BELLEVILLE, Ill. — Thomas Nicholson didn’t talk about the night of Jan. 25, 1945, when he made repeated trips under German mortar and artillery fire to repair the communications line between his forward observation post and his unit’s mortar position at Kaltenhaus, France.
And the U.S. Army soldier from Belleville didn’t talk about how his division helped liberate thousands of emaciated prisoners and found piles of bodies in the Nazi concentration camp in Dachau on April 29, 1945, in southern Germany in World War II.
But Nicholson’s grandson, Dave Roberts, believes these actions need to be memorialized.
“My grandfather didn’t really speak about the war very much. He never bragged about any of this,” Roberts said of his grandfather, who was 57 when he died of cancer in 1975. “Even folks in our own family didn’t know the story of this until we started researching it. We knew some of it, but we didn’t know all of it.”
Nicholson received a Bronze Star Medal for what the Army called “heroism in ground combat” for his actions at Kaltenhaus on Jan. 25, 1945. He also received a Bronze Star Medal (First Oak-Leaf Cluster) for his “exemplary conduct” during the Ardennes-Alsace Campaign while assigned to the 242nd Infantry Regiment in the 42nd (Rainbow) Infantry Division.
To honor his grandfather, Roberts commissioned sculptor Craig Campobella of Conroe, Texas, to create a bronze statue of Nicholson to commemorate a moment of Nicholson’s actions on that cold night in Kaltenhaus in northeastern France near the German border. Roberts has offered to donate one of the statues to the city of Belleville and Mayor Mark Eckert said city officials are considering where to display the statue, which weighs about 50 pounds and is 27 inches tall.
Roberts, a 58-year-old Texas businessman who as a child lived in Belleville with his grandparents, said he learned more about Nicholson after his grandmother, Garnetta Nicholson, died in 2008.
After Garnetta Nicholson died, family members were going through boxes and learned more about Thomas Nicholson’s military service.
“When I started pulling all this together, I started getting a picture of what actually happened and it’s incredible,” Roberts said.
Thomas Nicholson was born in New Baden and grew up in Belleville. When he tried to join the Army after Pearl Harbor, he was not accepted. But as the war dragged on, he finally was allowed to join on Sept. 1, 1943.
He was assigned to the 242nd Infantry Regiment in the 42nd Infantry Division, which was established in 1917 during World War I when then Maj. Douglas MacArthur proposed the formation of the division of National Guard units from several states and suggested it stretch across the country like a rainbow.
The “rainbow” name also was used during World War II when Nicholson joined.
Roberts said the members were known as “Rainbowmen.”
Nicholson’s regiment trained in Oklahoma and left for France on Thanksgiving Day 1944. They arrived in Marseille, France, and headed north. They saw their first combat on Christmas Day in Strasbourg, France, Roberts said. By late January, the regiment was fighting the Germans at Haguenau and nearby Kaltenhaus in France.
“This became a critical point in the battle to repel the Germans on the French border,” Roberts said.
It was 20 degrees and there was a light layer of snow on the ground on Jan. 25, 1945, when Nicholson was credited with keeping open the communications line between his post and his unit’s mortar position during the German offensive called Operation North Wind, Roberts said.
Maj. Gen. Harry J. Collins, the commander of U.S. Army’s 42nd (Rainbow) Infantry Division, on Dec. 31, 1945, wrote the Bronze Star Medal citation for Nicholson:
“Although the wire was under almost constant enemy fire from mortars and artillery, he fearlessly exposed himself throughout the night to maintain communications,” Collins wrote. “As a result of Sergeant Nicholson’s courageous action and devotion to duty, vital communication between the observation post and the mortar position was maintained as a result of which an accurate fire was placed on the attacking enemy forces. Sergeant Nicholson thus made a distinct contribution to the repulse of the last major German effort to retake Alsace.”
About a week before the Kaltenhaus battle, Nicholson was tasked with an assignment because he knew how to type: He had to prepare a report on the information an interpreter gathered during the interrogation of a captured German officer.
Roberts said the document is noteworthy for the reasons the German officer gave on why the American Army was stopping the German offensive. The officer acknowledged the “superior American fighting morale with regard to stubbornness, courage and adroitness and bravery of the single fighter.”
