Like so many young men who have tried their hand at a higher education, Al Nichols made the decision to leave his studies at Lincoln University in Jefferson City, Mo., because of a youthful inclination to “socialize a little more than study.”
But as the 1965 Jefferson City High School graduate explained, he realized his deferment would soon be lost and chose to “beat the draft” by enlisting in the Army in 1967.
“I guess there really wasn’t any specific reason I chose the Army,” said Nichols, 66. “It was probably just the first recruiting office I walked into,” he grinned.
The erstwhile student soon completed his boot camp and then traveled to Ft. Rucker, Ala., to attend training to become a mechanic and door gunner for the UH-1 “Huey” helicopter.
An interest in working with helicopters, Nichols said, originated “from watching all of those war movies as a kid,” which, as he explained, also ignited an interest in becoming a member of the airborne infantry.
Yet the recruit failed to meet the requisite vision standards to qualify for the infantry, and, though not his first choice, decided the “next best thing” would be to become an aircraft mechanic.
Completing the16 weeks of advanced training where he learned basic aircraft maintenance and the operation of the weapons systems aboard the Huey, Nichols then traveled to Ft. Bragg, N.C., in July 1967 and was attached to a company preparing for deployment to Vietnam.
Arriving at Cam Ranh Bay by troop ship on Thanksgiving Day, Nichols and several of his fellow soldiers boarded a C-130 aircraft and flew to Phu Hiep, where they were assigned to the 134th Assault Helicopter Company.
“It was located on the South China Sea in the Central Highlands,” said Nichols, describing his first overseas duty. “I was initially assigned to the maintenance section, but later became a crew chief after another helicopter was lost.”
He spent the remainder of his tour flying combat assault and troop resupply missions out of the base at Phu Hiep and occasionally from locations in Pleiku and An Khe; missions which carried him over a large area of the country including spots along the Cambodian border—anywhere there was a concentration of enemy troops.
“I always liked being one of the first aircraft (helicopters) when dropping troops off at an LZ (landing zone),” said Nichols. “You could fire your weapons and force the enemy to keep their heads down … the element of surprise.”
Occasionally, Nichols said, the helicopters would incur damage when taking rounds through the rotor blades and tail boom.
“I guess we were lucky that the enemy soldiers didn’t realize they had to lead a moving target when shooting at us,” he laughed.
In the midst of his combat service, he was able to enjoy a few moments of bliss when he flew to Hawaii during his “R & R” to meet his fiancée Delores in July 1968. The couple was married and a few days later, he returned to Vietnam.
In December 1968, Nichols left Vietnam and traveled to Ft. Rucker, Ala., finishing out his enlistment the summer of the following year.
The combat veteran returned to Jefferson City and reenrolled in college part-time, and in late 1971, joined the Missouri National Guard where he was hired as a full-time maintenance technician.
In 1975, he graduated from college with a bachelor’s degree in economics, and went on to complete officer candidate school with hopes of becoming an officer—a dream that was temporarily sidelined when no non-flying aviation officer slots were available.
In later years, he was direct-commissioned as a warrant officer and served with several of the Guard’s aviation units. In 1991, he deployed for a second time in his career—this time to Saudi Arabia—as a maintenance supervisor during Desert Storm with the 1267th Air Ambulance Unit.
Twelve years later, he deployed a third and final time when he was sent to Balad, Iraq with the 106th Assault Helicopter Battalion to serve as the unit’s aircraft maintenance production control officer.
Just shy of forty years in uniform, Nichols retired in 2007 at the rank of chief warrant officer 4.
In addition to spending time with his grandchildren, Nichols has embraced his retirement by remaining active with VFW Post 1003, serving as the coordinator for the post’s honor guard and providing support for the funeral services of local veterans.
While discussing his years in military, Nichols shared a quote he recently overheard at a patriotic event, which he believes places his own military service into proper context.
“I heard a Medal of Honor recipient, Donald Ballard, say that when people are enjoying their freedoms, they’re drinking from a well that somebody else has dug.”
With a slight nod of confirmation, he added, “Growing up, I always believed that I had some responsibility to my country … and by having served in the military, I hope that I might have helped a little bit in digging that well.”
Jeremy P. Ämick writes on behalf of the Silver Star Families of America.