Seaman Bob Nichols was about 100 feet away from the ceremony for the formal surrender of Japan in 1945.
NORTH ADAMS, Mass. — Simply put, Bob Nichols represents The Greatest Generation in admirable fashion. At 93 years of age, he is extremely kind, gracious, tremendously fit and carries himself with immense humility.
The World War II veteran served his country from 1944-1946 in the Navy aboard the USS Missouri in the South Pacific Theater.
Sent to basic training at Fort Sampson in New York, Seaman Nichols was sent to Newport, R.I., for further training and a "shakedown" cruise to Norfolk, Va., and then on to Trinidad. His brand-new ship was the BB-63 USS Missouri, which would go on to earn three battle stars for bombardments during the war. The "Might Mo" is now a museum near the sunken USS Arizona in Pearl Harbor.
"We were Task Force 38 and 58 and provided cover for the carriers, 2,700 men on board. I was a gunner on the starboard side of the ship. That's where all the action was," he remembered.
Nichols has a powerful memento from a kamikaze attack on his ship on April 11, 1945.
"That's part of his windshield (tiny remnants of blood are still visible) and fuselage," as he laid the pieces on a table. "Our ship saw a lot of action. We were constantly under attack, sometimes for 12 hours straight. ...
"The 5-inch guns would open up, then the 40s, when the 20s opened, you knew the kamikazes were almost on your ship."
He described the holidays as "kind of lonely. We had USO Shows, movies on the fantail of the ship. I saw Bob Hope perform. I was actually on leave in October of 1944 and got Bella Lugosi's (famous for his role portraying Dracula) autograph on a train. Still have it," he said proudly.
When asked about a mentor, Nichols without hesitation and admiringly said, "my brother-in-law Bruno. He was a motor machinist in the Seabees. Was the size of John Wayne. He was my godfather. We pulled into Guam and he came on the ship and said he heard we were sunk three times."
When asked if he as ever afraid during the constant attacks, he said, "not too afraid. I always knew my mates would protect me."
"We had life jackets that kept you afloat for 48 hours. After that you sunk. I didn't know that back then," he said with a laugh.
Nichols was on duty on Sept. 2, 1945, and about 100 feet from the signing of the Japanese surrender document on the Missouri.
"I saw all the dignitaries and officers filing in. General Wainwright really stood out. He carried himself very straight, dignified with class," he remembered.
Gen. Jonathan Wainwright spent three years in a Japanese prison camp in the Philippines after the fall of Corregidor.
The Missouri about to be hit by a kamikaze pilot. Nichols has debris from one of the planes that hit the battleship.
When asked what would have happened if he had seen an enemy plane after the surrender, he didn't hesitate a second, "I would have taken him out."
Giving a look that one remembers, he added, "We didn't trust'em one bit."
Despite being witness to such a historic event as the surrender ceremony, Nichols said, "I didn't really think much of it at the time. I just wanted to get home as fast as I could."
He believes there is only one other person still alive that served on his ship from WWII. "My pal, Ed Buffman ... lives in Pennsylvania," he said. "He was a gunner's mate, second class. I think we're the only one's left."
The "Mighty Mo" is now a museum near the USS Arizona memorial in Pearl Harbor and there are plans to commemorate the 75th anniversary of the surrender there next year.
Nichols summed up his service in this way: "we were luckier than most of them ... the Marines and Army with hand-to-hand combat ... the Air Force with all their bombing missions. I felt very fortunate," adding, "if I had to do it all over again, I would."
I had the honor of going on-field last month at the Boston College/Richmond football game with Nichols and several others including my daughter, Jessie, good friend Dennis St. Pierre and Red Sox Hall of Famer Rico Petrocelli as we held the American flag during the national anthem. To be able to witness Nichols holding the flag and singing the anthem was quite powerful.
Seamen Bob Nichols, thank you for your service to your great country.
Veteran Spotlight is a special column by Wayne Soares that will run twice a month. Soares will be in the Persian Gulf this week, entertaining the troops prior to the Thanksgiving holiday.
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