As a young man, duty called John Joseph Nichols to serve his country as one of America’s Buffalo Soldiers. As an old man, he felt called to keep telling their story.
“I feel that I have to tell them about it and to bring them up so they know and can be proud,” Nichols said in a 2016 interview with The Times-Dispatch about his frequent public presentations, particularly for schoolchildren, about the so-called Buffalo Soldiers, the Army’s African American units. Nichols served in one of those units, the 10th Cavalry Regiment, during World War II, before racial segregation in the military ended.
“I want them to know,” he said.
Nichols, a Chester resident and one of America’s last surviving Buffalo Soldiers, died March 20 after suffering a stroke, said his wife, Marion. His death came two days after his 96th birthday.
“He loved the Lord,” said Marion Nichols, when asked what she would like people to know about her husband. She has written a book about her husband’s life and has titled it “A Buffalo Soldier: God’s Warrior.” He also was an ordained minister, she said.
His friend George Grady, who will deliver a eulogy at a memorial service on April 10 at 1 p.m. at Victory Tabernacle Church in Midlothian, said Nichols was “an outstanding fellow.” A military service will be held for him later this month in his home state of Colorado.
He was also “rambunctious and outspoken” and a natural storyteller, said Grady, who along with Nichols was a charter member of the Petersburg chapter of the Buffalo Soldiers, one of a national network of groups dedicated to preserving and sharing the history. Nichols was the last actual Buffalo Soldier in the local group.
“He could go on and on … I heard them over and over,” Grady said with a laugh, speaking of Nichols’ war stories. “I just listened. He was a great guy, whom I admired very much.”
Nichols grew up in Colorado Springs. His mother was Cherokee, his father Choctaw and Black. His family struggled financially, he recounted in an interview for a U.S. Department of Defense news site in 2016, and even as young as age 5 he took on odd jobs — collecting firewood, cleaning ash pits — to bring in a few cents.
He was drawn to military service after hearing President Roosevelt’s radio address after the Japanese attacked Pearl Harbor in December 1941. He tried to enlist, but the Army turned him down because he was only 16, he said. He had to wait until he turned 17 in March 1942.
“As I and my forefathers did, we figured if we showed our hearts to the American people and did the American thing, they would overlook our blackness, quit rejecting us and accept us,” he said in the DOD interview. “This was a dead dream.”
Nichols was sent to Camp Forsyth in Kansas, where he learned to ride a horse and trained as a member of the 10th cavalry, and where his fellow troops included heavyweight prizefighter Joe Louis and Jackie Robinson, several years before he made history integrating Major League Baseball.
The 10th Cavalry was one of the original Buffalo Soldier regiments in the post-Civil War Regular Army, which had been authorized in 1866 to create six African American units — two cavalry, four infantry. Members of those units became the first Black professional soldiers in the peacetime Army. They were tasked with escorting settlers along the treacherous trails of the Western frontier and conducting campaigns against American Indian tribes. It’s not certain when or why they became known as “Buffalo Soldiers,” but a possible origin of the name came from Indians who respectfully dubbed them “buffaloes” because of the ferocious manner in which they fought when cornered, like buffalo.
Buffalo Soldiers fought in the Spanish-American War and served during World War I, though they were mostly dispatched to defend the Mexican border. They were trained for combat in World War II, but were relegated to non-combat roles, as military leadership doubted their fighting abilities, which rankled Nichols, whose unit was deployed to North Africa in a support role for Allied forces. He wanted to fight, so later he volunteered to serve under Gen. George Patton who needed reinforcements. His offer was accepted, but he was told he would have to give up his rank of staff sergeant because white soldiers would balk at taking orders from Black officers.
Nichols agreed to relinquish his rank — and, as it turned out, a promotion that had been approved — and again become a private, and he eventually saw combat in northern Italy.
“I felt proud, and I didn’t care if I was a private,” he told the DOD interviewer in 2016. “I was doing the job I was trained to do.”
Nichols also served in Korea and stayed in the Army until 1964, mostly overseas, ultimately retiring as a staff sergeant, the rank he had surrendered so he could go to the front lines in Italy. However, the Army did not restore the promotion he also lost during WWII. Nichols was still in the appeals process to regain that promotion at the time of his death.
After retiring from the military, Nichols moved to Germany because of the way Black people were treated in America. He lived in Germany for 20 years, returning to the United States in the 1980s.
After his Army days, Nichols worked in a variety of businesses and as an evangelist, his wife said. He came to the Petersburg area to start a business and never left. Twice widowed, he met Marion, an Air Force veteran herself, and they were married for more than 12 years at the time of his death.
Nichols, who had lost his mobility due to physical problems, spent his last year at The Sitter & Barfoot Veterans Care Center on the campus of the McGuire VA Medical Center as Marion underwent treatment for breast cancer. For the past year, she had been able to visit him only during medical appointments at McGuire as he was quarantined because of COVID-19 protocols. One of their weekly rituals was to talk on the phone as they watched the same church service on Sunday mornings “so we could talk and pray together,” Marion said. “So we were still in church together.”
She had been making plans to bring him home when the stroke occurred.
“I wanted him home,” she said, “but this happened before I could get it all together.”