By WENDELL NICHOLLS
As told to Mary Louis
I was born in Sonora, California. My family lived in Soulsbyville, just up the hill from Sonora. I lived there for the first 25 years of my life. My parents were Evelyn and Royal Nicholls. I had four siblings. Aileen, Ruth, and Francis were my natural sisters. My parents also took in a neighbor girl, Betty Burgess, and raised her as part of our family.
My upbringing played a large part in my future military life. Our home in Soulsbyville was next to the Methodist Church, which we all attended. My dad needed my help running errands and for that I needed a driver’s license. He asked the Captain of the Highway Patrol, who sang bass in the church choir with us, if I could get a driver’s license, so at age 14 I drove our 1927 Chevy to Sonora, parked at Mundorf’s Mercantile, and went to the CHP office in the back of the Sonora Inn to see the captain. He told me to drive around the block. When I did so, he came out, said he had seen me drive by, and had me sign a paper to receive my license in the mail. I drove trucks as well as the car for errands.
Dad drove the school bus from Soulsbyville to Sonora High School and he was also the maintenance man for the school. Then school then needed Dad full-time for the maintenance job, and asked me to drive the bus down from Soulsbyville in the morning and drive the kids back home in the afternoon. I was 17 and a junior in high school at the time. I was in the school band with a certain girl named Beatrice Poor who became my girlfriend and then, after the war, my wife. Because I was in the band, I had to drive the football team and band to all the games. The bus drivers were paid $65 per month as a flat fee.
After graduation, I worked at Opera Hall Garage on Washington Street in Sonora as a mechanic and then shop foreman. This was before my future brother-in-law, Robert (Bob) Rundle, married into the family, went to war, then worked there too.We followed the news of war in Europe carefully and knew that sooner or later America would be involved. My sister Ruth’s fiancé had been drafted in February of 1941 so I knew my time was coming.
My number came up in 1942. There were 25 draftees from Sonora, and I was put in charge of bus tickets and rounding up everyone. I was probably considered the most responsible because of my school bus driving and work history and, at 21, I was older than most of the others. Finally, we all boarded the bus and traveled to Monterey to report for duty at The Presidio. It was July 29, 1942.
I was assigned to the Third Army, 20th Corps, Headquarters Company, 171st Medical Battalion. We were sent to Camp Barkeley near Abilene in Western Texas, for basic training. I went on 25-mile hikes, marching drills, and drove jeeps and trucks. The boys from the Northeast did not know how to drive manual-shift vehicles so I was selected to do a lot of the driving since I had been driving stick shifts and large vehicles since I was 14.
After six months of boot camp, many of the soldiers were deployed to Europe. I was not so lucky. I had to endure two more years of the dry West Texas wind at the same base. Our unit would have done anything to escape West Texas. Every six months we had furlough for two weeks. That was a joke, because most of the leave time was spent on train travel to and from home. At least I was able to see Beatrice and my family a few times before being sent overseas.
Passage to England
In early March, 1944, we knew we were about to receive orders to move out because we were allowed a final furlough before deployment. From Camp Barkeley, we took a train to Camp Kilmer, New Jersey, just across the Hudson River from New York City. We were supposed to wait there for three days to leave on the Queen Elizabeth, a British ship, but we were there 18 days. En route to America, the reassigned liner encountered a fierce storm on the Atlantic, causing some major damage. When the repairs were completed, we sailed for Scotland.
The ports in southern England were under such heavy German fire that we had to land further north. The ship took seven days to cross the Atlantic Ocean in a zigzag pattern to avoid enemy bombings. We landed at Glasgow in early April, 1944 and took the train to Stone, in the English Midlands. A friend of mine from boot camp, Albert Smith (we called him Smitty) arrived in England before me. His unit was sent ahead to prepare the way for the incoming troops. He met me at the train and put me in the driver’s seat of a supply truck so I could learn how to drive on the “wrong” side of the road. The sergeants were surprised to see me already in the driver’s seat and wondered how I rated. Smitty knew that I could drive anything and under any conditions.
