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Wilsonville resident shares stories from two decades in the Air Force

SPOKESMAN PHOTO: VERN UYETAKE - Decorated Air Force veteran Nick Nicholson with SpringRidge at Charbonneau Sales and Marketing Representative Leslie James.Merrill “Nick” Nicholson is a popular figure at his senior living facility, SpringRidge at Charbonneau.

“He loves people,” says Cindy Foster, program director. “He’s very much a people person and loves to make people smile. He’s always got a joke. And yet he always treats everyone with respect.”

Nicholson, 86, is also a poet and a teller of tales. Some of the best stories involve his 20-year career as a navigator in the United States Air Force — a career that saw him log over 1,000 flight hours in combat, fighting in two wars and earning decorations for bravery.

Born in 1928 in Marion, Ohio, Nicholson went to study at Ohio University after graduating from high school in 1946. There, he participated for two years in the United States Army’s Reserve Officers’ Training Corp (ROTC) program.

“But when I ended up in uniform, my two brothers and sisters said to me, ‘What are you doing in uniform, kid? The big war’s over!’” Nicholson recalls.

That didn’t dampen his interest in military life, however. Nicholson enjoyed the Army and found that he especially loved to fly. He decided to remain in the service after graduating from college in 1950. Nicholson learned from an unsuccessful stint in flight school that he wasn’t cut out to be a pilot, however, and so he instead became a navigator for the United States Air Force — a fairly new branch of the military at the time, carved out of the Army in 1947.

Air Force bound

In 1951, Nicholson was attending navigator school in Houston, Texas, and took a weekend trip to attend a party on the beach in Galveston. It was there that he met his wife Janie, who he married that same year. They have remained married, making 2015 the year of their 64th wedding anniversary.

The couple didn’t have long to settle into married life: In 1952, Nicholson was sent to fight in the Korean War, where he worked both as a navigator and a bombardier aboard a B-26 bomber.

“It was kind of funny: When I was in Nav School, one of the instructors I can remember told me he didn’t think I’d make it. And, of course, probably about six or seven months after that, I’m a flying instructor, navigator (and) bombardier,” Nicholson says.

Many of the missions Nicholson flew took place at night, when his B-26 would be illuminated by searchlights from anti-aircraft forces below. That, combined with the heavy anti-aircraft fire, could lead to situations that he calls “real hairy.”

Once, Nicholson was thought to have been killed in action. His plane was taking fire during a bombing run, and the pilot executed a “split-S” maneuver — a technique normally employed by fighter pilots — to avoid being hit. Airmen in a nearby aircraft thought Nicholson’s plane had crashed.

That created some confusion when he encountered fellow airmen after returning to base.

“They looked at me, and they said, ‘Nicholson! What are you doing here? You were listed killed in action!’” Nicholson said. “And I said, ‘Wait a minute, guys — don’t sound so unhappy! I’m still alive!’”

Nicholson earned a Distinguished Flying Cross for valor while in Korea. The official citation announcing the President’s decision to give the award describes a mission in which Nicholson’s target was “heavily defended and within easy range of enemy night fighters,” while “twelve searchlights probed the sky trying to pinpoint their aircraft.” Nicholson’s skills in navigation and bombing, the citation says, were to thank for the mission’s success.

After the Korean War ended, Nicholson’s career took him all over the world. He was transferred to South Carolina, and then to Germany, where his wife gave birth to a son in 1954. The location afforded a chance to travel across the continent on missions that sometimes took him as far away as Africa and Saudi Arabia.

In the late 1950s, Nicholson became involved with an experimental program near Hawaii that sampled fallout from nuclear explosions. He was responsible for directing a plane loaded with testing equipment through a mushroom cloud of the sort developed after detonating a nuclear weapon.

“When the bombs went off, it was like — I’d never seen anything like it before. It was like the whole world lit up,” says Nicholson. He recalls returning from flights through the fallout where the sides of the plane had become too hot to touch.

Radiation exposure notwithstanding, Nicholson was sent to Vietnam for the first of two tours in 1964. Many of the missions he flew were classified, he says, but he mentions that they did take him all over the Pacific Basin, from Australia to the Philippines and beyond.

Back stateside

Nicholson returned to the United States in 1965, and was assigned to help lead the ROTC program at the University of Oregon. He also took advantage of the chance to earn a master’s degree in counseling psychology.

While at Oregon, Nicholson created a program of which he is especially proud: a class for airmen at the university called “Reading and Conference,” which employed the Socratic Method to help strengthen reading comprehension and problem solving skills through writing assignments and discussion.

He returned to Vietnam in November 1969 for a final tour, where he made a point of leading servicemen under his command into battle — despite being only months away from ending his career in the Air Force.

Nicholson recalls telling his peers: “I don’t want to be in there scheduling, and have you guys say, ‘Well, there’s old Chicken Nicholson.’”

On leaving the military in 1970 as a major, Nicholson received an Air Force Commendation Medal in honor of his “meritorious service” at Phan Rang Air Base, Vietnam. He returned to Oregon, putting his master’s degree in psychology to use as an employee for the Oregon Employment Department in Eugene.

Nicholson mostly worked with mothers on welfare, he says, helping them to learn work skills and to find gainful employment. He stayed with the department for 17 years.

In 1997, Nicholson and his wife moved to Wilsonville — closer to their son and grandsons in West Linn. Nicholson has stayed active in his retirement, and even spent several years helping to coach a grandson’s youth basketball team.

Nicholson says that Veterans Day is always a special day for him, but he adds that he is only one veteran out of the many who have served.

“I’m really proud of the Air Force and the other armed forces, what they’ve done,” he says. “Because we’re doing things all over the world to help people.”

Contact Jake Bartman at 503-636-1281 ext. 113 or This email address is being protected from spambots. You need JavaScript enabled to view it..

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