William Warren Nichols

Copyright 2005 * All rights reserved
J.C. (Jim) Tumblin, OD, DOS
3604 Kesterwood Drive, East
Knoxville, Tennessee 37918-2557
(865) 687-1948

Fountain Citians Who Made A Difference

William Warren Nichols

(1917-1985)

Sixty-one years ago, December 19, 1944, one of Central High School Principal Hassie K. Greshamís "boys" performed heroically at the Battle of the Bulge.

Although he was in the Honor Society, on the Centralite Staff, had a role in the Senior Play and played solo cornet in Director M.J. Morisonís band, his four years at Central High School did not seem that much different from those of the thousands of students Miss Gresham would influence during her 28 years as principal (1919-1947).

But William Warren Nichols was different than most. He would serve with distinction in World War II in the U.S. Army Corps of Combat Engineers and would win the Bronze Star for his heroism in the Battle of the Bulge and the Oak Leaf Cluster for subsequent meritorious service at the Crossing of the Rhine.

Warren, as his classmates knew him, was born on October 8, 1917, the only child of Clyde L. Nichols (1894-1939) and Lela Carpenter Nichols (1897-1977). The family home was at 603 Fair Drive. He attended Fountain City Grammar School and graduated from Central High School in 1936.

Warrenís father was the service manager at Model Motors and Garage, distributor for Packard automobiles, at 1700 West Cumberland in the U.T. area. Returning from a distributorís meeting at the Packard Plant, Clyde suffered a stroke in Millertown, Ohio. He seemed to be recovering, but passed away suddenly on February 12, 1939. Warrenís mother, Lela, continued to work as a cashier at S.H. George and Sons Department Store.

After graduating from U.T. with a degree in Engineering, Warren was employed at Ira Watson Co. He entered the Army in May, 1943, and was assigned to Camp Lee, Virginia, then to Ft. Knox, Kentucky and finally to Ft. Belvoir, Virginia for combat engineer training. He was then permanently assigned to the 159th Engineer Combat Battalion and embarked for Europe on June 27, 1944, on the largest of the troopships, the West Point. His unit disembarked near Glasgow on July 5 and by July 19 (D-Day + 43) had landed on Utah Beach in Normandy.

It was the worst of times. Civilization as we know it was threatened. However, after many months of preparation, Allied forces had invaded the continent of Europe on D-Day, June 6, 1944. The 5000 ship armada, the largest ever assembled, crossed the English Channel carrying 156,000 troops. The 14,000 aircraft supporting them outnumbered the German Luftwaffe 30 to 1. The shore and air bombardment on that day was equivalent in weight to the total delivered at Verdun in World War I, the largest battle of that war.

Despite the technical inferiority imposed on them, the Germans succeeded in causing a near-disaster on the Allies on D-Day. By July, the Allies had suffered almost unbearable casualties--the American Army alone had suffered 100,000 casualties, 85 percent of them among the infantry. Although stiff resistance occurred at almost all of the thousands of hedgerows they seized, the massed Allied armies raced north and east through Belgium and northern France and liberated Paris on August 25.

Hitler had survived an assassination attempt on July 20 and on the Eastern Front the Russians had mauled 25 German divisions and were overrunning Poland. In the Pacific, Gen. Douglas MacArthur had returned to the Philippines on October 20.

Eisenhower and his staff thought things were going so well in Europe that some units were permitted leave in Luxembourg. But, in what Trevor Dupuy called "Hitlerís Last Gamble" in his 1994 book by that title, Hitler personally planned what came to be known as the Battle of the Bulge (technically, it was the Battle of the Ardennes).

Hitler planned a surprise blitzkrieg like that which won him most of Europe in 1939 and 1940. Many of his generals considered the plan both grandiose and reckless, but brilliant if it could be made to succeed. He chose the historic 1914 and 1940 attack route through the Ardennes in spite of its difficult terrain with rolling hills, deep valleys and dense woodlands. Until they evacuated the area in September, the Germans had occupied it for four years and their generals knew the meandering routes that would deploy their panzer divisions.

Having already lost over 3 million men killed, wounded or captured with another 466,000 lost in August, Hitler declared all men in Germany from 16 to 60 eligible to serve (previously the range had been 18-50). 25 new divisions of Volksgrenadiers (peopleís infantry) of 10,000 men each (instead of the previous 17,000) were established. To offset the loss of effectiveness, they were equipped with automatic weapons--rapid firing "burp guns" and hand-launched, rocket-firing antitank weapons.