For a couple of weeks I drove a colonel around England to meetings and anywhere else he wanted to go. I had to sit in the jeep and wait for an hour or two at a time. I felt like a glorified chauffeur. I was so bored that I asked to be transferred to the supply company.
My best friend in the Army, John E. Maxwell, Jr. from Superior, Nebraska, was in the supply company and may have helped with my transfer to his company. We spent two months running around England picking up necessary supplies before heading south towards England’s coast. We knew D-Day was fast approaching.
The sky over South Hampton, England was humming with enemy aircraft shelling of Allied positions along the coast. We also heard our aircraft taking off to fly missions across the English Channel in France. Our tents were hidden in the trees for the three days we were there. We could hear the Allies landing at an airport just north of us. Of course, everything in South Hampton was blacked out at night due to the bombings. Some of the soldiers would go into town to soak up a little at the pubs. They could see the port full of ships and they heard all the stories buzzing. Yes, D-Day would definitely be soon.
Finally, 10 days after General Eisenhower embarked on the famous D-Day invasion on June 6, 1944, we left with our six jeeps and three trucks in a ship. I had to drive a wrecker truck that held parts, tools, and a crane on the back. The motor-pool Sergeant, “Sgt. Red,” rode with me.
All did not go smoothly in our crossing. Our takeoff was fine but we had to wait two days for our ship to land. The tide had to come in so the ramp could be put down and all the vehicles landed. Talk about feeling like a sitting duck! There we were, waiting and hoping no enemy aircraft would see us to blow us to pieces. There was bombing all around but our ship wasn’t hit. My company suffered no casualties.
When we finally landed at the Omaha beachhead in Normandy on June 27, 1944, we discovered that the Germans were retreating from the coast from the advancing Allied Forces. We moved inland to Saint-Lô, kept on the move, and finally rolled into Paris four months after our landing. It was Armistice Day, Nov. 11, 1944. There was a big parade in Paris to mark the liberation of France in WWI.
We headed east of Paris into what was called the “No Man’s Land of WWI” on the Brittany Peninsula. We had British forces to our north and American troops to our south. Patton was moving so fast that the forces were having trouble keeping up. My company’s gas was taken away to give to the companies of soldiers making the advance. Patton was trying to penetrate the Siegfried Line at the German border to surprise the Nazis.
We were stuck for awhile, and spent time scrounging around for gas. One night I was standing guard when there was loud artillery fire from tanks a mile up ahead. It scared the hell out of us.
I was outside the tent of the company commander, Lt. Colonel Garifalos Kapopoulos from Pennsylvania, when he said, “Guard, guard, what’s that noise?”
I replied, “I don’t know.”
“Well, when you find out, let me know,” he said, then rolled over and went back to sleep. That’s how “concerned” he was about the nearby shelling. I found out the next morning that the tank gunners thought they saw enemy coming across the field so they fired in that direction. It turned out not to be the enemy at all, but some animals.
Lt. Colonel Kapopoulos was not well liked. One day he called for an inspection. His orderly, “Tex,” reported without his dog tags.
“Why don’t you have your dog tags, soldier?” the Lt. Colonel barked.Tex answered, “They broke because I was digging your g-damned foxhole, Sir!”
The Lt. Colonel turned to the First Sergeant and said, “Instruct that man not to speak to me like that!”
[Even with a lack of gas, the Third Army forced the German line at Moselle River by first crossing Meurthe River and establishing a bridgehead across the Moselle. They arrived at the city of Metz, France, which was well defended by the Germans. They were forced into a “rest period” to build up supplies, ammunition, and winter clothing before attacking the city. General Patton declared, “The road home is through Metz.” It was the second week in November in 1944, and it was very cold. During the holding period, Patton met with General Eisenhower and General Montgomery from the English army. Finally Eisenhower gave Patton the green light to attack. On November 18, 1944, the Americans broke through the German defenses to surround Metz. Finally the Germans surrendered Metz. It was the first time that it was conquered by enemy forces since 451 A.D.]
