Lee Nicol War Interview
Leland W. Nicol’s WWII memoirs
This is the story that Clarice and the kids wanted me to put down about my army service. I suppose one of you is going to type this up for posterity. I don't know why. Anyhow, I had passed my final examination to go into the army on May 13, 1943. Because there was a flood at Beardstown, most of the railroads were impassable. Instead of being sent to the army camp, I was sent to Beardstown to work on the levees. On June 10, 1943 1 reported to my induction center at Camp Grant, Ill. I was there for nine days. During that time I met my good friends, Clarence Becker, Bill Herrbold, and Vernon Larson. They were also just inducted into the army, and we became real good friends. On June 19, 1943 we were all four assigned to the same outfit, the 881st Airborne Engineers. We were shipped to Westover Field, Mass. to take our basic training. We completed our basic training on the 31st of July, 1943. 1 was promoted to private 1st class at that time. It was pretty much the same basic training that everyone else got. We were scheduled to start glider training the following week when we found out that we were being shipped to Richmond Virginia to the Richmond Army Air Base to start a new aviation engineering battalion. On July 31, we shipped to Richmond Air Base. Becker, Harbold, and Larson were also sent to this base, and we all ended up in Company B. We were the 13th, 14th, 15th, and 16th persons in Company B so that we were all there at the very start.
I've got some notes here. When I was in the service, I wrote down these dates in a little book. I still got it, but I have to kinda look through here as I go. We took basic training again when we got to Richmond Army Airbase, mostly because we were waiting for enough people to fill up a battalion. 800 men are in a battalion, so we trained until we had a full battalion. The 29th of Nov. 1943 we left the army airbase and were shipped about 8 miles away to Elko tract. This is a 6000 acre tract of ground that the government owned. It was just all timber and brush and so forth. We cut a road into it with our heavy equipment, set ourselves up a camp of all tents and then we had to build a replica of the Richmond Army Air Base and camouflage it. This was for two reasons, to give us training in building an air base and also in case anybody attacked why it was to confuse the people with two identical air bases there so possibly they wouldn't get the right one. We build canvas and plywood airplanes and parked them along the runway so that from the air they looked like regular planes on a regular airbase. We were out there 'til Nov. As I found out later it was an awful lot like some parts of the Pacific, practically a jungle.
I got a 7 day furlough on Jan. 16, 1944. 1 was home for 7 days. I took a train from Virginia to St. Louis and then down to Arenzville. Dad took me back to the train when it was time to leave. Got back to the airbase and found out we'd been alerted to go overseas. On Feb. 20, 1944 we left for Camp Stoneman We had no idea where it was or where we were going, but we were issued summer uniforms, summer clothes, instead of winter clothes, so we pretty well assumed that we were headed for the Pacific. We traveled 7 days on a troop train to get from Virginia to Camp Stoneman, California. We arrived there on the 27th of Feb. 1944. We took physicals, trainings, and exercises. Killing time mostly. Got our physicals on May 12, 1944 we left the U.S. for overseas. We knew this was gonna be to the Pacific. We took a river boat from Camp Stoneman down a little river to a ship, the USAT Sea Barb. It was a troop carrier and the next morning we sailed out for destinations unknown. We went under the Golden Gate Bridge and passed Alcatraz and on out that way.
On Mar. 20, 1944 we crossed the international dateline. On Mar. 23, 1944 we crossed the equator. We docked at Milne Bay, New Guinea on April 1 1944. We thought maybe this was gonna be our destination, but we set on the boat for four days and then we never unloaded. They unloaded some supplies and stuff. On April 5, we left Milne Bay, New Guinea and on the 7th landed in Lae, New Guinea. Lae was still a combat area, but it was two months since the invasion of Lae. All there was to this place was two or three little buildings and a post office. The bay was littered with ships that were sunk, mostly Japanese. Here we built a road from Lae to Nadzab. I think that was about thirteen miles. At Nadzab we had our primary fighter plane base. We fixed the air base at Nadzab up. Wasn't much action there although we did have air raids 4 or 5 times. We stayed there at Lae and worked on construction. We built jetties out into the ocean so ships could come in. LSTs could come in right on up to shore. Anyhow, just general construction work and a few air raids. About 4½ months later on July 31, 1944 we were ordered to move up. We loaded on a Liberty Ship with all our equipment. The ship's name was the William Allen White. Didn't know where we were goin' or what... you hear all kinds of rumors. Well, when we left there, we went past Finschafen, Hollandia, Wadke Island, Wendy Island, a lot of names we'd never heard of except for we knew they were bein' taken.
