|8/14/2019 2:54:00 PM|
|Dean M. Laux|
An angel on his shoulder
At age 96, Englewood’s Arthur Nicholas is one of a dwindling number of survivors of the “Greatest Generation” that endured the travails of the Great Depression and the even greater hardships of World War II. He could easily have been dead at age 20—or anytime in the next two or three years. But he believes he survived by virtue of doing his job and maybe getting a little help from above.
Art was the second of four boys born to John Nicholas, a Greek immigrant who served in World War I, then settled in Lansing, Michigan and opened a barber shop there. Art was six years old when the stock market crashed, and he went through grade school and Lansing Central High School while the Depression worsened and the winds of war began to threaten our country.
“When I graduated from high school in June of 1941, I went straight to the Navy recruiting station,” he says. “I was always interested in the Navy. I didn’t really give any thought to the possibility of war at that time.” He was sent to boot camp at the Great Lakes Naval Training Station, then took a 6-week training course, learning to become a machinist’s mate, and was subsequently shipped to Norfolk, Virginia in early 1942 as a Seaman 1st Class. He volunteered for the amphibious forces and was sent to North Africa to take part in Operation Torch, the Allied invasion of that continent. He was part of a team aboard a merchant marine cargo vessel that searched out the best landing spots ahead of the landing in Oran, Algeria and two other sites. German U-boats were a menace to the ships unloading troops and supplies, and Art’s task force suffered some damage to its fleet trying to land in shallow water. Fortunately, the Vichy French forces defending Oran, nominally allies of the Germans, offered little resistance to the American and British forces, and Art came through the action unscathed.
At the end of his tour in North Africa in December 1942, he decided to volunteer for the “scouts and raiders,” an underwater demolition team that was the forerunner of the famed U.S. Navy SEALs. Their rigorous training took place in secret in Ft. Pierce, Florida. It was there that Boatswain 2nd Class Nicholas was one of 16 men recruited to undertake a secret mission off of the island of Bimini. Its objective: Capture City Hall in downtown Ft. Lauderdale. Captain John Bell, the man in charge of the S&R operation, had repeatedly warned Naval Command that Florida’s east coast was at risk of being invaded by the Germans, but his concerns were not taken seriously by the higher-ups. “So Captain Bell assigned 16 of us to a special mission,” Art recalls. “We were dressed in dark coveralls and coated our faces with carbon black for a night attack. We were sent by boat from Bimini, rowed ashore in four rubber rafts, landed and deflated our boats and buried them. We then found our way from the beach to the city late at night and commandeered a couple of buses.” They assured the frightened passengers that they were safe and that this was a special mission of the U.S. Navy. They reached City Hall, planted some smoke bombs early in the morning and, indeed, took over the command post of the city. Captain Bell had made his point.
This mission was no joke. The S&R team had to cross shark-infested waters to get to shore at night. German U-boats were known to operate along the Florida coast, and the men could conceivably have been attacked by one. When they landed, they could very easily have been fired at by any Coast Guard or other military personnel who might spot them. When they commandeered the buses, one or more of the riders could have attacked them. When they took command of City Hall, they could have been shot at by the police or National Guard personnel. But none of that happened, and for the second time Art survived being put in harm’s way.
But Boatswain Nicholas was ready for some real action. He recalls saying, “I want out of here,” and he got his wish. In the fall of 1943 he was aboard LST-52 in a convoy that crossed the U-boat-infested Atlantic waters by way of Halifax and on to the port of Southampton in southern England. There they would train for the invasion of France. “We lost a couple of ships along the way,” Art remembers, “but the trip across was pretty uneventful.” On the other hand, the stay in English waters would become all too eventful. Now a Boatswain 1st Class, in April of 1944 he and LST-52 took part in Operation Tiger, a large-scale rehearsal in Slapton Sands for the D-Day attack to come on June 6 in Normandy. Nine high-speed German torpedo boats intercepted a convoy of Allied ships as they were getting into position for the exercise near Lyme Bay. The torpedo boats sank two LSTs and damaged two others. The American and British boats returned fire, but due to communications foul-ups, several other Allied boats were damaged by friendly fire. All told, 749 U.S. servicemen died and another 2,000 were injured in the action. It was Boatswain Nicholas’s good fortune that he was not one of them. The catastrophe almost delayed the Normandy invasion, and it did give the Germans evidence that the invasion might come in Normandy, because its terrain was similar to Slapton Sands.