The Germans waited until our medical corps arrived because they did not want to surrender to the fighting soldiers who preceded us. I did not see the surrender, but my friend Smitty did. He told me that the Germans came out of Metz in dress parade. Our medical battalion was stationed at Metz for about a month in November-December 1944.
[During the winter, rain made the roads muddy but the Third Army pressed onwards and established a bridgehead at the Saar River. Many of the soldiers developed “trench foot,” so Patton ordered foot care to reduce troop casualties. Patton was very goal directed. He wanted to punch through the Siegfried line into the coal mining region of Germany and keep moving until he took Berlin.]
[But Gen. Eisenhower stopped the Third Army’s forward progress. There was a problem with Gen. Hodges’ 1st Army’s battle to the north. Eisenhower placed the 1st and 9th US Armies from Gen. Bradley’s 12th Army Group with British Field Marshal Bernard Montgomery’s 21st Army.
The Germans attacked and surrounded Bastogne in Belgium. Their plan was to push towards Liege. Liege was key to the Allies because that is where they had supplies stored. The Allies could see that after Liege, the Germans would press on towards the port city of Antwerp.
Patton was ordered to turn his army 90 degrees and head north to attack the south flank of the German army in support of the 1st US Army and Montgomery’s British troops. Patton did as he was told. It only took three days for Patton’s men and artillery to be in position to engage the Germans surrounding Bastogne. This was the famous Battle of the Bulge, named for the “bulge” that Hitler’s Panzer Division made in the Allied defenses.
On December 26, 1944 the Third Army supporting the Fourth Armored Division Task Force started pushing the Germans back beyond the Siegfried Line for the last time. The effort to push back the enemy lasted into the third week of January, 1945.]
Battle of the Bulge
Our medical division was ordered north from Metz to tend to our soldiers engaged in the Battle of the Bulge. We left Metz and moved through Thionville, ultimately ending up in Luxembourg, Belgium, just south of where the intense fighting was occurring.
We took over the home of the Scheltz family in Esch, Luxembourg, which was a modern coal town. The home was three stories tall. The ground floor was for the family business, which had been a radio shop before the war. We occupied the second floor and the family took the third floor.
There were three girls in the family. The oldest was engaged to a Parliament representative. The middle daughter was engaged to a jeweler. The youngest girl was named Ann. All of us soldiers befriended the entire family. When the girls went downstairs, we were allowed to speak with them outside. I took Ann to see a movie, which she really enjoyed.
The home had been heated with coal, through a basement furnace. But coal was unavailable to the family since the beginning of the war four years earlier. There was a coal pit in town. I took a truck there and did some bargaining. Finally, I offered the yard manager a box of Spam for some coal. I returned to the Scheltz home and asked Ann to go get her father. When he came out I asked, “Where do you want me to dump this coal?” He was amazed and opened the coal chute in the sidewalk. They received an entire truckload of coal for the rest of the winter.
It was nearing Christmas, so some buddies and I went into the hills and cut down a tree for the family’s Christmas. Joyfully, the girls decorated the tree. We looked forward to spending Christmas with the family in a warm place. But Lt. Col. Kapopoulos had other plans. He had a girlfriend in a town that we had passed through en route to Esch. He wanted to spend Christmas with her. So he ordered us to depart the Scheltz home on Christmas Eve to go south. It was dark and rainy and we had to face the oncoming jeep and U.S. tank traffic headed north towards the Battle of the Bulge fighting. We were not happy with the Lt. Colonel. After Christmas we joined the rest of the Third Army pursuing the German army as they retreated through the Siegfried line.
[The Battle of the Bulge ended January 25, 1945. The Third Army kept pushing the enemy through Germany to the Rhine River.]