At the time of the battle at Kaltenhaus, Nicholson was a staff sergeant. He was later promoted to first sergeant, which was the rank he had during the Army’s occupation of Europe and when he left the Army in 1946.
Today, this town in France is spelled Kaltenhouse. Roberts said the French use this spelling to differentiate it from the German spelling of Kaltenhaus, which is used in U.S. Army records.
The statue created by Campobella shows Nicholson running with a spool of wire. You can see the extreme exertion on his face.
Campobella said he spent a lot of time researching the uniform and equipment used by U.S. Army soldiers in World War II.
“We were even able to create the patina of the olive drab from the World War II uniform, which was not an easy thing” to do, Campobella said.
In recreating what Nicholson did on the night of Jan. 25, 1945, Campobella said he wanted to convey action.
“He couldn’t just be standing there with this spool of line,” Campobella said.
The artwork starts with a clay sculpture, a mold is made and then the bronze is poured in.
“It’s a very long, tedious, laborious process but . these bronzes will outlast everything under the sun,” Campobella said.
“Bravery, absolutely,” is how Campobella described what the statue means to him.
The sculpture is titled “The Hero of Kaltenhaus.”
Roberts met with Eckert this summer to discuss his donation to his grandfather’s hometown.
Eckert said the city may display the statue in the City Hall lobby. The mayor noted the donation would be a welcome addition to the dozens the city has received in recent years through Art on the Square’s Sculpture in the City program.
“This is for certain a very unique piece of art,” Eckert said after Roberts showed the statue to Eckert and other city officials. “This is extremely impressive.”
Roberts said he also would like to donate one of the statues to the city of Kaltenhouse in France but he noted the title of the statue would probably have to be changed to reflect the French spelling of the town.
Nicholson attended Belleville Township High School and worked for American Express in St. Louis before the war.
After the war, he had a machine shop that was flooded in the late 1950s, was the PX store manager at Scott Air Force Base and he was in the used car business.
“He absolutely loved Belleville,” Roberts said. “He never considered moving out of Belleville.”
Roberts said his grandfather had a spirited personality. He drove a 1941 DeSoto convertible coupe after returning from Europe, he once survived a plane crash and he rode motorcycles.
“There was kind of a spirit to Tom Nicholson that fortunately the war didn’t kill off,” Roberts said.
There was kind of a spirit to Tom Nicholson that fortunately the war didn’t kill off.
Before Nicholson and Garnetta Iler, were married, he would often see her at a bus stop in Signal Hill waiting for the bus she rode to her job in St. Louis. He kept asking her to let him drive her to St. Louis, Roberts said. She eventually agreed and the couple got married in 1948.
“I lived with them,” Roberts said. “My mom went through a divorce and we lived with our grandparents for many years.”
Roberts said his grandparents never argued. But that’s not to say they didn’t have disagreements.
Nicholson brought home two lovebird figurines from Austria and when either he or his wife became upset, one of them would turn one of the lovebirds away from the other.
“They had an incredible love story,” Roberts said.
Roberts, who is CEO of Conroe, Texas-based Teligistics, which manages telecom expenses for large companies and governmental organizations, said Nicholson was the “most influential man in not only my life, but also my brother and sister.”
“Upon meeting him, a stranger would never know the incredible challenges he faced in World War II, including the horrors of Dachau — nor the heroic actions he took personally to repel the last Nazi offensive, as he would never mention them,” Roberts said. “Although it was not his personality to be self-promoting, his story, sacrifices and duty to honor was what drove me to get his story out and honor him this way.”
War brings out the best and the worst of men.
Thomas Nicholson, as told by his grandson Dave Roberts
Roberts said his grandfather kept a diary during the war but the family did not find any entries after April 29, 1945 — the chaotic day the 42nd Infantry Division helped liberate the Dachau concentration camp.
“I have to believe, if I could ask him now, one of the reasons he didn’t talk much about the war is because he was one of the first Allied soldiers to Dachau,” Roberts said.
While Nicholson didn’t give many details about what he saw in Europe, he would shed some light on his thoughts with a quote that Roberts had inscribed on the base of the statue: “War brings out the best and the worst of men.”
Source: Belleville News-Democrat, http://bit.ly/2fd4S6g
Information from: Belleville News-Democrat, http://www.bnd.com
This is an AP-Illinois Exchange story offered by the Belleville News-Democrat.