All Nancy Bird wanted was for her boyfriend to come home, safe and sound.
From May 1967 to May 1969 she waited. A student at Mattituck High School, Ms. Bird raced to the post office on Love Lane every day after school, hoping to find letters from her boyfriend, Jimmy Wells, who was an infantryman serving with the U.S. Army in Vietnam.
Sometimes days would go by without a letter. Once three weeks went by, and she feared the worst. Meanwhile, she wrote him every day, seven days a week, no exceptions. Jimmy was the love of her life.
“He was everything to me,” she said.
Mr. Wells, who was born in Greenport and grew up in Mattituck, had been drafted into the Army in May 1967, and few months later was shipped to Vietnam. When he returned home in June 1969, Ms. Bird met him at JFK. He was the last person to step off the plane, which was filled with returning soldiers. They were married at Mattituck Presbyterian Church soon after.
While Mr. Wells returned from the war in Vietnam to a life on the North Fork, the war never let go of him. On Sept. 5, it finally caught up with him and he died, of multiple illnesses, some he traced to his exposure to the pesticide Agent Orange, which was sprayed all over Vietnam as a defoliant. He was 72.
But this is not a story about a man’s death, which came far too soon. It is about life, and going on, about war and what it does to a soldier, and about love and remembrance. And about the love Ms. Wells, now 68, was reminded of when she cleaned out a dresser after her husband’s death and there, carefully preserved like artifacts in a museum, found hundreds of letters and postcards he’d written to her while he was away.
Jimmy was born July 7, 1945, a month before the Japanese surrendered and World War II came to an end. His father had a gas station and also worked as a commercial fisherman out of Greenport. The family struggled financially. Jimmy, not a good student, dropped out of Mattituck High School and, with another war raging and a draft in place, received his draft notice in the spring of 1967.
“He was going to enlist, because he felt it was his duty, and the day he went to do that, his draft notice came,” Ms. Wells remembered.
She is sitting in the Mattituck home she and her husband bought in 1976. Everywhere in the living room are reminders of Jimmy, including the carefully folded and framed American flag presented at his burial, which stands proudly on the mantel. A photograph of Jimmy in his Army uniform sits on a table in front of the couch, and next to it is a stack of letters addressed to “Nancy Bird, Mattituck, Long Island.”
Some letters are written on official Unites States Armed Forces stationery, complete with a map of Vietnam on one side as if to remind the recipient where the sender was.
This is what Jimmy wrote on one postcard, dated May 23, 1967: “I lay here Sunday morning crying to myself. I guess I am just a little homesick for you. But I will be brave and struggle through and find my way back home to you. Your one and only, Jim”
Nancy Bird was 15 when she met Jimmy. He quit school early in high school and worked various jobs, including at his father’s gas station. She was still attending Mattituck High School when Jimmy’s draft notice came. He was on an Army training base in South Carolina when he called to tell her: “I got my orders. I’m going to Vietnam.”
He wrote when he could, and sometimes many letters – all reviewed by a censor – would arrive in the post office box at one time. “I’d run down from school to check and some days there were none, other days a whole stack,” Ms. Wells recalled. “Once three weeks went by without any word. I found out later he was in the hospital for malaria.”
He almost never talked or wrote about the war. But she put together snippets from letters and their conversations, and learned enough horror stories to realize Jimmy was in a terrible place. He saw fellow soldiers die frequently. By his own admission, he killed numerous Vietnamese. Another time his bunker was overrun by the Viet Cong. He recalled killing a woman, who had pointed a rifle at him. What choice did he have?
A letter dated May 29, 1968, reads: “Hi Love. How are you? I am in Dak To… You might see on TV and in the newspapers we had a fight and killed 200 and we lost 58 men. I got the Bronze Star for it. I am okay. Don’t worry. I will tell you more when I have time.”
When he returned that spring of 1969, he was a different man, physically and mentally. Soon he began experiencing a host of health issues. After they were married, he and Ms. Wells found they could not have children. He developed diabetes, heart disease that required numerous stents to keep him alive, and serious sleep issues. In 2013, he suffered a stroke.
When his life ended Sept. 5, it seemed like the final act in a play about a soldier who came home from war to marry the woman he loved, only to lose his life too soon. His war experience killed him every bit as much as the congestive heart failure that was listed as the official cause of death.
When she rediscovered the cache of letters and reread them, she realized just how deep their relationship had been from the very beginning. And she realized again how he’d hidden so much from her, so she wouldn’t worry, and so they could have a normal life together.
“Most of his letters said, ‘I’m fine. I’m okay. Don’t worry about me.’ Of course, I knew that wasn’t true,” she said. Looking back over their lives together, Ms. Wells sees her husband’s continuous struggles with his health. He was just 56 went he went out on permanent disability from a job at Grumman. He’d had his first heart attack at 43. They both knew that he had been affected by exposure to Agent Orange.
“It seems like very soon after he came back and he was feeling the effects of Vietnam,” she said.
Rereading the letters now, she can see how much he wanted to find his way back home. And to be with her.
Top photo: Nancy Wells of Mattituck looks over postcards she received from her boyfriend and future husband, Jimmy Wells, during the Vietnam War. (Credit: Krysten Massa)