When we came to the Rhine River we discovered that it flowed south to north. The Army engineers had built a pontoon bridge to cross the Rhine. It caused me a little concern because all the jeeps, tanks, and trucks were crossing the mile-long bridge at the same time I was driving my wrecker truck. I hoped that the rubber that the pontoons were made out of would last, and not be shot at by enemy troops. But we made it across safely and moved into Friedburg, where we established a bridgehead.
We stayed in Friedburg for a week at the home of a nice lady, whose husband was a Nazi SS Trooper on the German front line towards Russia. Lt. Col. Kapopoulos befriended the woman and soon made her his girlfriend. Apparently, the woman’s husband was well paid because whenever he traveled he brought home expensive wine. Our soldiers discovered the wine cellar and “appropriated” some of the contents, hiding bottles in the parts bins in my truck. I was the only one with a key, so when the Lt. Colonel discovered some of the wine missing he could not find it.
Honorary tank drivers
There was a lot of traffic on the nearby autobahn, which was seriously pockmarked by German bombing. In order to proceed up the highway, the Army had to use tanks with caterpillar tracks on the road. Some tank operators allowed us to drive a tank, just to be able to say we had driven one. But the soldiers were not careful and parked a tank on some lady’s front lawn. With all the comings and goings of the soldiers on their joyrides, the lawn was soon torn up. The Lt. Colonel then ordered the tank to be parked off the lawn, but the damage had already been done.
We all thought we were headed for Berlin. In Friedburg I spoke with a German pilot who had been injured in the war (he lost a leg) and was then discharged from the German military service. He told me that it would be a very bad idea to let Russia take Berlin. But after a meeting with Eisenhower, Montgomery and Churchill, Patton was told not to go to Berlin because the Allies wanted Russia to occupy Berlin. The German pilot was concerned that Russia would stay in Berlin in retribution for what the Germans had done in Russia.
[On April 10, 1945 as the Third Army was headed for the Mulde River, Eisenhower again ordered Patton to stop. Patton wanted to reach Berlin before the Russians could claim it. He and Eisenhower argued. Patton, his troops and artillery were ordered to Austria. So in the end Patton lost his bid to continue towards Berlin. The 20th and 21st Corps trapped the Germans in the Hunsrück Mountains. Germany’s withdrawal quickly became a rout. In March 1945 the Germans were eventually trapped in the Wiesbaden and Bingen area. The Third Army’s final campaign was to cross the Danube River into Czechoslovakia and Austria. The Germans finally surrendered all of Germany on May 8, 1945. The official end of the war in Europe was May 9, 1945, VE Day.]
We moved into Austria. The Germans had already surrendered the area. It was kind of a vacation for us because it was so beautiful. We went into the foothills of the Alps and took over a big estate originally owned by a French Postmaster General.
The Germans took it over during the war as a location where their soldiers could make babies with beautiful girls to build up the Aryan race. After the Germans left, Lt. Colonel Kapopoulos loaded all 30 girls into ambulances and took them to local hospitals.We took over the whole estate. It was located in Gmunden on Traunsee Lake on the Traun River. We commandeered a motorboat for our leisure, but the boating excursions ended when we discovered the boat had been stolen.
Ebensee Prison Camp
Just four or five miles south of the estate in Gmunden was a German prison camp called Ebensee. The prisoners were dying at the rate of 100 per day from all the hard labor they were forced to do. The Germans were having them dig tunnels into the mountain in which the German engineers built a jet engine plant. The corpses were shoved into the furnaces.
When the town learned of the atrocity they demanded that the Germans bury the dead prisoners. The bodies were then brought outside the gates on carts, and the townspeople were forced to dig their graves alongside the road. When the mayor of the town saw what his people were being forced to do, he went home and shot himself.
The Americans liberated the camp, opened the gates and the German 10th Army surrendered on May 7, 1945. They came out and threw their weapons in the Allied trucks. I was not there to observe their surrender, but heard about it from Smitty, who was there. The prisoners came out of the gates looking like walking skeletons.
