Stanley Nichols lives in a peaceful valley in southern Boone County near Hartsburg. Nichols and his wife, Ruth, have lived there for 60 years now, but his memories of World War II remain sharp, as if they were formed yesterday. His feet stormed the beaches of Normandy on June 6, 1944 — D-Day. His hands shined the shoes of “Old Blood and Guts” himself, Gen. George Patton. His piercing yet friendly blue eyes saw the Allied forces defeat the Nazis.
The veterans of World War II live among us, walking libraries filled with stories of liberation and victory, horror and devastation. Some are eager to talk, to keep that history alive. Others are reluctant to give voice to indescribable pain.
World War II was the most far-reaching, destructive war in human history. Battles were fought all over the globe — in Europe, in North Africa and in Asia — and involved some 50 nations. Casualty estimates range from about 50 million to 70 million deaths, a little more than half of them civilians. The Allied forces, including 16 million Americans, defeated the Axis powers, which were led by two aggressive governments, in Germany and Japan, bent on making the rest of the world subservient to them.
Ken Burns’ seven-part documentary about World War II, “The War,” continues Wednesday on PBS. It looks at veterans’ stories of the war. Missouri sent 435,000 people to war, men like Nichols, Vernon Sievert and Rex Bandy. Here are the recollections of these men:
STANLEY NICHOLS: FIERCE FIGHTING AT METZ
In the pre-dawn before H-Hour of D-Day, Nichols waited in his crowded landing boat in the English Channel. While the relentless slaughter between Germans and Russians raged in Eastern Europe, American, British and Canadian forces prepared to storm Normandy beach, break Hitler’s Atlantic wall, and set up a Western European battle front.
Nichols had never really been anywhere besides home in his life. He was born in 1924 and raised “just up the holler” from where he lives now. He had been to Hartsburg several times with his family, but he had only been as far as Columbia once, to have his tonsils taken out.
“I didn’t know what the world was when they took me,” Nichols said.
In 1944, at age 20, he boarded the Queen Elizabeth and headed across the Atlantic with thousands of other American young men.
Now, here he was, in one of so many landing boats off the coast of France at Normandy beach, a name that echoes down the decades. “There were all kind of ships,” Nichols said. “... They loaded us on a small landing boat. The closest they could get us was about waist-deep water. We had to walk in.”
At a heavy cost, the Allies took the beach. The liberation of Europe had begun.
From there, Nichols and his 379th Infantry Regiment joined the push across Europe. He remembers reaching the town of Nancy, France, where he got to personally work for Gen. Patton.
“I shined his shoes, made his bed, cleaned the floor for him for a little bit,” said Nichols, then a Private First Class.
Nichols’ regiment was sent to Metz, France, where he was a part of fierce fighting. They battled the Germans for control of a feed mill. “(The Germans) had holes down through the floor,” Nichols said. “They were up on top on the second floor and they were dropping hand grenades and explosives down through the floor.”
Nichols was one of 13 American soldiers fighting for the mill but the only one who wasn’t injured. The wounded soldiers got across the street and down into a basement, yelling for Nichols to follow.
“I went over there and just as I hit about halfway down into the basement a mortar shell, or some kind of shell, exploded about six feet from me,” he said.
The medics came and were carrying the wounded back to get treatment. There was one extra wounded soldier, so Nichols carried him back. “He was bigger than I was, but I throwed him on my back and I took him back,” he said.
Every day at Metz was a struggle for survival. One day, the leader of Nichols’ group went around a corner and was “picked off” by the enemy. Another time Nichols stuck his gun out of an alley and the barrel was shot.
“That was kind of the way it went,” Nichols said. “Metz was a terrible, terrible place.”
Eventually, the Germans were driven back. Nichols went through Luxembourg, the Netherlands and Belgium as the Allies pushed closer and closer to Germany.
He survived the Battle of the Bulge, when Hitler’s vaunted Wehrmacht army launched one last furious assault against the collapsing of the Nazi Empire. The battle was fierce, but the Allies held.
Nichols and the other men usually marched about 25 to 30 miles a day, he said. They advanced deep into Germany. When they were about 30 miles from Berlin, Germany surrendered.
Germany’s empire had collapsed from both sides. The American and British forces had come in from the West while the Soviet Union’s Red Army had come from the East, driving the Nazis from the gates of Moscow to Berlin. Nichols said some German troops went to the American side to surrender to avoid being captured by the Soviets, who were led by the infamous Josef Stalin.
Despite all the fighting he saw, Nichols was not wounded during the war. He said what helped was that his mother prayed for him “all the time.” She didn’t know where he was, but she prayed.
“Never got a scratch,” said Nichols, now 83.
VERNON SIEVERT: DROPPING BOMBS ON GERMANY
While Nichols fought across Europe by land, another hero, Vernon Sievert, fought the war in the skies. Sievert, who has lived in Ashland since 1936, flew in the 385th Division of the 8th Air Force.
In the early years of the war, Sievert, who had his private pilot’s license, was in the Navy Aviation V-5 program. Within a month after he got out of the Navy, he was in the Air Force.