On the 17th of Aug. we landed at Biak, in the Dutch East Indies, a little island about 12‑15 miles long and 8‑10 miles wide. Reminds you a little bit of Savanna, because the cliffs go up just like the Palisades, straight up. There's maybe a 3/4 mile to a mile width of flat before you get to the cliffs. Air fields were down on the flats. We got there about the 7th or 8th day after the original landing. The air bases were in our hands, but some of the cliffs, they were all pot marked with caves. Lots of them still had Japs, who were still firin' from the caves. We had tank guns set up where we just kept shootin' into the mouth of the caves tryin' to keep them in there. Got around up over the cliffs and we dropped gasoline down in barrels and throwed it into the caves, ignited it to burn them out. Finally they had all of them cleaned out, but one. They just kept a gun there where they kept shootin' into it about every minute in order to keep him pinned in. I don't know what happened to them. I assume they starved to death in time, because we quit shootin'.
There were a lot of air raids on Biak. They'd blow the air fields apart every night and we'd rebuild them. A lot of the time we had planes in the air. We'd have to get the air fields back in shape to bring the planes in. One job I had was to bulldoze a bunch of dead Japs together in a pit. It wasn't very pleasant, because they'd been dead for three or four days. It was the only time I know for sure I was shot at. A sniper shot at me. He shot the air cleaner off the bulldozer I was on. But we had infantry out all around us and they got the sniper. The closest I came to getting hit was in a bombing run one night when they dropped a bomb, oh, it must of hit about 75‑100 ft. from where I was in a fox hole. After maybe 2 or 3 weeks why things pretty well were under control. We just got an air raid once in a while. Every night they'd come over with planes though. We'd have as air raid alert. Most of them were false to keep us awake and interrupt our sleeping and so forth. We called them Washing Machine Charlie. Washing Machine Charlie came in almost every night.
We built down Biak after things got quieted down. We had the airfield back in shape and we built a hospital, the 51st General Hospital, which was a major hospital for the wounded as they advanced. Fact is I ended up in that hospital myself. We built jetties out in the ocean for bringing in transports, did roadwork, and pretty much general construction. All this time I was a bulldozer operator in the heavy equipment battalion. I was runnin' a D7 and D8, primarily caterpillars. We got our orders about 4½ months later, after about 4½ months there on Biak, I don't know, I'd have to figure it out. We got our orders that we were going to be a part of the invasion of the Philippines. We were ordered out. We loaded all our equipment on a Liberty Ship, on two Liberty Ships, it took two ships to load all our equipment and move our battalion. Spent Christmas Day on a ship in the harbor about a degree and a half off the equator. Left Christmas night for destinations unknown.
It would get up, the temperature there at Biak, right off the equator, to 130‑135 degrees during the day. You have to be awful careful or you'd burn awful bad. Fact is I got sunburned a couple times pretty bad. There was a lot of malaria and a lot of dengue fever there on Biak. Everybody was suppose to take atabrine tablets. I took mine faithfully, but I still ended up getting something, but they aren't sure if it was dengue fever or malaria. I didn't have it real bad. I was about a week with it. A lot of the guys had it real bad, the ones that didn't take there atabrine, so I really don't know if what I had was malaria or dengue fever, they were undecided which fever it was.
