President John F. Kennedy’s 1963 Berlin speech about “all free men, wherever they live,” inspired Jessie Nickes to join the U.S. Navy — until he saw a Marine.
“When I saw him (the Marine), I went straight to him,” he said. “He was built like what you see.”
Nickes enlisted in the Marines in 1965, serving from March of that year to March 1969 and following in the footsteps of his father, James Earnest Nickes. The elder Nickes served as a Marine in the South Pacific at the Battle of Okinawa during World War II.
When Jessie told his mother, Katherine, that he was going to serve, she told him no.
“When I went to join the Marine Corps, I was a rebellious high school 12th-grader,” he said. “I was being a teenager. My mom threw a hissy.”
His dad heard the conversation from his chair in the living room, where he sat reading. He lowered the paper and said, “Katherine, that’s the smartest thing that boy has said in 15 years,” and went back to reading.
That comment ended the conversation and the debate.
The younger Nickes was sent to the Marine Corps Air Station in El Toro, located near Irvine, California, which was one of his two favorite places to be stationed during his four years in service.
“El Toro was fantastic,” he said. “To see all the different aircraft. We had a good duty station. I ate good. You had to follow orders. I know the discipline they give you.”
Nickes had two jobs: as a driver in a motor pool and a mechanic/jet fueler.
“We had first-class training,” he said.
He spent two years deployed to Vietnam, coming home just three weeks before the General Offensive and the Tet Offensive.
Serving with the other soldiers in his unit while in-country was what Nickes truly enjoyed about his years as a Marine.
“It was the most organized unit I served with,” he said. “They were good people and dedicated to their jobs.”
Their work moving people, supplies, and equipment earned them recommendations for unit citations. Nickes received the Good Conduct Medal, Vietnam Ribbons, and two Gold Stars from the Vietnam campaign.
He is proud to have served his country.
“If I had to do it all over again, I’d do the same thing,” he said. “I’d basically do it all again. … My family can go anywhere in the U.S. without permission. I have the freedom to choose my own job, my own lifestyle. I have the freedom to defend myself. And, I passed that to my children, just like my daddy passed it to me.”