Born in Lincoln County in east-central Missouri, Sievert was another farm boy who hadn’t been to very many places but was now called upon to do extraordinary things. In 1944 and 1945, Sievert flew with a crew on a B-17 plane of bombing raids over Germany. As the war slowly worked toward a conclusion, the Air Force hastened the end by crushing the Luftwaffe, Germany’s air force, and pummeling German cities with bombing raids.
Sievert, a gunner, flew out of England, dropped bombs over Germany and flew back. The entire trip took about seven to nine hours. The Air Force met strong resistance, especially from anti-aircraft fire.
Sievert flew in 22 bombing raids during the war, including to Berlin twice, as well as to cities such as Hamburg and Dresden.
The Dresden bombings were especially terrible. Of the 35 planes in the group, seven were lost. No one on Sievert’s plane was killed, but he still talks about the raid with reluctance because of the tremendous loss of life it caused. The Air Force dropped incendiary bombs that burned the city, and the firebombing of Dresden is believed to have killed tens of thousands of people.
“I still get the shudders when I talk about that,” Sievert said. “We left Dresden totally in flames.”
Sievert had a job to do, but he saw how destructive the war was and didn’t share much about his experiences when he came home.
“I didn’t want to talk about it,” he said.
German resistance to the bombing weakened over time, Sievert said. However, he saw his share of harrowing situations in the sky and was worried for his safety “every trip.” Sievert said he prayed both before and during the flights.
“There was one time the flak was so thick you could almost walk on it,” Sievert said. “Jesus was outside flying with us.”
There were beautiful moments, too, like a food drop in Holland. When the Nazis withdrew from Holland, they took all the food they could find. The Dutch were starving, and Sievert’s plane and others dropped packages of food. He fondly remembers seeing the people run to the packages and blow kisses to the low-flying planes.
Then, finally, came V-E Day. Sievert and his fellow soldiers celebrated by climbing on wheat stacks and lighting them on fire.
Sievert, now 87, was awarded an Air Medal and three Bronze Stars for his service during the war. When he came home, he went to MU on the GI Bill and graduated in 1948.
REX BANDY: DEATH’S SMELL AT IWO JIMA
While the war raged on in Europe, other heroes did what they were called to do in the Pacific theater.
Rex Bandy was originally from Arkansas but has lived in the Columbia area for 40 years. He was a medic in the Pacific during the war, working on a hospital ship after he got his medical corps training at Balboa Park in San Diego, Calif.
Aboard the USS Samaritan, the medics rotated jobs so they could develop a variety of skills. Bandy worked in the laboratory, surgery, pharmacy, laundry and X-ray departments.
“You had to do it all,” he said.
Bandy sometimes had to go ashore on rescue missions to bring back wounded.
“We were at Saipan, and we took on 900 casualties when we only had a capacity for 350,” said Bandy, whose official rank was Pharmacist’s Mate Third Class. “They were stacked all over the deck, any place we could squeeze them.”
The sea itself was a danger. Once, during a tropical storm, Bandy’s hospital ship hit a reef in the Solomon Islands. The boat was full of wounded men and didn’t have nearly enough lifeboats, and the waters were shark-infested. Bandy said he was never scared for himself during the war, but he was scared for all those wounded that day.
“We managed to back off the reef and proceed to a floating dry dock,” he said. “We had to go about five knots an hour. The bow was busted, but we sealed off that compartment to keep it from flooding the whole ship.”
Bandy went ashore for several rescue missions at Iwo Jima, one of the most iconic military victories in American history. He said the smell at Iwo Jima was very bad — a combination of the island’s natural sulfur smell, the smell of death and the sickening smell of Americans burning Japanese out of tunnels and caves on the island.
On V-J Day, Bandy’s ship arrived in Portland, Ore., with a load of wounded men from Okinawa. He was part of a celebration there and said he “kissed 10,000 women.” As the ship went up the Columbia River, people on the banks waved at the soldiers passing by.
After the war, Bandy was stationed in Japan and saw for himself the valley at Nagasaki and the effects of the atomic bomb dropped there. Much of what he saw was knocked down or melted. Bandy said he saw spots where people had been.
“Veterans don’t like to talk too much about combat,” Bandy said. “There’s a reason for that. When you go into the military you give up your individuality for the unit. You get a new haircut and you wear the same uniform. You’re no longer an individual, you’re part of the group. You become so close-knit that if one of your buddies gets killed, it’s almost just as bad as being killed yourself. That’s why veterans don’t ever talk very much. They just don’t want to talk about it. People don’t really care. They don’t understand. They know it was rough. Why bore them with it?”
Now 82, Bandy plans to paint scenes from the war and then write about them. He said he will focus on “pleasant scenes” from his experiences and has plans for three images so far: one of Hawaiian women putting leis on wounded solders, one of receiving whole blood for transfusions at Iwo Jima and one of a place he saw once in the Vanuatu Islands — a place he dubbed “The Gates of Heaven.”
“The lemons grew as big as oranges,” he recalled warmly, “and the oranges grew as big as grapefruits.”