With the utmost secrecy, he also created 10 new panzer brigades, each with a core of 40 tanks. In spite of Allied air raids, largely underground production lines were supplying record numbers of tanks--the medium Panther and heavy Tiger tanks which were in many ways superior to the American Shermans. He also assigned as many of the veteran brigades as he could spare for his top-secret counteroffensive.

The Luftwaffe had been decimated and could lend relatively light air support for the attack. However, to offset Allied air superiority, Hitler selected a time of year when extremely cold weather, fog and snow could be expected to limit sorties. Unfortunately for the Allies, the winter of 1944-45 proved to be the worst in thirty years.

Allied armies had moved so fast that their supply lines were stretched to the break point. Gas for the tanks and trucks had become scarce, food rations were in short supply and ammunition was dangerously low. The major supply port of Cherbourg was now 350 miles to the rear and each division required 500 tons of materiel each day.

By September, the preparations were considered complete and Hitler called four of his top generals to a secret conference to announce his plan. He is reported to have said, "I have just made a momentous decision, I shall go over to the counter-attack." Jabbing at a map he announced, "Here, out of the Ardennes, with the objective--Antwerp." Antwerp was an inland port also vital to Allied re-supply. Its supply lines were cleared just 18 days before the Ardennes counter-offensive and soon a vital 22,000 tons per day was being unloaded by the portís 600 cranes.

SHAEF (Supreme Headquarters, Allied Expeditionary Forces), commanded by Gen. Dwight D. Eisenhower, had been deceived by the rapid advance across France. They had gambled by thinning-out the defense force at the Ardennes--a rugged forest with many defiles and few good roadsóto concentrate forces elsewhere. Their S-2 (Intelligence) Corps had misread the Germanís carefully screened tank and troop movements as another phase of their withdrawal toward their Fatherland.

The surprise German attack which became known as the "Battle of the Bulge" began on December 16, 1944, at 5:30 a.m. along a 60 mile front from Monschau in the north to Echternach in the south. Preceded by bombardment from 1,900 German guns, Hitlerís thirteen infantry divisions and seven armored divisions, a total of 200,000 men with 970 tanks and self-propelled guns, exploded across the Our and Sauer rivers and moved west toward the Meuse to block Gen. George S. Pattonís Third Army.

Continued German advance on the 17th and 18th of December brought grim news to Eisenhower at SHAEF HQ. In addition to the loss of their positions, the freezing weather caused misery in the form of respiratory disease and frostbite and added to the many battle casualties.

The 60 mile front along which the German Army attacked encompassed many densely forested 

areas which some GIs felt resembled the Appalachians along the Blue Ridge Parkway. 

Lt. Nichols 159th ECB fought near Echternach (see large E) on December 19, 1944.

Bronze Star

In a personal communication to the author, dated April 8, 1985, Mr. Nichols reported: "My outfit, the 159th Engineer Combat Battalion, was immediately committed as infantry troops and our mission was to attack the southern flank of the Bulge to try to throw the Germans off balance. ... we were out there 10 days, lost 1/3 of our men and were completely surrounded."

Capt. A.A. Bucko, Commander of C Battalion of the 159th, reported the following in recommending Lt. Nichols for a Bronze Star, "On 19 December 1944 at Scheidgen, Luxembourg, Lieutenant Nichols did successfully infiltrate through enemy lines and return with valuable information as to the location of enemy troop disposition and gun emplacements. During his return to friendly lines he encountered enemy troops who were in the process of concentrating for an attack upon friendly positions. At great danger to himself he kept in contact with troops and determined their direction of attack and number of enemy troops that were amassed. As the enemy advanced he withdrew slowly until he reached our lines and then directed effective fire upon the enemy troops."

Lt. Nichols reported subsequent events, "On Christmas Eve, the Germans, wearing black leather coats, attacked our dug-in position across the snow. With the help of our devastating artillery backup, we killed 154 men in that attack. One boy surrendered and he had been hit five times. Ö We withdrew into France to regroup and three days later I walked into Bastogne with my boys sweeping the roadway and railroad with minesweepers so the 4th Division Tanks could roll."

