Hollister resident recalls his Vietnam years in the Army

VFW post commander George Nava distinguished himself during dangerous times.
George Nava. Photo courtesy of George Nava.
George Nava. Photo courtesy of George Nava.
Louie Nava, George Nava's father. Photo courtesy of George Nava.

George Nava recalls that his father, Louie Nava, did not share a lot of memories about his service in World War II.

“He used to work on all the landing craft in the Pacific,” George, 75, said. “He got a commendation from Admiral Nimitz for getting the PT boats repaired and back in action fast. I saw some pictures of him at the shipyard and I tried to figure out where he had been. But I don’t know what all he did over there. He’s like a lot of us veterans—he didn’t like to talk about the war.”

When Louie was discharged, he returned first to Soledad, where he had grown up, then moved his family to Hollister.

“I had three sisters and four brothers and we grew up right here,” George said, “I went to the old Hollister Grammar School, went to the Fremont School, then graduated from the Sacred Heart School. Then, in 1966, I was drafted into the Army.”

Nava did his basic training at Fort Lewis, Washington, and his advanced jungle training at Fort Polk, Louisiana, before being shipped out in 1967 to serve with the infantry in Vietnam. George’s brother Tom as well as his Uncle Martin Solano went to the war as well.

“I know my dad felt bad for me when I went into the service,” he said, “because I saw a lot of combat.”

Nava patrolled the Mekong Delta, a vast area of interlocking rivers and swamps, which was one of the major areas of conflict

“We used to operate the boats with the Navy as a marine force,” he said, “They used to take us up the canals and drop us off. We would yell our ‘heigh-hos,’ just like the Marines, and we would charge off, shooting all over the place. We’d sweep the areas and then a mass of helicopters would come in, scoop us up and drop us off somewhere else. And we would do that all day long.”

Nava served two years in Vietnam. His patrols put him in constant danger.

“Back in November of ’67, we got stuck in an ambush,” he said. “Our squad took off, running out, to better utilize our power. I was carrying an M-60 machine gun. So we came out of this dyke and a burst of gunfire took five guys out. I was there with the sergeant—we were the only ones left.”

Nava expended his rounds at the bunkers and, running out of ammunition, cocked his .45-caliber pistol and got his grenades ready to throw. 

“I could not move from my spot,” he said. “If I moved, that would have been it. The sergeant was coming toward me and I yelled for him to get back. Before he turned, he got hit in the chest by an AK-47. I saw the round hit him and his backside just came out. And yet, he turned and kept running back. I saw him some months later and he cried out ‘George! I thought they had killed you!’ I told him, ‘No, they’re not good enough!’”

While the dangers of the patrols were an accepted risk, dangers closer to camp were always unexpected. Nava said he felt, at all times, that he might not make it home again.

“I had some pretty close calls,” he said. “I used to have this little Vietnamese kid following me around and showing me where all the booby traps were. Once I went right by one and he started panicking and crying. He showed me where two grenades were that I had just barely missed setting off. These are the stories I don’t tell the family.”

After his discharge from the Army, Nava came back to Hollister and pursued an AA degree in Police Science at Gavilan College and worked in a boy’s school through the probation department. When the school closed, he went into construction.

For the last five years, he has been the commander of Hollister Veterans of Foreign Wars Post #9242 and regularly participates in local ceremonies honoring veterans.

But Nava is still fighting the war in a way: last September, he was diagnosed with cancer, caused by his exposure to Agent Orange, a herbicide made with dioxin and used to defoliate the jungles during the war.

“It turned up in my blood,” he said, “They did a bone exam to see what was going on. So now I take a chemo pill every night. I still have other medical issues from being in the jungle and they tried to get me to see a psychiatrist. I kind of dealt with it on my own and I tell others that you need to go forward. Leave everything behind you. That’s gone, that’s history. Just keep going forward.”  

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Robert Eliason

I got my start as a photographer when my dad stuck a camera in my hand on the evening of my First Grade Open House. He taught me to observe, empathize, then finally compose the shot.  The editors at BenitoLink first approached me as a photographer. They were the ones to encourage me to write stories about things that interest me, turning me into a reporter as well.  BenitoLink is a great creative family that cares deeply about the San Benito community and I have been pleased to be a part of it.