The far end of the estate where we were staying was near the prison camp. The day after the gates were opened, I was walking through the grounds and discovered four men hiding in the brush. They still feared the Germans. They spoke Polish amongst themselves.
I went to get a jeep driver from my outfit, Stanley Regiec, who was part Polish, and took him to the prisoners. We assured them they were safe. They were starving so Reg and I went to the estate kitchen for food for them. We had to take them light food at first so that their digestive systems could adjust. They had been surviving on watered-down bean soup, and had lost so much weight that they could not have hiked into the main part of the compound.
As they gained strength, we were able to feed them more and bring them out of their small camp in the shrubs. We gave them some of our used clothing; what they were wearing was just rags, and filthy. I remember two of the prisoners’ names. One was a Russian boy, 18 years old, named Russ. Another man we called “Oscar” was from Poland. The Nazis shot his wife, so he felt like he had nothing left to live for at home.
Oscar and I became friends. When Oscar put on an American Army shirt, he said, “Me, American soldat!” He couldn’t do enough for me. He felt like I was responsible for him being alive. So when I changed clothes in the evening when I was off duty, Oscar grabbed my uniform off my bed and took them into town to be cleaned and returned them freshly cleaned and pressed for me. He even hung them up.
After the former prisoners were healthy enough to travel, we took them to their embassy to arrange for the trip home. Of the four men we rescued, Oscar stayed the longest. We stayed six months after VE Day. When we were getting ready to leave, I took Oscar to the Polish embassy. He hugged me around my neck in almost a strangle hold.
Our trip home was not speedy. We drove the trucks through Germany to France and turned them in outside of Paris. Then we took a train to the coast of France, and from there, a ship back to the U.S. The crossing took 12 days. We landed in Camp Patrick Henry in Virginia. Then we flew to Camp Kilmer, New Jersey, where we stayed for a few days before flying to California by way of Georgia and Texas. We landed in Sacramento, again for refueling, then flew to Camp Beale, near where Travis Air Force Base is today. I was discharged there on Nov. 8, 1945. They gave me a “Ruptured Duck,” which was a cloth medal, and $100 in cash. The other $100 of my discharge money was mailed to my home.
My folks came to meet me at Camp Beale and saw me marching up the street with my unit. The parents brought my sisters, Betty, Beatrice, and some cousins—two cars of people. We stopped in Stockton on the way home to see cousins. Then we went on home to Soulsbyville.
On December 2, 1945, within a few weeks of my return, Beatrice and I were married. I took two months off and then went back to work at the Opera Hall Garage. Beatrice worked at the Purity Store in town with Ruth, my sister. Her earnings and my discharge money saw us through for my first two months home. Bea and I settled onto her father’s ranch, a wheat farm called “Lower Bear Creek Ranch.”
Beatrice and I had four children: Carolyn on Nov. 5, 1946; Dennis on June 26, 1948; Mike on Feb. 27, 1953; and Kurt on Nov. 11, 1957.
I continued working at the Opera Hall until after it sold and new owners took over. In fact, I stayed with the new employers when they moved the business up Mono Way near Sullivan Creek. The business became Mother Lode Motors. I worked there for another five years and retired around 1987.
My wife worked as a bus driver for the Jamestown school district. She had to drive students on field trips as far away as San Francisco, and wanted me to go with her. Then, she started to want me to relieve her when she became tired on the trips, so I got a school bus driver’s license. I ended up substituting for bus drivers in all of the surrounding school districts, too. So my retirement years were full. Not only was I driving school bus, but I was also taking care of the ranch after Bea’s father died. Then Bea developed Alzheimer’s disease, and I helped take care of her too. Bea passed away on Jan. 21, 2011.
