A soldier’s story – Sgt. Bill Nickell spent 250 days on front lines
“I saw a 60-ton German Tiger tank about 100-feet away. It had nine machine guns and one 88 mm cannon pointing right at us,” Sgt. William Nickell of Punta Gorda, Fla. wrote in his World War II memoirs.
For more than 250 days, he was on the front lines as a member of the 83rd Infantry Division that saw action in France, Belgium, Luxembourg, Holland and Germany. His was the “foot slogger’s” life. He witnessed destruction and death day-after-day as he fought for every inch of ground in front of him.
Fewer than three weeks after “D-Day,” the Allied Invasion of Normandy on June 26, he landed in France. Nickell ‘s company was ordered to capture Sainteny on July 4,1944. It was a little French town in the hedgerow country near the coast.
“Six of us and the bazooka team were detailed to knock out a tank. We heard this squeaking noise. Sgt. Johnson said to me, ‘You look and see what it is,'” he wrote in his memoirs.
“We were down on our knees. I was behind a small tree, about four inches thick. The noise got louder and louder. I pulled my helmet off and raised up very slow.
“‘It’s a (Tiger) tank coming at us,'” he told the sergeant. “The tank came within 12 to 15 feet from us, but they couldn’t see where we were because we were hidden behind a hedgerow,” Nickell wrote.
Moments later, their bazooka team fired a round at point-blank range and scored a hit on the turret of the massive enemy tank. Its heavy steel plating was hardly scratched by the shell.
“Everyone ran. I was behind all the rest because I had been hiding behind the little tree,” Nickells said. “The tank crew saw me and began spraying me with machine gun fire, (but missed). I (fell down and) played dead for about 10 minutes.”
Eventually, he crawled out of the tank’s line of fire. Nickell reached the safety of an embankment about the same time a German mortar shell exploded 10-feet away.
“Five of us were lying in a row behind the bank. Refusco, Spivak, Taylor, an Indian boy and I were all behind the bank. Refusco was killed, the Indian boy was killed, Spivak got his arm cut off, Sgt. Taylor and I never got hurt.”
By 6 p.m. they escaped the Tiger tank. Their company pulled back and dug in for the night. Nickell and another buddy, Miteko from Chicago, were in nearby foxholes.
Nickell went to get some straw to line the bottom of his foxhole to sleep on when German artillery began shelling the American lines.
“I saw Miteko running across the field. He’d been hit. I grabbed him to help him find a first aid man. His face was black and burned to a crisp. I never saw him again,” he wrote.
“When I got back to my foxhole, I began to think I was a cat with nine lives. What a day, my first in combat.”
On July 12 “we started our attack, but the (enemy) shelling was so great we had to pull back,” Nickell wrote in his memoirs. “We were running back to the next hedgerow when I fell into a small foxhole.
“I saw this new replacement, a big guy who weighed about 240 pounds running through the field. I said to him, ‘You take my foxhole and I’ll dig another one.’
“He hadn’t been in the hole but six or seven minutes when a mortar shell hit the top of a nearby tree and struck him in the back. He had lasted about thee or four hours. That was about average for a replacement,” he said.
By Aug. 6, 1944, they were driving toward St. Milo, along the French coast. The Germans were in a citadel on a small island.
“They put up their white flag to surrender. But when our 3rd Platoon went up to take them prisoner, the Germans shot the hell out of our men and went back into their bunkers,” Nickell wrote.
“About 2 p.m. the next day P-38 (fighters) with napalm arrived. The second plane that came in to drop its bombs, up with their white flag again.
“So up went the 3rd Platoon to capture the Germans again,” he said. “They captured 500 German soldiers .”
Crying under fire
It was still August and Nickell and his unit were still in the hedgerow country fighting in tight quarters.
They were facing a German 60 mm mortar team in the corner of a hedgerow about 250 feet from their position. One of the men in his unit had already been killed by a mortar round earlier that morning.
Nickell was ordered by Sgt. Johnson to go with three other men to get chow for their unit. At the last moment the sergeant changed his mind and decided Nickell should remain behind because he had the Browning Automatic Rifle. If the enemy attacked, his B.A.R. would come in handy.
Instead the sergeant sent Pruitt, Nickell ‘s assistant gunner, and three others to fetch breakfast for the rest of the troops. Ten minutes later three of the men came running back without Pruitt and without chow. Pruitt had been hit by enemy fire. They left him in a foxhole.
Nickell asked them to take the medic and go back and see about his buddy. When they returned they brought the chow. Pruitt was dead, they told him.
“I don’t think I even ate anything,” he wrote. “It was the first time I really broke down and cried in combat. I must have cried for about two hours.”
He gets hit
They left Echternach, Luxembourg, and headed for the Hurtgen Forest to relieve the 4th Division. The Germans were counter attacking. It was Dec. 11.
“The next morning about 8:30 the Germans started shelling us with heavy artillery. About the second shell that came in knocked my helmet off and cut Huff’s bayonet off his rifle,” Nickell wrote. “Just as we got into the woods a German plane started strafing us. There was a large tree on the edge of the woods and Huff and I about wore the bark off the tree running around it while being strafed.”
