only if we learn from it. If we don’t learn from it we lose it. You can study about all these things, second WW, civil war, and all these things but if you don’t learn anything from it, other than dates and people, you don’t keep it. It’s when you study history and learn… how does that impact me today? What does that say to me right now? History is not dry anymore, it becomes a learning experience. Some people say that history is everything that ever happened. Well, other people say that history is made up of those significant events that have impacted civilization in some way. So you’ve got all these philosophies of history. You and I are even building a history. But that history will not be history to you unless it impacts you in some way. Otherwise you’ll forget it. You have a million experiences but if you don’t do anything with those experiences you lose them. Maybe twenty years from now something will happen and you turn on an old tape and you’ll remember oh, I felt that way in this experience. I really believe in particularly those experiences that stretch us in some way, like it’s grief or it’s disappointment or it’s something that has the potential to destroy you, really. Or even good experiences that can do something for you. I think you need to go back and process it in some way so that it becomes a part of your life and you have an application from it in some way. So, my own philosophy of history is that it only becomes history as you process it and make something and learn something from it. That may be a little radical to some people but I think it’s true and when you read the gospels, everything recorded in the gospels you can learn from. It’s been processed by the disciples or by someone and therefore it becomes meaningful. If Jesus said something and it didn’t make an impact they wouldn’t record it. When He says it and they record it, it makes an impact. It made an impact on them and the Holy Spirit led them to write it down so it can make an impact on others. So history, yeah, history is so important to me.
What is one of the most severe problems facing our country or world today and how did that come to be?
That’s one I really ought to give some thought to. I think there are several. One is a rampant secularism. I think it is a big problem. That is a life that is being lived out without a consciousness of God. Of the spiritual side of life so then morals become temporary, they become situational. It’s right here but it’s not right here. With no standard of which to judge…there’s no ethics…as the prophet Jeremiah said, “There’s no plum line to measure things by because it is all secular there’s no standard”. That means then that we lose our value system…that which we determine our priority in life by…because we have no ultimate goal, no aim, there’s nothing controlling anything. I think that may be the greatest problem we face today. The other problem on the other side of that is fundamentalism. That could be in religion, in Islam, in politics, in which you only see your point of view which then sets you against the rest of the world and that leaves you isolated. There has got to be some openness to understand where other people are coming from even if you don’t agree with them. It is so rampant in the world today where on one side you have secularism, which doesn’t have any standard, on this side your circle gets smaller until you’re the only one left that is right. Then what are you doing in the world? What is your impact on the world if you get into that position where you have walls around you that protects you from the world but also keeps you inside?
There used to be a film that sometimes we showed years ago. It was about a guy who had an orchard and he watched that orchard and as the fruit came out the birds came and they started eating. Well, first some kids began to climb in and steal his fruit so he built this wall around it. Then the birds came in and ate the fruit so he built a roof over the orchard. He would sit inside to keep the kids out and the birds off until he got it so secure even the sun couldn’t come in. Then all his trees died and he had nothing. He became so secure and so protected from the world that he lost everything. The film was a lot longer and had a lot more stages than that but essentially that is what happens when we close ourselves off to where we are the only ones left. Religion has a tendency to go in that direction if we are not careful. I am not talking about giving up truth; I am talking about keeping contact so that truth can flow through me to others unhindered. I believe these to be two of the biggest challenges our world faces today.
Thank you so much for your time and insight Mr. James. This has been a very interesting interview.
1. The economic crisis beginning with the stock market crash in 1929
and continuing through the 1930s. (www.dictionary.com)
2. A bugle call or drum signal sounded at night, as at a military camp, as an order to put out lights and also sounded at military funerals and memorial services. (www.dictionary.com)
3. An island of western Alaska in the central Aleutian Islands. It was an important military base during World War II and the Korean War. (www.dictionary.com)