Bea and I did have some time between my retirement and her passing to travel. We traveled with the SIRs (Sons in Retirement) group to Canada, England, Scotland, Florida and Nevada. We took several trips alone to nearby areas, too. We quit traveling when Bea’s disease became more advanced.
Like many soldiers, I regretted being torn away from my family and Beatrice. But we were able to correspond through letters back and forth. My letters home were censored. We were not supposed to take pictures, but I did sneak and take a whole album’s worth of pictures. I carried the film home with me. If I had mailed it with the letters, the pictures would have been confiscated and I would have faced discipline.
We had sufficient provisions even while I was overseas, except when we were in the eastern part of France and had to scrounge for gas. But we had plenty of food. In the combat zone and on the move, we had K-rations, which were large boxes full of canned food, which our cook prepared into fairly decent meals. When we were stopped we were able to eat local food so our meals did not become boring.
When we were in combat zones in France and Germany I did experience some stress. But when we reached Austria it was so beautiful, it was comparatively like a vacation. I did not use any good luck charms when we were in the combat zones. I just used my common sense to stay alive.
My medical corps was under fire when, before landing in Normandy, we were stalled in the English Channel by the tide. We had to keep dodging German fighter plane shelling.
The other close call was when we crossed the pontoon bridge at Friedburg, Germany. But we were behind Patton’s artillery and infantry, so the enemy was pretty much pushed back by the time we arrived for medical support and with supplies.I did have some leave time, especially in the States and England. But even when we were assigned to more active war zones, I always managed to have a little “play” time. Most of the soldiers smoked, talked, played cards and drank. But I enjoyed going off by myself to sightsee and take pictures. There were entertainers who visited. I saw Bob Hope twice, one time in Regensburg, Germany en route to Gmunden. I don’t remember where I was when I saw him the other time. Red Skelton also entertained us. Vaughn Monroe’s band played big band music for us, and in Paris we saw Glenn Miller’s band. Glenn Miller was lost at sea on the way to Paris; his plane was never found. But his “band played on.” The drummer, Ray McKinley, took over the band.
My position enabled me to travel quite a bit in Europe and England. I had to test jeeps. Sometimes higher-ranking personnel would ask me to put the “Road Test” sign on a jeep and drive them around to sightseeing points. I was always glad to oblige as long as I had my trusty camera.
When asked if I joined in on any pranks during the service, I remembered a huge stunt that my buddy Smitty and I pulled. After our battalion left Esch, I kept up correspondence with Ann. I learned that her next oldest sister was getting married, but they had no access to champagne for the wedding reception. We were in Germany at the time and I was able to find plenty of champagne in the wine country there.
When we were encamped, we had electricity courtesy of a generator. Smitty was in charge of the generator, and would always ask me to help whenever it broke down. He was in a different unit from mine but my lieutenant colonel approved my helping out.We torched the cylinder head gasket of the generator purposely and told Smitty’s Colonel Moore that we had to drive back along our route to obtain parts for it. The colonel gave permission, and Smitty and I drove night and day to reach Esch. We delivered the jeep load of champagne, but had to leave before the wedding so that we would remain in Col. Moore’s good graces.
Ann Scheltz and I kept up our correspondence for two years after the war was over. Finally Ann thought we should discontinue our letter writing when she fell in love with someone in Esch.
I have not joined any veterans’ organizations and we have had no formal reunions. But Bea and I traveled to Kalamazoo, Michigan to see Smitty. He and his family came out to visit my family for a week. As a graduation gift for my daughter Carolyn, I paid for her to visit Smitty’s family in Michigan so she could experience traveling on her own.
We also visited John Maxwell in Nebraska one time. He was just out of the hospital when we arrived, but we were able to meet his family. Several Army buddies have visited our home.
I think I am the same person now that I was before the war. It did not change me. I was just anxious to get the hell out of there and get home when my tour of duty was finished.
When asked what I thought about war, after having experienced it firsthand, I reiterated what William Tecumseh Sherman said: War is hell.