After the fighter flew off, the two soldiers moved into an open field and got down into a ditch. The next thing they knew, German mortar shells started falling on them.
“‘I wonder where they’re going to fall,'” he asked his buddy. “I hardly got the words out of my mouth when a shell just about covered me with mud and rock. The next thing I knew Huff was helping me back toward a 3rd Cavalry armored car. I was taken back to an aid station in the rear.”
Nickell ended up in the 56th General Hospital in Mastrach, Holland. He spent almost 30 days recovering from a leg wound. He was sent back to the 83rd Division on the front lines on Jan. 11, 1945, into the Battle of the Bulge.
At the front again
During the attempt to capture Cartell, Belgium the advance stalled. Soldiers eventually fought their way into the village through three foot deep snow, but they couldn’t fight their way out for five days.
“We had a barn full of dead GIs and German soldiers , we also had wounded GIs and Germans in the barn. I got so sleepy one night I went in the barn and took a nap. There wasn’t much room, so I crawled in between two German officers and went to sleep,” he said.
Then they began a 210 mile assault across Holland and into Germany. During this campaign they captured 175 towns and villages in 10 days. At one point they were in the vicinity of Durenburg, Germany.
“We liberated about 700 British and American P.O.Ws. We were standing by the roadside talking to some of them when one very large former Australian P.O.W. walked up to one of our boys and asked to borrow his rifle.
“The Australian took the rifle and grabbed one of the German soldiers and took him behind a (nearby) house and shot him. He brought the rifle back and said (to the soldier he borrowed it from), he won’t bother us any more,” Nickell wrote.
The Elbe River
They reached Barby on the Elbe River. It was April 12, 1945, the day President Roosevelt died. They heard the sad news but they had to kept on fighting and dying.
By 3 p.m. the next afternoon, Nickell and his men loaded into 14 foot row boats and started to cross the Elbe. At that moment, a German plane flew over at tree-top level, but their troops shot it out of the sky with 40 mm anti-aircraft guns.
“We went into the little town of Walterninburg, (Germany) about a quarter-mile from the river. We stayed there for the night, a very uneasy night, because we had no bridge and we were looking for the Germans to try and counter attack and push us back into the river,” he wrote.
It didn’t happen and Nickell and the others in his unit inched their way further into the “Father Land,” knowing the enemy wasn’t far away and the Germans had tanks and artillery waiting for them.
The Army engineers completed the pontoon bridge across the Elbe and all the infantrymen, like Nickell, felt better. They dug in at Walterninburg and waited.
“About 10:30 a.m. we spotted someone walking out of the woods straight ahead of us about a half mile away. It was a Germany Infantry Company, the one we were waiting for. We held our fire until they got within a city block of us and then opened fire,” he wrote.
It was April 17, 1945, when they advanced on Zerbst, approximately 25 miles west of Berlin. The lead tank in the column had a loud speaker mounted on it. They were broadcasting in German from the tank for the enemy to put down their arms and surrender.
“When we got into town, all the German soldiers were standing on the street corners with luggage in their hands like they were going to catch a bus,” he said.
One of the guys in his unit found an old motorcycle along the side of the road while wandering through Zerbst. Nickell volunteered to ride ahead on the cycle and reconnoiter the country side. While motoring through the next village, a short distance away, he spotted a road block with a German 88 millimeter artillery piece aimed right at him.
“I turned to the right and went about a block when I saw four soldiers coming toward me with a wagon load of hay. They were Russian soldiers . One of them could speak good English.
“He said he didn’t know the Americans were in Zerbst. I jumped on my motor bike and headed back to Zerbst. There was a happy bunch of boys when I got back and told them the Russians were in the next town.
“This is what we were looking for. It was the end of the war for us,” Nickell concluded.
Nickell ‘s Commendations
Bill Nickell of Punta Gorda was a member of the 83 Infantry Division In World War II. He fought on the front lines for more than 250 days through France, Belgium, Luxembourg, Holland and Germany. Here are his commendations:
1. Two Purple Hearts
2. Three Bronze Stars
3. Five Battle Stars
4. A Presidential Unit Citation
5. Battle of the Bulge Medal
6. Utah Beach Medal
7. American Campaign Medal
8. National Defense Medal
7. European-African Medal Eastern Campaign
8. Combat Infantryman’s Badge
9. Army of Occupation Medal
10. Nous Gardons (French Medal)
He will be on TV
Bill Nickell was asked to reminisce about his meeting with the Russian troops at the end of the war in April 1945 for the History Channel. It will appear as part of a 13-hour documentary called The Color of War and will begin on Sunday, Nov. 18, 2002 at 8 p.m., and run into February. His piece will air in February on the History Channel in a segment titled Victory.
This story was first published in the Venice Gondolier newspaper, Venice, Florida on Wednesday, Jan. 30, 2002 and is republished with permission.
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