Nelson, Marjorie 4-14-1968.jpg

Dr. Marjorie Nelson, a Kokomo High School graduate, was released by the Viet Cong in Vietnam on March 31, 1968, after 57 days of captivity. She is pictured here talking with her father, Earl S. Nelson, on her return. According to the Tribune, she said her captors were invariably courteous, fed her well and discussed world politics with her. Kokomo Tribune file photo

Editor's note: Fifty years ago, the country was rocked by assassinations, wars, protests and so much more. The year 1968 was one of the most tumultuous years in the history of the United States. Over the course of 2018 the Tribune will look back at events that took place throughout 1968. On page A8 is a look at national and international events from '68; following is a story about a Kokomo doctor who was taken prisoner by the Vietcong in that fateful year and a story on other local news in the first quarter of the year.

“Open the door!”

Dr. Marjorie Nelson and her friend Sandra Johnson were crouched underneath a dining room table with sandbags around it. It was an improvised bomb shelter.

A group of Viet Cong soldiers started to shoot the lock off the kitchen door.

“Please, sir, what do you want?” Nelson asked in Vietnamese.

The men shooed them out onto the porch of the house in Hue, demanding to know if they had any "vu-khi" — machine guns.

About that time, they heard an incoming missile. Nelson bolted towards the bomb shelter and made it inside just as the missile hit the roof of the house.

“I yelled for Sandy. ‘I'm alright,’ she said, sounding very disgusted.”

A couple of days later, two soldiers came and took the pair to a nearby building the Viet Cong was occupying.

They became prisoners of war.

• • •

Nelson was not the typical 28-year-old woman from Kokomo.

As a child, she and her family attended Courtland Avenue Friends Church. One day, a missionary nurse came to speak to the congregation.

“I was very moved by her talk and in the worship that followed I experienced, what I now know as Presence of the Spirit, in the meeting. I thought it must have come from the missionary so I went up to talk to her,” Nelson said in a recent email correspondence with the Tribune. 

“She was talking to adult members but finally I was able to say to her, ‘I think God wants me to be a missionary nurse.’ She said something like, ‘Oh, that's good,’ and turned back to talk to the adults. Nonetheless, I stuck to that conviction.”

It was also in that church where Nelson met a missionary doctor and his wife, a nurse. At the end of the Sunday church service, the couple approached her.

“’Marjorie, we understand that you are thinking of becoming a missionary nurse.’  I nodded. ‘Well, we've been talking about that and think that you ought to consider becoming a doctor.’”

She looked at them, astonished.

“Can a woman become a doctor?” 

Nelson when on to graduate from the Indiana University School of Medicine in 1964 and completed an internship and residency at Pennsylvania Hospital, becoming a doctor in a field mostly filled with men. She felt that medicine was her calling, and sought for a way to blend her faith and work.

“Meanwhile, I was increasingly concerned about U.S. involvement in Vietnam,” she said. “Then I got a call from AFSC, ‘We are starting a medical program in Vietnam. Would you consider going to work in Vietnam?’”

It was an answer to her prayers.

• • •

It was 1967 when the American Friends Service Committee asked if she would like to work in a hospital in Quang Ngai, a city about 500 miles north of Saigon. AFSC was starting a rehabilitation program there for war-injured civilians. Nelson agreed to go for a two-year period.

Earl Nelson, her father, was quoted in the Tribune in 1968 saying his daughter went on the mission “to help the common people of Vietnam who are suffering through no fault of their own.”

While there, she worked in the rehab center, did rounds on several wards of the hospital and made weekly visits to the day care center for refugee children.

“It was depressing to see so many severe injuries from war,” Dr. Nelson said. “The worst was the burn ward — patients brought in with napalm burns especially.”

She also made weekly visits to the provincial prison, where many men and women were imprisoned for their political beliefs. While there, she arranged for pregnant women to deliver at the hospital and had all prisoners tested for tuberculosis. Nelson said there were a number of inmates with active TB, and she was able to persuade the prison director to house those patients separately to prevent the spread of the disease.

She went to visit a friend in Hue, a city 30 miles from the Vietnamese Demilitarized Zone, where the Viet Cong communist forces quickly captured her, her friend Sandra Johnson, and about 25 other Americans. It was the Tet Offensive, a coordinated series of North Vietnamese attacks on more than 100 cities and outposts in South Vietnam.

On Feb. 9, 1968, she was officially registered as a Prisoner of War, according to her journal.

“I was depressed, thinking of the experiences of Americans captured during the Korean War. I only found out later that the NLF and NVA expected this Tet Offensive would end the war in their favor almost immediately,” Nelson said.

They were taken with a number of Vietnamese prisoners into the mountains northwest of Hue. On the first day of walking into the mountains, she prayed.

“’God, did I mistake my calling to come and help injured civilians? What now?’” she recalled.

Then, on the side of the mountain path, she saw a white flower.

“I stopped and looked at it and my heart lifted,” she said.

Marjorie pointed out the flower to the man behind her. “Dep qua!” she said, meaning “so beautiful.”

“That opened a conversation. He started asking me about my work. Some days later, at the first camp Sandy and I were in, this man came by to see how we were doing. This was just one example of how many people we met were interested in us and concerned that we were OK,” Nelson said.

• • •

On March 31, 1968 — nearly two months after her capture — she was finally freed.

“All along I have had confidence and faith in Marjorie’s safety,” her father told the Tribune that month. “This faith was based on my knowledge of the image which Quakers have throughout the world — the image of wishing to help human beings no matter who they are. Quakers have a concern for all humanity, and for that reason, they seldom get into serious trouble.”

When she was released, the Viet Cong asked her, “If we release you, do you promise to go home?”

Yes, she said. However, they did not ask her to promise to never come back.

“I felt completely free to tell AFSC that I would finish the two-year commitment I had made to serve in Quang Ngai. So many Vietnamese whom I had worked with were so glad to see me when I got there,” she said.

“I came to realize after it all, that God had called me to both experiences: to help the war-injured civilians and to experience dialogue and friendship with ‘the enemy’ — to live in peace before there is peace.”

Nelson later returned to the United States and married Robert Perisho, a doctor of physics. Together, they moved to Salt Lake City, where he worked at the University of Utah and she became the medical Director of Planned Parenthood of Utah. They had a son before Robert’s untimely passing.

After his death, she and her son moved to Ohio, where she took a position at the Ohio University School of Osteopathic Medicine and taught there for 25 years.

Haley Church can be reached at 765-454-8580, or on Twitter @HaleyDrewChurch.

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Features Editor

Haley Cawthon is the features editor at the Kokomo Tribune.