We left Biak on Christmas night 1944. On Jan. 12 1945 we were scheduled to land on D‑day 2, third day after the initial landing in the Philippines. We were in a convoy of about 100 ships. We had a kamikaze attack just after daylight on the 12th with only one plane and it hit the ship behind us. Didn't really think that much about it. You don't think about getting hit, but shortly, shortly after noon that day we had another kamikaze attack and our ship (Kyle V. Johnson) was hit by the first plane that came in before the alert (or) just as the alert was sounded. I just made it into the hold where we were suppose to go. When the kamikaze hit. I was on one side of the ship and the kamikaze come in on the other (and) exploded. The heavy equipment boys were shattered. There was a big pile of duffel bags and equipment between us and where the ship hit. We were the only ones that got out of the ship. The place was an inferno. I don't know how I got out for sure. I saw the hole in the side of the ship and I know I jumped out of the hole where the plane came in. I've always felt like I felt a hand leading me to get over there, because I have no conscious recollection of thinkin' that's the way out (that) I've got to go. But there was no hands in there, so I'm sure that God led me to get out.
My first real recollection was when I hit the cold water. I had a life jacket on. I was burned pretty bad, especially my arms, that I must have held up to shield my face, because my face was completely burned. The skin on my arms hung loose. When I was in the water, I could raise my arms and the skin was still stringy down to the water. My first thought was "I got to get away from the ship or the screws will pull me under. I tried to swim, but the ship did a 90 degree turn to get away. We saw another ship let loose some life jackets so we knew we'd been seen. They knew there was soldiers in the water. I saw a couple of my buddies. The only one I was close enough to talk to was Sergeant Bray. I remember hollerin' to him "Do you think we'll get picked up?" I remember him callin' back and sayin' "May God help us if we ain't".
The convoy couldn't stop of course. I saw ships shot down while I was in the water, several of them, I'm not sure how many. Officially our ship was credited with shooting down six planes. They tell me there were six ships hit that day in that attack, so it was a major kamikaze attack. I remember being conscious. I saw the last ship sail away. I just thought we'd had it. I'm not sure (of) the times or anything, (or) how long we were in the water. but it was starting to get dark when I saw a ship coming back. We didn't know if it was our ship, but we assumed so, at least I did. It was an LCI that they'd sent back to try and pick up survivors. Well, they spotted me and came along side. (They) threw a life ring on a rope over to me. I held my arms up and they could see I was burned real bad. I couldn't get a hold of the life ring, so they maneuvered right up close to me and two sailors came down a net on the side of the ship and bodily picked me up and carried me on to the deck. I remember them asking me if I could stand and I said "Yes". That's the last thing I remember. I guess I passed out.
For the next 3 or 4 days, I was shipped from one ship to another trying to find a doctor, because most of the ships just had medical corp people on them. I was conscious part of the time (and) part of the time I guess I wasn't. I know they tell me that the LCI they transported me to an LCM and from the LCM to an LST, trying to find doctors. Two or three of my buddies were together, of course we didn't know it. I guess eight in all were picked up by these ships. One of my friends died. What the corpsman told me was that he had inhaled so much flame that his lungs were blistered and when the water broke he drowned.
On the 14th I was transferred to a destroyer escort and they had a doctor. Later that night we were in Leyte Gulf. The destroyer put me on the USS Wiley, which was a combat hospital ship. It was not a red cross marked ship,, but it was a hospital ship for evacuation from beachheads. I was conscious then of the fact of what they did. They shot a cable from the destroyer over to the hospital ship, tied me in a basket stretcher and pulled me across that cable, across the water, over to that hospital ship. This hospital ship was armed (and) we were under attack several times. I was in and out of it... I don't know, I know I was scared. On the 20th of Jan. the USS Wiley took us someplace. I was transferred the same way, by cable across the stretch between the two ships, and I got put on the USS Marigold, that's a white hospital ship marked with a big red cross.
There we were treated properly, completely bandaged, packed in Vaseline and wrapped up. My whole head, both arms and one leg were pretty well burnt. of my hands and arms, my left hand and arm were the worst. The meat was all gone and you could see bone in places. Now it's pretty much just scar tissue. This hospital ship took us back to New Guinea, to Hollandia New Guinea and was put in a field hospital there. I think that was on the 29th of Jan. When I got to the hospital in Hollandia, I was in there 'til Feb. 20th. I knew the APO number of Hollandia and I knew Butch Zulauf had that APO number, so I asked a nurse if she ever heard of his outfit and she said she would check. Why a couple days later Butch, they found him and he came in to see me. He wrote some letters for me. I couldn't write at all of course, so I understand he wrote his mother and for some reason, army delays, mom and dad didn't get the notice that I was missing in action until the day after Butch's mother had got the letter that he’d seen me and (that) I was pretty well banged up, but anyhow mom and dad didn't have to worry that much although they hadn't heard from me for almost two months. Why they didn't know what was going on. I'm thankful for that.
