Series of Fortunate Events Brings Two Vietnam Veteran Families Together After 40 Years

Vietnam veteran, Fred Niles has been reunited with the family of the man he still considers his best friend 40 years after he was killed while fighting next to him in combat.

Vietnam veteran, Fred Niles has been reunited with the family of the man he still considers his best friend 40 years after he was killed while fighting next to him in combat.

It's been 40 years since Kenny Joe Nolan died … 40 years since three young girls in Kentucky lost the only brother they ever had . . . and 40 years since Nolan's best friend, Fred Niles, set out to find them, hoping to tell them that Kenny Joe died a hero serving his country.

So it may have been just dumb luck, or it may have been fate, that a friend of Niles stopped in at Wild Bill’s Army Navy Surplus Store in Gatlinburg, Tenn., and happened upon a flier advertising a “Welcome Home Vietnam Era Veterans" event and parade scheduled to be held in London, Ky., on October 8.

The friend showed Niles the flier, and Niles, of Kingsport, Tenn., immediately recognized London as his war buddy's hometown.

And that set into motion an improbable and remarkable reunion that was four decades in the making -- and one that Nolan's sister, Nancy Malin, now 49-years old, says was nothing short of a miracle.

The series of fortunate events began by a chance happening in Dallas, Texas, where Buddy Butler, 34, from London, Ky., happened upon a Vietnam veteran at the airport and immediately felt the need to thank him for his service. “The Vietnam vet was speechless,” said Butler, an Iraq War veteran, who recalled that he had been given “a warm welcome home, unlike the one most Vietnam vets received.” 

Emotionally moved by the encounter, he said he dreamed up the veterans event in London to give Vietnam veterans recognition for their time served. A committee was formed, plans for the event were developed, and fliers were sent out.

One of them found its way to Wild Bill's Army Navy, and from there it found its way to Niles.

With the flier in his hand and hope in his heart, Niles called the number on the flier and “requested if there was any possibility that they could help find the family of Kenny Joe Nolan.”

The Nolan family had moved around a lot after Kenny’s death, which made them hard to find. But after an intensive search, Gil Russell, an employee of London's tourist bureau, found the sisters -- who weren't even aware of the event -- and put them in touch with Niles. 

“Sometimes we think that one person's efforts can’t make a difference, but this really snowballed — Buddy’s efforts, fliers, Fred seeing it, contacting everyone, getting everyone together-- it all started with one person.” Malin said.

Niles and Nolan's sisters decided to meet in London, and they later said their reunion brought closure to all of them.

Niles said the emotional meeting allowed him to move forward. “It’s a great way to heal. It’s the most healing thing I’ve ever done, locating the family of my best friend. It helps the family and it helps the men and women who served with the deceased,” he said.

“You think about someone carrying something for 40 years, the same amount of time our family had," Malin told "But before now, I didn’t realize the impact Kenny’s death had on his fellow soldiers. I think Fred felt a lot of guilt for surviving when my brother did not.” 

The Nolan family said they were especially thankful to Niles, because he cleared up the story of their brother’s death. They were originally told that he died as he got out of a helicopter, but Niles told a different tale of heroism.

“Kenny got hit in the chest by the propeller as he jumped from the copter, and Fred told us this didn’t slow him down. ‘He hit the ground running.’” Malin retold.

Niles said he, Nolan and six others, part of the 1/12 B Company, 4th Infantry Division of the U.S. Army, were pinned down in a ravine in Phu Bai in the Central Highlands of Vietnam for four days without food and water, receiving heavy fire from both sides.

Nolan was on as point man, he said, and took 20 rounds to the chest, killing him immediately. Niles was alongside him.

Niles also was shot -- eight times -- but he survived the ambush, as did only two others.

“It’s been a real relief to finally know what happened and to know that he had friends there like Fred,” Malin said.

Niles recalled “sharing a lot of close times” with his fellow soldiers, and that they became like brothers.

He told Nolan's family of the fun they had together, despite the circumstances they found themselves in.

He said he and Nolan met at Army basic training in Fort Polk, La., in the spring of 1970. “We became good friends in Fort Polk, and I would say we became very good friends, became best friends in Vietnam,” he said.

He told the Nolans of an encounter he recalled from the thick of the Vietnamese jungle.

He said one of the first warnings soldiers would give to new men in their company was, “Don’t mess with the monkeys!”

While on patrol one day, he said, they stopped to eat C-rations, when an orangutan came out from the bush. Nolan said the new guy had made the mistake of putting his rations down. “The orangutan beat him up as he tried to get his food back, and so we told him again, ‘You do not mess with the monkeys,’” And he laughed, recalling the moment.
“We were bonded always.” he said.

And now he shares the same unbreakable bond with Nolan's survivors.

“Kenny was like a brother to me, a brother in my heart and always will be.” Niles told

And just as Niles considered Nolan to be his brother, so now does Malin think of Niles. 

“Fred has become like the brother that I lost.” she said.

Niles gave his purple heart, bronze star, and his good conduct medal to Malin. She gave Niles a little Bible her brother had on him when he died. “There is some blood on the pages of the Bible,” Malin said.

They talk almost every day now, and Niles is planning to spend Thanksgiving with the Nolan family. 

“We have formed this really close friendship,” Malin said.

“It’s a weekend I’ll never forget. I’m still in awe.” Niles said.'s Meghan Baker contributed to this report.