World Warrior: D-Day veteran recalls role in historic mission

Walter Nichols sat in a straight-backed chair with his back to the sun, looking at a handwritten, framed letter which lay in his hands.
The letter was given to him moments before by his friend, Phillip Martin, and on it were heartfelt words of thanks. The words were written by David Eisenhower who penned the letter, which is also signed by his wife, Julie Nixon Eisenhower, after Martin told them the story of Nichols’ service in World War II while on a recent trip to Normandy.
Nichols softly laid the letter aside and picked up a bound volume from the table before him.
“This is the story of the Ninth Infantry Division,” he said. “I was not with the Ninth Infantry Division the first 96 pages of this book, but I was with it all the time during World War II. It’s called Eight Stars to Victory.”
Each page Nichols flipped seemed to trigger another memory. When he looked up from the book and began to tell his story, several key events in the second world war seemed to come alive again in the mind of a man who lived them.
“Six days after I was discharged from the (Civilian Conservation Corps in 1940), I registered for the draft. I got in the car, drove to Enterprise and joined the National Guard in official record on the 10th day of October,” Nichols said. “On the 25th day of November, the National Guard was federalized and I became a regular Army soldier.”
The Army sent Nichols to Camp Blanding, Fla., and on to Louisiana for maneuvers.
While on the way the unit stopped in Enterprise and Andalusia, where Nichols life was changed.
“A friend of mine wanted me to go with him. His girlfriend was going to come over to Andalusia and pick him up,” he said. “She was going to bring another girl with her and he wanted me to go with him. I said, ‘No way I’m going on a blind date.'”
The friend insisted, and eventually succeeded in persuading him to come along.
“He kept on and I said, ‘Well, when we get there we’re going to have a street dance out there and if I don’t like her I’ll get lost in that street dance,'” he said with a laugh. “Sixty-six years later we are still together.”
Six months after the unit was sent to Texas, Nichols applied for Officer Candidate School and was accepted.
“I went to OCS and I finished the 28th of October, 1942,” he said. “In February of 1943 I was in North Africa.”
Part of the first group of replacement troops after the Ninth Infantry Division landed in North Africa, it wasn’t long before Nichols experienced the war’s fury firsthand.
“It was quite a coincidence, too, that on the 23rd day of March in 1943, I saw my first action,” Nichols said. “The 23rd day of March is my birthday.  That was the Battle of El Guettar.”
During the battle Nichols said the unit shot down a German plane, which allowed the soldiers to move more freely.
“Everybody would holler, ‘Air raid,’ and everybody would jump in a foxhole. That wasn’t the only foxhole,” he said. “There were a lot of foxholes all the way across. War is not a fun thing. Man is just made, I guess, to accept war and all.”
Following the Tunisia campaign, the Ninth Infantry Division was sent to Sicily, Italy.
As we were going around the west coast, we would come into little towns where the people had their warehouses locked up,” Nichols said. “They had (only) so much, just enough to survive, really, because the warehouses were for the soldiers and the armies. The government did not give much to the people.”
Allied forces took Sicily in August, 1943, and Nichols said something special was taking place at the time of the surrender.
“The fumes and rock were blown out of Mount Etna. We were at the base of Mount Etna at the time, and it looked just like they were celebrating the surrender,” he said. “The fire was going out. The lava just did roll over the top. Never did any lava come down where any of the troops were. Things of that nature, it’s something you can’t imagine happening.”
The division was sent from Italy to England, and arrived on Thanksgiving Day. Nichols was stationed at Barton Stacey near Winchester, and took a weekend trip to London. When he returned he was soon sent back, this time with instructions to report for an interview.
“I didn’t know what to carry. I got my regular toothbrush and razor, went up there and caught the train out of Andover back to London,” Nichols said. “Finding my way through all that I found where I was going. First off, they wanted me to say that I would go.”
When he asked what the mission would entail, Nichols was told he would know nothing until he volunteered.
“After just two minutes of hesitation, I was suspicious and wanted to know what it was and I volunteered. This was the job,” he said. “I had a top-secret krypto clearance, which is about the highest you can get into there. I was in communications. Whenever I finished OCS I was the only one in the class who got the communications (Military Occupational Specialty).”
Before long he and an operator found themselves inside a war room, in the midst of a mission.
“After that we would go down to the war room and study anywhere from 14 to 18 hours a day. We had guards go with us to eat. They’d go with us to the war room,” Nichols said. “They could not go into the war room. Whenever we wanted to go back to our quarters we had to call them and they’d come and escort us back. This went on for some time.”
The mission was made clear to Nichols, and it was one of the most recognized in American history. Inside the war room, he had studied and memorized plans for the Allied invasion of Normandy.
