Friends for life, family forever

NICK EICHER, HOST: Today is Tuesday, December 10th. Thank you for turning to WORLD Radio to help start your day. Good morning. I’m Nick Eicher.

MARY REICHARD, HOST: And I’m Mary Reichard. Coming next on The World and Everything in It: An unusual friendship.

Two Navy buddies: Jerry Zimmerman and Tom Nakamura. They first met when they were 17 years old—right after World War II. This past November, they got together with their families. WORLD Reporter Anna Johansen was there and brings our story.

ANNA JOHANSEN, REPORTER: How would you describe Tom Nakamura when you first met?

ZIMMERMAN: You wish you could be that calm, that smooth. You couldn’t, you couldn’t upset him if you tried. 

JOHANSEN: What was your first impression of Jerry Zimmerman?

NAKAMURA: Boy, he’s really tall. But then he had this easy going manner about him that kind of attracted me to him, you know?

ZIMMERMAN: There was an intensity. It was almost like a brotherhood. 

They’ve been friends for 72 years. Today, they’re meeting in person for probably the last time.

JAMIE: Hi, I’m Jamie and this is Charlotte. 

And their great-grandchildren are meeting for the first time. One-year-old Hank and one-year-old Charlotte.

JAMIE: Can you say hi, Mr. Zimmerman?

ZIMMERMAN: I didn’t think you’d be bringing the baby. I was hoping!

Right now, there are four generations in this room: it’s the legacy of a lifelong friendship.

Jerry Zimmerman and Tom Nakamura met in the Navy, right after World War Two ended. Zimmerman: Six-foot midwestern boy from Wisconsin. Nakamura: Japanese-American from a peach ranch in California. He spent three and a half years in an internment camp. And almost the minute he got out he enlisted. 

NAVY MUSIC AND RECRUITING AD: There are specialists in aerial photography, motion pictures, news photos of Navy events.

Zimmerman and Nakamura both landed in Pensacola, Florida, to get trained as aerial photographers.

ZIMMERMAN: I had never met a Japanese American before. I had never heard about internment camps until visiting with him.

NAKAMURA: I was Japanese American. You feel kind of a prejudice. But then when I met Jerry, he didn’t see me as Japanese or anything. He just saw me as a Navy buddy.

Nakamura says Zimmerman was his rescuer. When they’d go out on liberty, Nakamura would drink hard liquor. A lot of it. Then he’d wake up back at the barracks wondering, “How did I get here?” 

ZIMMERMAN: Yeah. Tom, Tom’s favorite words: “You’ll take care of me, won’t you Jerry?” I says, “I’ll take care of you.”

Neither one had any photography experience, so there was a steep learning curve. Zimmerman recalls what it was like taking surveillance pictures out of a plane. You’d pull back the canopy, stand up, and lean out over the side. 

ZIMMERMAN: I found out myself, you get off too far in the slipstream, you almost lose the camera, the warning was you better bring back the handles if you lose the camera. [laughter]

NAVY MUSIC AND RECRUITING AD: Out there, on every ocean of the earth, the Navy was ready to take us aboard. And now, we were ready to go.

One day, close to graduation, they all got blank white envelopes with their duty assignments inside. 

ZIMMERMAN: So we don’t know until we open up the envelopes where we are going and what our duty is going to be. 

But everyone knew that Tom Nakamura was the number one student in the class, so he should get the best assignment. Another buddy, Dick Weston, asked Nakamura to trade.

ZIMMERMAN: And Tom’s thinking about it. And I said, “Tom, don’t do it.” I said, “you got number one.” I says, “Dick knows what’s going on.” And “Oh no, no,” Dick says, “let’s just trade.” So they traded envelopes.

But this was right after World War Two. Zimmerman says many of the instructors served in the South Pacific. They fought the Japanese. So Tom Nakamura had been assigned to an island in the middle of nowhere. And Dick Weston had gotten a prime aircraft carrier. Of course, that was before they traded.  

NAKAMURA: [laughing] I says, “Oh, I’m glad we switched orders.” 

ZIMMERMAN: That was funny at the time, but it took me years to think this over, that…these instructors still had something inside them, a prejudice against the Japanese and they were punishing him for being a Japanese American by giving him the lowest, the worst envelope out of the whole deal.

When they both got out of the service in 1948, Nakamura moved to Chicago and Zimmerman back to the Milwaukee area. Every Christmas, Nakamura went to visit Zimmerman and his family. He’d always been a Buddhist, but he started to notice a difference in the way Zimmerman lived.

NAKAMURA: And then that’s when I found out about, what is this Christmas all about…It’s celebrating a birthday. I says, “whose birthday is it? Oh, Jesus Christ.” I said, Oh, “I used to swear that name all the time in the Navy.”

He became a Christian in 1950. And their friendship continued to thrive. When Zimmerman’s son was born, he named him Tom.

TOM ZIMMERMAN: It’s not Thomas, it’s Tom. 

That’s Tom Zimmerman.

TOM ZIMMERMAN: I’m named for Tom Nakamura. And it’s sunk in over the years, more and more of who he is and what that means. 

He says he could always ask his “Uncle Tom” anything about the Bible.

TOM ZIMMERMAN Over the years he’s been a go to a number of times when I’ve had a question about a topic like baptism or creation or those kinds of things. And I know I can just go to Uncle Tom because he’s thought deeply about all of them.

Today is probably the last time all four generations will be here together. Nakamura lives in California, and the cross-country trek isn’t easy. Both Zimmerman and Nakamura are 91 years old.

ZIMMERMAN: Yeah, the back is 24 hours pain, you know. 

NAKAMURA: Are you taking pain killers?

ZIMMERMAN: I say that I’m ready to go tonight and I pray with good reason to go tonight, but I always find one more reason that I’m happy I lived one more day. I wouldn’t have wanted to miss today. 

NAKAMURA: 72 years.

Zimmerman’s son Tom says he’s committed to continuing the friendship. He still keeps in touch with Nakamura’s daughters. He wants people to know that, even through war and internment camps and decades and distance—there came an enduring good, and a legacy that will span generations.

For WORLD Radio, I’m Anna Johansen reporting from Waukesha, Wisconsin.

(Photo/Zimmerman, Nakamura)

WORLD Radio transcripts are created on a rush deadline. This text may not be in its final form and may be updated or revised in the future. Accuracy and availability may vary. The authoritative record of WORLD Radio programming is the audio record.

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