The apex of the German advance eventually reached back into Belgium some 50 miles and, as the salient increased, the action was occurring over a semicircular front of 250 miles. When the weather broke on December 23, Allied planes could again perform surveillance and could support the troops on the ground. However, until early in January the Germans tenaciously held most of their positions around Bastogne, where vital north-south and east-west roads converged.

Eventually, the original front was restored in mid-January and Eisenhower prepared to move toward the Rhine River and beyond to Germanyís munitions factories concentrated in the Ruhr Valley.

The Ardennes campaign had cost the enemy 120,000 casualties and the loss of 600 tanks, 1600 planes and 6000 other vehicles. Essentially, Hitlerís "Last Gamble" had cost him the effectiveness of the army he would need to defend the homeland. However, Allied losses were also greató77,000 men and 733 tanks and tank destroyers.

The next major obstacle to the invasion of the German heartland was the Rhine River. Due to an error, the Germans had failed to destroy the Ludendorf Bridge at Remagen as they had destroyed all other bridges on the Rhine. On March 7, 1945, 8000 American troops and several tank and artillery units had crossed at Remagen and established a bridgehead. Ten days later German artillery and rocket fire collapsed the bridge, but other crossings had been established along the 250 mile front.

Oak Leaf Cluster

The American 87th Infantry Division, attached to Pattonís Third Army and commanded by Gen. Frank L. Culin, reached the river at Boppard, 30 miles south of Remagen, in late March and the 159th Combat Engineers were assigned to transport them across the river. In proposing an Oak Leaf Cluster for heroism for Lt. Warren Nichols, Capt. A.A. Bucko prepared the following:

"1st Lt William W. Nichols, Assistant S-2, 159th Engineer Combat Battalion, acting as Platoon Officer during the period of 24 March 1945 to 25 March 1945 distinguished himself by heroism in connection with military operations against an armed enemy.

"On 24 March and 25 March Lt. Nichols was assigned the important task of ferrying infantry troops across the Rhine River (near Boppard, Germany). The operation was carried on during the dead of night and was of prime importance, for infantry troops were required to secure the beach head on the opposite shore.

"Lt. Nichols directed the loading of each boat for the assault upon the enemy. The twelve boats assigned to his command successfully made their way back and forth across the river carrying capacity loads of assault troops. Lt. Nichols displayed outstanding courage and sterling leadership throughout the night, exposing himself continuously to the intense enemy artillery, machine gun and sniper fire while coordinating the movements of his boats.

"Lt. Nichols, by his cool manner and fearlessness, was an inspiration to his men, and by his precision planning and courage carried his mission through to a successful conclusion. His strategy and quick-thinking while directing the movements of his boats together with his courageous acts were instrumental factors in the success of the assigned mission. The personal bravery and unswerving devotion to duty displayed by this officer reflect high credit upon himself and the military service."

By the end of March, the American, British and French armies were to the east of the Rhine. Slightly more than a month later, on May 7, 1945, Germany surrendered. The march to victory in Europe was completed.

When Warren Nichols enlisted in the Army in 1943 he had listed his civilian employment as "Assistant Manger, Department Store." When he returned from the war, he was again employed at the Ira Watson Co., owners of Watsonís Department Store on Market Square and a chain of stores in the South. He continued to work there for 42 years and retired as vice president of real estate development for the company. Nichols was on the board of directors at Watsonís, served on the board of the Hamilton National Bank and was a long-time member of Fountain City United Methodist Church.

A true patriot, William Warren Nichols, Bronze Star and Oak Leaf Cluster recipient, passed away on November 22, 1985. His services were held at Gentry-Griffey Mortuary Chapel and his burial at Lynnhurst Cemetery. William Warren Nichols made a difference in his home community and contributed greatly to the cause of freedom everywhere.

(Authorís Note: Thanks to Don Eita H. Barkley who supplied the photograph and to Warren Ruch of Pottstown, Pa. who supplied the History of the 159th Engineer Combat Battalion to be placed in the C.H.S. Archives. This is adapted from an article which appeared in the December 19, 2005 Halls-Fountain City Shopper-News.)

References

Anthologies

D-NCHOLS.FCFMM.DOC (5/17/05 18 para., 603 words; 12/7/05 42 para., 2278 words; 12/14/07 43 para., 2277 words)