“My activity during the invasion was ship-to-shore fire control. I was in charge of firing two battleships and two destroyers,” Nichols said. ” I did have communications with the battleship Texas, which was the command battleship that was in that particular area. I was a member of a two-man group. (There were) six groups, and we all had separate missions. We worked together. That was our biggest job, memorizing our radio frequencies, passwords and countersigns. We could not have a pencil or a piece of paper of any kind on us at any time.”
The date of the invasion was set for June 6, 1944, a day which has since become known as D-Day.
The days before D-Day were a trying time in the United States, as the country, and those who loved its soldiers, prepared themselves for the event.
“I remember it being a terrible time here. We knew there was going to be an invasion, and we knew it was going to be dreadful,” Nichols’ wife, Tula, said. “Everybody just walked around in a daze. The chapels were open for you to go in and pray.”
In the midst of the conflict, those on the homefront felt the effects of the war daily.
“We had blackouts at night. You were supposed to cover up your windows and those kinds of things. People were afraid somebody would come over here and bomb us,” Martin said. “I was a child, but I remember that. Things were rationed. There were certain things that were limited.”
The hours before Allied troops landed on Normandy’s beaches dwindled, and Nichols found himself in a plane and wearing a parachute next to his radio operator, Spc. Scully.
The two men jumped under the cover of the early-morning darkness, and landed in a field inland of Utah Beach at about 3:30 a.m., just before daylight.
The men oriented themselves using a sign, which read “Sainte-Mère-Église.”
“After we landed we carried out our mission. Several of the things that happened were not spectacular or anything,” Nichols said. “We had a few close calls.”
Troops began arriving on Normandy’s shores a short time later, but an unexpected obstacle unseen in the war room awaited.
“The bombers would go over in the night, and the reconnaissance would come in and take pictures. Then they’d come down to the war room and pick out a certain apple tree that was no longer there,” Nichols said. “But the main thing is they couldn’t see that wire they had strung along in those orchards. That’s what crippled the gliders so whenever they came in. They hit those wires, and they just tore them apart.”
Despite what Hollywood may portray, Nichols said there is nothing romantic about war.
“They might say it to make you feel better, but it wasn’t about sweethearts and wives back home once it started there. It was looking out for self and the soldiers who were there. You weren’t worried about whether the colonel wasn’t going to like what you didn’t do or anything like that,” he said. “The awards I did get, I didn’t do anything especially to get the award. I did it as something that had to be done, and I was able to do it. That was the only thing I could do. I never felt like I was scared enough there. I ran, but I ran to protect myself or to get to a better position to carry out the mission I was given.”
The Ninth Infantry Division arrived at Utah Beach four days after the initial invasion, as Nichols was preparing to return to England. He stayed with the troops in Normandy, and the division cut the peninsula and helped take the port of Cherbourg.
It  was moving on toward St. Lo when Nichols found himself in the middle of a German counterattack.
“A shell burst pretty close to where we were, and I got spatterings of fragmentations in my hip and leg,” he said. “I continued on calling for fire, and we counterattacked them and drove them out. We cleared the way for St. Lo.”
Nichols received the Silver Star Medal and a Purple Heart for his role in halting the counterattack.
He was one of the first in his unit to return home based on service points.
“I was one of the first ones who came back out of my unit,” Nichols said. “We were supposed to have 85 points to be considered to come back and I had 185 points.”
Nichols was married soon after he returned, and got out of the service for five years until he was called back to serve in the Korean War.
He received many medals and decorations for his valiant service, including the Legion of Honor given by the French government in 2004 during the 60th D-Day anniversary celebration.
Nichols was one of just 100 flown to Paris to receive the medal during the festivities. He and his family met former President George W. Bush and former French President Jacques Chirac at the ceremony.
The next day, he returned to Utah Beach.
“We went down by an ivy, moss-covered wall, a stone wall there, and it clicked in my mind there was something familiar about that,” Nichols said. “We went down to the beach and looked around at some of the pillboxes there.”
Once the trip to the beach was over Nichols insisted they return the way they’d gone, because he thought he’d seen something special outside Sainte-Mère-Église. Something he’d seen early in the morning 60 years before.
“We went back and I found the sign,” he said. “I was so overcome at that particular time I didn’t even let them get out of the car to let them take a picture there.”
With a smile on his face, Nichols picked up the letter once again.
“I’ve had a lot of memories and things, and I’m thankful I can recall a lot of that,” he said. “I appreciate the people who are interested in it. It’s not interested in me, it’s showing an interest in what America will do to get the job done.”
The Eisenhowers’ letter seemed a proud tribute to a true hero whose words echo his service and sacrifice each time he tells his remarkable story of America’s greatest generation.

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