Let me look here. While I was in the hospital Gen. Johnson came through and he gave everybody their purple hearts, (those) who had been wounded in action. I think that was the 10th. The 10th of Feb. is what I got wrote down. I was suppose to be, or I was discharged from the hospital along with four of my buddies from our company. Two of us, Bob Limbaugh and I weren't suppose to be discharged, but we conned them into it. We were still bandaged. Told them we wanted to go back to the outfit, with our company and they finally left us get out. We were suppose to get medical treatment at a replacement center that was gonna try to find where our outfit was. our papers just said to report to our company commander. Last we knew where the company was was on that ship, so anyhow instead of reporting to the replacement center we'd try to find them ourselves. We went out to where Butch was. He was in the air reconnaissance. We visited around out there for a few days. (We) hitchhiked a ride on one of their planes that was goin' to Biak. We'd been at Biak, so we knew that place pretty well. That was on Feb. 22nd. We got at Biak and we knew that there was an awful lot of fightin' going on yet in the Philippines. we weren't in any big hurry to get back and we just kinda laid around there for a week. We'd just go get in somebody’s mess line to get something to eat. Slept out under the stars.
On Mar 4, 1945 we got an airplane and hitchhiked a ride on a plane going to Morotai. Then it was scheduled to go to Leyte, which is another island in the Philippines, the first one that was taken. When we flew to Biak it was on a B-24. When we left Biak it was on a C-47. We flew to Morotai and we were there for 4‑5 hours in all. They unloaded their supplies and picked up some more and was gonna go to Leyte. We stayed right with them. On the way to Leyte why one engine started acting up. They said to start throwing everything off the plane because one engine wasn't runnin'. Before we got started, they finally got the engine going again and we made it on into Leyte. Frankly I had about all the flyin' I wanted then, but we still had to get home or get back to our outfit. On March 4th, when we landed in Leyte, I saw the first town I'd seen in about a year and a half, Tacloban, Leyte. We went into Tacloban (and) looked around. (We) went out to the airbase and asked (about our outfit and) told them what our situation was. We had to get back to the Philippines and (asked them) to hold a flight. If any plane was going that way, why to let us know.
We checked in quite a bit, finally on the 7th there was a C‑47 gonna land at Nichols Field about 35‑40 miles from Manila. There was only room for 2 of us, so Earl Pecore and I went first. Bob Limbaugh and Bently and Rosasco were gonna get another one We landed at Nichol's Field and they, the troops, were just goin' into the outskirts of Manila, so we reasoned that if we went to Manila maybe we'd find our outfit. So we went to Manila. It was just at the outskirts of Manila, a walled city, and everything was still being defended, that we did run into one of our trucks.
Found out that our battalion was still bivouacked about 30 miles from Lingayen Gulf, so we hitchhiked on that truck back to our outfit. When Pecore and I walked into Company B there was about 15‑20 of our buddies that was on the other ship recognized us. When we came walkin' in we went to the commander, company commander, and that's when they first knew that we were alive. We reported on the other 8 or 16 1 think altogether, that were on the ship and were still listed as missing in action. I guess a couple of them were listed as killed in action. Well, the company was, the battalion was completely loaded up for convoy to go to Manila. So that night at midnight the battalion slipped out (toward) the only bridge that was still there that could get us across the river with our heavy equipment. We had to go down this road and Americans was on one side, Japanese on the other. We picked up infantry guides who guided us down there and they laid an artillery barrage (flew) over us into the Japanese. We got through there without being attacked and went into Manila. My hands hadn't healed yet and they were raw and when I reported to our commander, I mean our doctor, he said I couldn't do nothin'. He put me on light duty. We didn't have a hospital (so) he more or less told me to just stay in a tent out of the sun, because every time I'd get out in the sun, I'd blister again.
