"Sometimes, "says Jim Farley's brother, Dave, "Jim will be telling a story and he gets this look on his face like another idea has come into his head. He will be thinking about Vietnam, and he will pause. The story will cease for a moment, and then he will go on again."
When helicopter Yankee Papa 13, one of a squadron of 37 choppers transporting South Vietnamese troops, touched down in a remote landing zone southwest of Da Nang on the afternoon of March 31, 1965, North Vietnamese regulars and the Viet Cong were waiting. Their ambush began with a stream of machine-gun fire, and James Farley, the skinny 21-year-old crew chief-door gunner on Yankee Papa 13, watched, helpless, as the co-pilot of an already downed sister ship ran toward him. He knew the man, James Magel, from helicopter training school in California. Suddenly Magel went down, shot in the knees. Instinctively, Farley ran to his rescue, picked him up and carried him back to his own chopper. Magel was hit several more times as he was carried; later Farley would say, "He probably saved my life" by acting as a shield.
Back at the chopper Farley gently laid Magel down and turned around to go after the downed chopper's other pilot, who was wounded and pinned down in the cockpit. After frantically trying to rescue him, Farley had to give up because of the VC fire. He ran back to Yankee Papa 13 and the chopper took off and headed back to Da Nang. Magel died en route of chest wounds.
Photographer Larry Burrows followed Farley through the field of VC fire as he rescued Magel and attempted to save the other downed pilot. The picture Burrows shot later that day at crew headquarters in Da Nang (page 99) captured Farley's grief over the mission. Farley recalls purposely going to the back of a supply shed "because I didn't want the others to see me. I just broke down. It was too much of a shock in too short a period."
Farley continued flying combat missions for another eight months before his return to the United States. "When I got back from Vietnam I was very proud," he says. "But after a while I wouldn't talk about my experiences. It would almost always guarantee a fight."
The son of a World War II Army master sergeant who died in 1951, Farley joined the Marines fresh out of high school in Tucson because "they were supposed to be the toughest and the baddest. I was a 98-pound weakling who wanted to prove something to the world." He went to Vietnam in February 1965 thinking it was "a tiny little fight," but after one tour he was bitter. "The war was getting to be a joke," he says. "The generals weren't calling the shots. I couldn't see myself as anything other than a target."
Following his discharge in 1966, Farley enrolled in an elementary education program at the University of Arizona in Tucson, where he met and married Jane Bonner. Jim adopted her daughter, Carmen, from a previous marriage and in 1970 the couple had their own daughter, Lorie.
But Farley had trouble adjusting. "He was nervous as a cat on a slick rock," his uncle Walt Roberts remembers. "He couldn't concentrate on his studies and stay with it. I don't think Jim has ever recovered from Vietnam." Farley dropped out of school after three years and moved with Jane and the girls to Idaho, where she had relatives. "Then the marriage really fell apart," says Jane, who has since remarried. "Financially, it was a disaster. Jim became withdrawn and would just sit in front of the television. He would startle easily." Nightmares plagued him and a couple of times he blackened Jane's eye when he hit her during a dream. After disappearing for a two-week period, Farley returned and abused his wife. The marriage was over. "He didn't realize what he was doing," Jane says now. "He was like in a fog. I think it was because of Vietnam. It was not in his personality to be violent."
Farley remembers little of that incident, although he says he walked out of the house and onto the highway hoping he'd be hit by a truck. "I don't remember the rest," he says. "It's done and I don't want to remember it. It's like when someone is in a bad accident. I wouldn't doubt what they are saying. Their memories are better than mine."
After he and Jane split up, Farley drifted back to California and landed on an uncle's doorstep in San Leandro, just outside San Francisco. His uncle Wilburn Roberts put him to work in his hydraulic engineering firm. When his uncle died in 1978, Farley took over the business. It failed. But he tried again and, now 41 and about to be remarried, he is president of his own company, Applied Hydrostatics of Oakland, Calif. Farley employs seven people, including his younger brother, Dave, an ex-Marine. "When we talk about Vietnam," says Dave, "99 percent of the time we talk about the good stories and funny times, like when some Marines robbed the Air Force of a pallet of Budweisers. Rarely will we talk about the rough missions because we don't want to relive them." Jim plans to wed Mary Mallon, 28, next month. The couple will spend part of the year in her native Ireland. "Jim is more in touch with himself now and takes better care of himself," says Jane.
Farley is proud of having served in Vietnam but acknowledges the lingering effects of the war. "I can smell blood from far away," he says. "In Vietnam you learned to recognize it. I used to hose down the helicopter after it had been filled with blood."
On Newsstands Now
- Matthew McConaughey: The Time of My Life!
- 45 Pages of Oscar!
- The Pistorius Trial: Why Did He Kill Her?
Pick up your copy on newsstands
Click here for instant access to the Digital Magazine