Picture a Korean War veteran, one who received a battlefield promotion in the face of harsh conditions and dangers. Or picture someone who dealt with the gruesome realities of war in Vietnam. The image that comes to mind isn’t likely to resemble Barbara Jean Nichols.
She is 95 years old, and not quite 5 feet tall. In tennis shoes, she seems the picture of a spry great-grandmother who kept the home fires burning during wartime. Nichols, though, is a retired Army lieutenant colonel who traveled the world to serve her country and provide life-saving care.
Her service as an Army nurse took her close to the front lines in Korea and Vietnam, and to Germany and the old Walter Reed Army Medical Center in Washington, D.C. At Walter Reed, she once helped take former President Dwight D. Eisenhower to the presidential suite.
“I got to meet Mamie,” Nichols said Monday.
By phone from Lacey, where she lives in the Panorama retirement community, Nichols spoke of her wartime experiences. During World War II, she bolted nose cones onto B-17 bombers at a Boeing assembly line in Seattle. From 1945 to 1947, as part of the U.S. Cadet Nurse Corps, she studied at Everett General Hospital School of Nursing and Everett Junior College. She was class valedictorian when she earned her nursing credentials in 1947.
Nichols, who has rarely shared what it was like to care for battlefield casualties, is now highlighted as part of an historical exhibit in Olympia, “Korea 65: The forgotten war remembered.”
“This is the first time it’s really been shared,” Nichols said.
Among her quotes in the exhibit is one that hints at what she continues to live with: “When you’re doing your job as a nurse or doctor, you have to stay calm. When it bothers you is later. It’s the memories that won’t go away. It catches up to you.”
Presented by Legacy Washington, the Korean War exhibit opened last week in the lobby of the Secretary of State’s Office on the second floor of the Capitol Building. It will be on view until July 2018, said Brian Zylstra, a spokesman with the Secretary of State’s Office. The nonprofit Legacy Washington documents stories of people and events in state history. Collaborators include the Washington State Library, Washington State Archives and heritage organizations.
During the Korean War, Nichols became chief nurse at the U.S. Army’s 3rd Field Hospital on the outskirts of Pusan. By 1951, she was helping oversee more than 10,000 patients, many of them prisoners of war. “They were human beings,” she said of the Korean POWs.
She remembers personal hardships. “There was no adequate food. The rations were terrible, so old, and lots of leftovers from World War II,” she said. For laundry, she said she washed her underwear “and everything else” in her helmet.
Her parents, the late Bernard and Esther Nichols, lived in Everett in 1952 when The Everett Herald reported Nichols had received her captain’s bars while in Korea.
It was 1965 when she arrived in Vietnam. “The equipment was better than Korea, but the wounds were worse,” she said. “We got them right off the battlefield, and sent them to a hospital in Japan.”
Nichols, who earned a Bronze Star in Vietnam and retired in 1969, can’t shake the memory of a man injured by a rocket launcher. “It hit him in the belly. The wounds he had, it just haunts me,” she said. That man did not survive.
She remembers cutting clothes off the men brought in with injuries. “That’s where we got Agent Orange,” Nichols said. Affected by the herbicide, she suffers from peripheral neuropathy and other health issues, and receives compensation because of 90 percent combat disability.
John Hughes, Legacy Washington’s chief historian and former editor and publisher of The Daily World newspaper in Aberdeen, wrote profiles about eight of the 13 people featured in “Korea 65,” including Nichols.
“I knew that nurses in Korea were really close to the front lines,” Hughes said. In doing his research for the exhibit, “I cast my net and found this little tiny amazing woman in Panorama City. Barbara Nichols is an absolutely remarkable American woman.”
With an interest in genealogy, Nichols has traced her ancestry to the 1600s. She learned she is a descendant of John Howland, who fell overboard but was rescued during the 1620 voyage of the Mayflower. Her family’s military service, she said, dates back to the American Revolution.
Nichols is grateful for the U.S. Cadet Nurse Corps, created by the Bolton Act in 1943, which paid for her nursing training.
Hughes got a kick out of her reaction when he asked about “M*A*S*H,” the TV series based on a Mobile Army Surgical Hospital in the Korean War. She told him she was way too busy for the antics of the fictional characters.
“I see a little humor in it now,” Nichols said when reminded Monday of the show’s Maj. Margaret “Hot Lips” Houlihan. “We didn’t have all the fun they had,” she said.
Sixty-five years after her Korean War service, missile testing by North Korea is no laughing matter. At the United Nations on Tuesday, President Donald Trump vowed to “totally destroy North Korea” if it threatened the United States or its allies.
“I hope there isn’t war,” Nichols said.
Julie Muhlstein: 425-339-3460; email@example.com.
Herald writer Jerry Cornfield contributed to this story.
Korea 65 exhibit
Legacy Washington’s “Korea 65: The forgotten war remembered” exhibit is in the lobby of the Secretary of State’s Office on the second floor of the Capitol building in Olympia. See it online at www.sos.wa.gov/legacy/Korea65.
Read Legacy Washington Chief Historian John Hughes’ profile of Barbara Jean Nichols at https://www.sos.wa.gov/_assets/legacy/barbara-nichols.pdf.