We stayed there in Manila. There was only, I think, 36 of us from our company when everybody got back, so we just waited for replacements. We just have to do an assignment once in a while, when they'd need one bulldozer or two bulldozers or somethin'. Anyhow after about 2 weeks or so, I got a fungus in my ears and I had to go to the hospital for that and I tell you that hurt. I don't know just what it was, but I couldn't hear and I was in pretty bad pain. While I was in the hospital, why they said that there ain't no way I was fit to be in the Pacific, bad as what I was burned and scarred. So they kept me there for 3 or 4 days. It was a field hospital and they said they were gonna send me home. That was a very happy time, but they couldn't order me home from a field hospital. They'd have to evacuate me to a general hospital.
I was put on a white evacuation hospital ship. I can't pronounce the name, but it was Maetsuycker. It was a Japanese, I mean Javanese Dutch ship, Javanese crew. That was on May the 10th 1945. They took me back to Biak. Was my third time on Biak. I was put in the 131 General Hospital, which was the hospital we built when we first went to Biak. They said there that after treating me for a couple days that they wouldn't send me home. It was kinda a smart aleck major and him and I didn't get along very well. So they were gonna put me in another outfit to do clerical work or somethin'. I told them no way. If they wouldn't send me home, I wanted to go back to my outfit and I'd do somethin'. So on the 28th of May 1945, 1 flew back from Biak to... wait a minute. I got the dates wrong here. August 21 they discharged me from that hospital and sent me back to my outfit. (NOTE: Referencing Dad's original notes written while overseas, the May 28th date is correct.) I flew back and joined the outfit in Manila. We were on alert then. We'd had all our replacements (and) we were on alert for the invasion of Japan. So we loaded all our equipment into a couple of LCPs. They dropped the atomic bomb while we were doing that. Sept. 2 Japan surrendered. The war was over.
We didn't know what was going on. We unloaded off the LSTs. We just got all the equipment unloaded and we got alerted again, so we loaded everything on some other LSTs. We were told we were going to Japan to be occupation forces. Oct. 3, 1945 we left Manila on the LST number 780. Oct. 21st we got to Yokohama Japan. (When) we went in there the mine sweepers had cleaned the bay, but a lot of the mines were still floating in the bay. So we had to set up machine gunners to explode the mines that were floating before they hit us. Anyhow, (we) got to Yokohama on the 21st and on the 15th of Nov. they had set up a point system where you got so many points for every month you were in the service, 2 points for every month overseas, 5 points for every combat mission (and) 5 points for every purple heart or medals. Anyhow, I had enough points to come home.
On Nov. 15 I said good‑bye to my outfit and we went to the 4th replacement depot to wait on a ship home. (On) 28th Nov. 1945, I got on a ship in Tokyo Bay the USS Heintzelman. That was a captured German luxury liner that had been converted into a troop transport. We sailed off for the U.S. on Dec. 9, 1945. We landed in the U.S. in Fort Lewis, Washington, at Tacoma, Washington. My luck was good. It had only taken us a week to get home, back to the states.
On the 11th of Dec, I left Fort Lewis, Washington in a troop train going to Fort Sheridan, Illinois. The troop train was being made up when we got there, so I was lucky and didn't have to wait there. Dec. 14, 1945 the troop train got into Fort Sheridan. Everything was going real fast. On Dec. 16, 1 got my discharge from the army at Fort Sheridan. That evening, I don't remember if it was that evening or the next evening, I got to Savanna. I notified my parents that I was getting out, I didn't know when. Murial and Shirley were meeting all the trains and they were at the Savanna depot when I got there. (They) took me home and that ended my army career. I got a 10% disability for my wounds when I was discharged. I still get that.
At my discharge I received these medals:
- Purple Heart,
- Asiatic Pacific Campaign Medal with two bronze battle stars,
- Philippine Liberation Medal with one bronze battle star,
- Japanese Occupation Medal,
- WWII Victory Medal,
- Good Conduct Medal,
- Presidential Unit Citation.
So that's the story of my life in the army.
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