Life

“The First Time I Killed a Man, I Just Could Not Reconcile That in My Mind.”

Meet John Noble, 81, from Athens, Georgia.

John Noble in Vietnam, September 1972.
John Noble in Vietnam, September 1972.
The Noble family

Having met so many 80-plus-year-olds in possession of a bottomless well of stories and life advice, we present the series “Interview With an Old Person”—which is, well, exactly what it sounds like. To nominate yourself or an elderly person in your life, email humaninterest@slate.com.

Rachelle Hampton: How old are you?

John Noble: I’m 81, but I think age has nothing to do with years.

How old do you feel, then?

I feel very young, still. Old age seems to run in my family. I asked my 98-year old aunt about her age, and what that was like, and she said, “When you get to be my age, always think of the future. Don’t think of the past. And don’t even think of the present. As long as I am thinking of the future, and planning for tomorrow, I’m living. But some of my friends, they quit planning. That’s when you get old.”

What’s the best piece of advice you’ve ever received?

I’ve received a lot of good advice in my life. My mother told me to always do what you think is right. When you have trouble making a decision, it’s probably because you’re not following what you know is right. Follow your conscience.

What are some times in your life that you put that advice into practice?

I went to a very small high school, and then, my last two years of high school, I went to a military academy. That was a real good experience for me, and I learned a lot. Then I went to the Citadel, a very old Southern military academy. I learned a lot there about duty, honor, country. And I learned a lot about taking responsibility for your actions. In those days, the attrition was very, very high. Competition was keen, and I learned not to fear competition. When I graduated, I felt qualified to do anything I wanted to do.

I’m also a retired military officer, in Vietnam and the first Gulf War. And I learned a lot from the military too. I learned about diversity in the old military, when we still had the draft. I really believe in the draft the way it was run before President Johnson got involved. When I was young, you were drafted into the military, regardless of your background, your money, your parents, your ability, or whether you were a college graduate or a high school dropout. We were all in one platoon, 40-some odd men, and we weren’t gonna make it unless we all learned to work together.

I trained a company and took it to combat. It was so diverse, and yet in combat we were a unit. My friends who are still alive, we get together. They say that their best experience in life—and I have to agree—was Vietnam.

Really?

Oh, yeah. You can look back at Vietnam and nobody was supporting you. You had no support from home, no support from anyone. So we depended on each other. Even the news media were against you.

I loved my soldiers. And I trusted them. It had nothing to do with race, color, creed, or religion. They call it the bond of brothers. I can tell you it’s the greatest feeling I’ve ever had, being in combat with them and knowing that the guy behind me was covering me.

Your daughter told me that you were mayor of your town?

Yeah, in south Georgia. It was a small town—Rochelle. When I was graduating from the Citadel, I had been accepted to the University of Virginia [for graduate school]. But my mother died unexpectedly of a heart attack just before I graduated, and my father sort of had a breakdown.

So instead of going on to Virginia, I took over our family business. And I got more involved in the community, and some people asked me to run for the city council. So I was on the city council for one term, and then they asked me to run for mayor, so I did that. At the time, there was a lot of talk that I was the youngest mayor in the United States. I don’t know about that. But I was pretty young—about 23.

What advice would you give your younger self now?

That’s a tough question. I think about it all the time. I tell my kids, all five of them, that I think right now we need to have better-qualified people running for public office. I want all my kids and my grandchildren to be more involved in the community, offering themselves up for leadership. I’m proud of them, and I think they would do a good job. I’m worried about the future of the country. We’ve got to do better than we’re doing.

What was your favorite age?

When I met my wife. I was 30 or 31.

How did you meet?

My younger brother had gotten married while I was overseas. And I met his wife, and she said, “I’ve got a friend I would like you to meet.” Well, I had no desire whatsoever to meet a friend of my sister-in-law.

So over a year went by. I just kept making excuses. Then my sister-in-law invited Carole for dinner. And she invited me to come for dinner, but I didn’t know Carole was going to be there. And we met. And that was it. We’ve been married for 49 years.

john Noble with his wife, Carole, at their son’s wedding in 2010.
john Noble with his wife, Carole, at their son’s wedding in 2010.
The Noble Family

That’s beautiful. What are you most thankful for?

Oh heck, my family. I’m very proud of my children. I look at my grandchildren—my kids are wonderful parents and they’re working hard at it. But they have to work at it more than I think Carole and I did. Because they have to make time for what little time they have as a family together.

I mean, whenever I was in the States, we would all sit down for dinner at 6. And kids would talk about what they did in school that day. So there was always conversation at the table. We hardly have time for that anymore. Family is being robbed of that. I think we’ve got to do better.

What was the happiest day of your life?

Marrying my wife. I’ve had some happier, but they’re still with her: the first baby, grandchildren being born. Those are happy, happy moments. But they’re all related to when I met her.

What was the saddest day?

A lot of those. The first saddest day of my life was when my mother died.

And the first time I killed a man, I just could not reconcile that in my mind. I felt so responsible for killing him, and yet, I knew that he would’ve killed me. It still didn’t matter. That was a sad day. It took me a few days, and I don’t think I’ve ever really gotten over it. I have killed people since, in the military. You never really get over it.

Sometimes I think if there’s a God, maybe I’m going to hell. I took a life. If you’re in a plane and you bomb someone, you know, you don’t know you’re killing people. You’re separated from it. But when you actually do it with your hands, that’s … it’s not a pretty thing.

I loved my soldiers who were with me in Vietnam. A true brotherhood. And it hurt every time I lost one, or one was wounded. I lost one sergeant. I was fighting my way to get to him and he had died just as we broke through. That one hurt. He was a good man. I’m still in contact with his daughter, and I’ve tried to be a father to her. But you can’t, you know, but I’ve done my best. Her father was a good man. I could write a whole book about him.

Would you ever write a book?

I’m thinking about it. A lot of my soldiers want me to write about it—the unit I commanded in Vietnam before I got the Presidential Unit Citation, which I’m very proud of. So I’ve been in contact with those men. But they’re dying off. Vietnam veterans are dying off fast. I attribute that to the fact that they were never really respected. I noticed it myself when I came home.

John Noble with his family at Ocean Isle Beach, North Carolina, in 2018.
John Noble with his family at Ocean Isle Beach, North Carolina, in 2018.
The Noble family

Well, if you write it, I will read it. How would you say that you’re different from other people who are 81?

Well, I’m in good health. Sometimes I feel guilty I’m not suffering, you know?

One of my biggest problems right now is that my wife is diabetic and she’s had many problems, and I feel bad sometimes because I always feel good. I don’t ever get sick. I’m fit, and part of that is from being in the military, but a part of it is, I just happened to be from a family where everybody grows old. But the other thing is, I do live for tomorrow. Anything else?

No, those are all of my questions. Thank you so much.

OK, well good luck to you. My last bit of advice: I do advise you to get married. For a man and a woman to have children together—that is so great, Rachelle. It’s so great. It’s … it is one of the proudest moments of my life.

And when you pick that child up, my goodness, I cannot describe to you the feelings that go through you. I looked at my wife, and I cannot describe the … I mean, I loved her. It just overwhelmed me. But find the right person. People will always say, you will know when it’s the right one. I knew. So don’t get in a hurry. Take your time, and pick the right person.