LTC Barbara Nichols: August 19, 1922 - June 16, 2023

Remembering a veteran of three wars


On Friday, June 16, 2023, Lieutenant Colonel Barbara Jean Nichols (retired), a nurse of three wars, passed away at Panorama in Lacey, Washington, her home of several decades. She celebrated her 100th birthday last year with over 100 guests on August 19, 2022, at a program and luncheon at the Lewis Army Museum on Joint Base Lewis McChord. The City of Lacey, in honor of her centennial, declared August 2022 as Barbara Nichols Month.

Barbara Jean Nichols was born on August 19, 1922, to Bernard Vilas Nichols and Esther Miriam Amick in Riverside, California. A year later, they were joined by a baby boy, Robert Amick Nichols, her sole sibling. They were a happy family who camped together, a hobby that, along with hiking and backpacking, she enjoyed throughout her life, including much of her retirement, with challenges as extreme as the Pacific Crest Trail.

Barbara and the B-17
As a teenager, Boeing employed Barbara during WWII, with her parents. She worked her way up in the aircraft industry from cabin upholstery to installation of the plexiglass nose on the B-17. It was a coveted job requiring precision... and short stature! When the 5,000th B-17 emerged from the Boeing facility in Seattle, she was one of the assembly-plant workers who signed it and posed for a photo. The exceedingly large aircraft was nicknamed "The Flying Fortress!". It was legendary for its ability to take punishment and return with its crew.

From Boeing B-17s to Blood Pressure Cuffs
She said, "I was working at a Boeing plant helping assemble B-17 bombers when President (Franklin D.) Roosevelt started the Cadet Nurse Corps because they needed nurses for the war. World War II was different, no one had heard of the Cadet Nurse Corps, but I joined, got three years of training in Everett General Hospital, and became an RN.” She trained for nursing at Everett General Hospital with her friend Lorena, who later married Barbara’s brother, Robert. She, Lorena Edgerton, and Lorena’s sister Maya were close, lifelong friends. Barbara graduated as the valedictorian of her 1947 nursing class. (After Korea, Barbara earned a Bachelor of Science degree (1957) at the University of Minnesota.) She also took available US Army training, and some of the titles of her classes were telling: Management of Mass Casualties; Survival, Escape, & Evasion. Among the first group of women who served as regular members of the armed forces, Barbara accepted a commission as 2nd Lieutenant in August 1948. 

Compassionate service in WWII, Korea, and Vietnam
LTC Nichols was a highly decorated battlefield nurse of the US Army, with a career spanning WWII, Korea, and Vietnam. She first served during the tail-end of WWII stateside in Madigan Hospital (Washington) and Ft. Sam Houston (Texas).

Duty in Korea
In 1950, Barbara reported to duty in Korea and was ordered to catch the night train to Seoul, then make her way alone, “by any means possible,” to the 8055th MASH, near the border of the two Koreas. She was soon reassigned to the U.S. Army’s 3rd Field Hospital on the outskirts of Pusan due to her skill in surgery. Two hospitals merged, and by 1951, she was promoted to Chief Nurse in a facility with more than 10,000 patients, many of whom were prisoners of war. She treated all patients with compassion, no matter which side they were on. “They’re all human,” She said.

Barbara was among the first US Army nurses to arrive in Korea and among the last to evacuate. In 1955, as the troops returned from war, she helped process them at Ft. Lawton, on the current site of Discovery Park, in Seattle, Washington. John Hughes tells her story in a 2017 book he co-authored with Lori Larson, and Trova Heffernan, