Freedom is Life: Remembering one of Fairchild’s Favored Few

  • Published
  • By Rebekah B. Horton
  • Fairchild Air Force Base

James Yoshikazu Nagahiro was born in 1932 in Honolulu, Hawaii. He attended Mid-Pacific Institute and after two years at the University of Hawaii, he enlisted in the U.S. Air Force and was selected for the Aviation Cadet Program in 1953. Nagahiro served as B-52 pilot and instructor pilot with the 325th Bomb Squadron at Fairchild AFB, Washington, from August 1971 until he was forced to eject over North Vietnam and was taken as a Prisoner of War.

In 1972 America was in its seventh year of war against North Vietnam. President Richard Nixon called on the USAF in December to implement a new war strategy that came to be known as Operation LINEBACKER II. The operation employed U.S. air power to strategically bomb major enemy targets like radio stations, railroads, power plants, and airfields in Hanoi and Haiphong, Vietnam.

On Dec. 21, Nagahiro was making his second run through the North Vietnamese boarders amidst a swarm of surface-to-air missiles and Russian-built fighter aircraft. His crew was on its first mission to Hanoi. Serving as one of several bombers from Fairchild AFB deployed to Anderson AFB, Guam, they flew a modified B-52G model (58- 0198) under the call sign Olive-1.

During the predawn raid on a target near Hanoi, the six-member crew from the 92d Bombardment Wing and a staff officer, from the 72d Strategic Wing, completed its bomb run and began the departure turn. Just into the turn, the plane was struck by “one, maybe two,” SAMs.

For eyewitnesses in the following aircraft, the scenario was brief and grim: “an instantaneous fireball resulted…no parachutes were seen; no voice transmissions were heard.”

The crew was listed as missing in action and the report relayed to Fairchild stated to notify next of kin. In reality, Capt. Lynn Beens was the first from the group to eject. He remembered seeing Maj. Edward Johnson “ready to do the same on his way out.”

At this time, Olive-1 was in a nose-down, high-speed dive. Only two crewmen showed up later, Lt Col James Nagahiro and Lt Col Keith Heggen. Heggen was captured alive but died in captivity. Nagahiro later stated that he saw Donovan Walters eject from the plane and heard four others, Lynn, Bebus, Heggen, and Beens, go out from behind him.

Beens reported that he saw Walter's identification card in a stack of cards on a desk at Hoa Lo prison in Hanoi. Even still, Nagahiro reported seeing Johnson's name written on a pad at the prison.

Following the cease-fire, both Nagahiro and Beens were listed as POWs and programmed for repatriation by North Vietnam. There were 555 names on that list and 318 were USAF personnel. Nagahiro and Beens were returned to U.S. official control on March 23, 1973.

Both left Clark AFB in the Philippines on March 31 for hospitals in the states. Capt Beens went to March AFB for his medical examination and debriefing. Lt Col Nagahiro was briefly hospitalized to recover from his injuries at Travis AFB, California.

In Nagahiro’s debriefing report, he stated that after he gave the order to bail out he waited for his crew to eject. As he bailed out he lost his oxygen mask and passed out during the descent. He woke up in a rice field surrounded by civilians ready to take his life. Until they were dispersed by a platoon of military soldiers.

His report stated, “I never thought I would be glad to see a North Vietnamese uniform.”

When questioned about how being a POW might have changed his outlook on life, Nagahiro said, “Sitting there in a stone cage makes a man think. There was a message written on the cell wall that said what I think every POW feels: ‘Freedom has a taste to those who have fought and nearly died for it, and those who are free shall never know it. Life is beautiful.’ I can’t say in words exactly what personal freedom means. Having it taken away makes you realize that it is the most valuable possession one has…Freedom is life.”

Upon returning to Fairchild, Nagahiro received a hero’s welcome and he was waiting on the flight line at Spokane International Airport to welcome home Beens.

Nagahiro went on to receive an Air Force Institute of Technology assignment to complete his bachelor's degree at Gonzaga University in Spokane, Washington, from September 1973 to July 1976.

His next assignment was as Chief of the Commodities Division at Warner Robins Air Logistics Center, Robins AFB, Georgia, from July 1976 to May 1979, followed by service as Chief of the Commodities Division in the Directorate of Contracting and Manufacturing with the Sacramento Air Logistics Center at McClellan AFB, California, from June 1979 until he retired from the Air Force on December 1, 1982.

James Nagahiro retired from the United States Air Force as a Colonel. Nagahiro and his wife, Alice, resided in California until his death on 23 Oct 2018. For the fate of missing crewmen Capt. Donovan Walters, Airman 1st Class Charles Bebus, and Maj. Johnson, closure did not come until 1988 when the remains of six Air Force servicemen killed in Vietnam were identified and repatriated.

Olive 1 was the only combat loss of a Fairchild B-52 recorded during the Vietnam War.

Today the crew is represented in Memorial Grove through a tree planted by the family of Captain Donovan K. Walters and serves to remind visitors of those who are still unaccounted for.