The D-Day landings in Normandy were targeted for five beaches: Utah, Omaha, Gold, Juno and Sword. The landings were preceded by the dropping of 24,000 U.S. British and Canadian airborne troops behind the enemy lines. From the sea, troops, tanks and supplies were to be brought in from the LSTs to gain footholds on the beaches. LST-52 dropped its tanks at Gold beach. “My job, as a demolition expert, was to eliminate any obstacles in our way,” says Art. He went in ahead of the tanks, and from a mustering station he searched out and dynamited whatever he could find: railroad ties, fencing, sandpiles, concrete blocks, whatever. Oddly, he had been trained for underwater demolition but had never once used that special skill. Instead, here he was doing demolition work on land in the face of enemy fire. The five beaches were very wide, perhaps a hundred yards or more, and the troops coming in were sitting ducks for enemy fire from pillboxes and dug-in positions. As soldiers were injured, Art and his cohorts were assigned to carry the injured on stretchers back out to the landing craft for return to the LSTs waiting offshore and thence to hospitals in England. He made many such trips, returning again and again over a period of two or three weeks as the footholds were secured.
Art saw duty on Gold, Juno and Omaha beaches without injury. “You didn’t think about dying. You just did your job,” he recalls. “And I was lucky. I think maybe there was an angel on my shoulder, guiding me through all of this.”
But the angel jumped off during his last trip back to Omaha beach. His LST struck another one at night in the Channel. The collision caused severe damage to the two ships, and as Art raced along the deck to assess the damage, he tripped over a loose anti-aircraft shell, causing it to explode and send shrapnel in every direction. His face was badly injured, and he was brought to a hospital in Osborne, on the Isle of Wight. About a month later, he had recovered enough to be assigned to a post at the Naval Supply Depot in Weymouth.
It was in Weymouth that Art met his future wife, Hazel. They became engaged before he was sent back to the U.S. and honorably discharged from the U.S. Navy. He went back to Lansing, and 18 months later the couple became man and wife. Their marriage is now in its 73rd year.
Art’s good fortune carried over into his personal life after the war. He went to work for Stone Container Corporation in their South Bend, Indiana plant, starting as a salesman and working his way up to General Manager. “After working for them for so long, I decided that I should be able to do the same thing for myself,” he says. In 1975 he started from scratch, buying an empty building and borrowing some money from a local bank. With that money he bought some used machinery from an acquaintance at what turned out to be very favorable pricing. “I made out like a bandit on that deal,” he confesses. His little company, Corrugated Paper Products, Inc., grew to be the largest independent paper products manufacturer in the state of Indiana. When he sold out in 1993, the company had 135 employees and sales of $22 million.
Art has been back to Normandy since the war’s end. In 2009, he and Hazel visited all five beaches with their two daughters, and they were warmly received by the people of Normandy, who were uniformly appreciative of what Art and his countrymen did for them. In 2016 the French government returned the favor by visiting Arthur in Englewood and awarding him the Legion of Honor Medal, in recognition of his exceptional service to France. That’s the highest award that France can give to a foreign citizen.
When Tom Brokaw brought the term “The Greatest Generation” into common usage in his book by the same name, he argued that the men and women of that era scrabbled and fought not for personal gain, but because “it was the right thing to do.” Many gave their lives, and some were lucky enough to survive. Art Nicholas was one of them, and he freely credits that angel on his shoulder for giving him a helping hand.
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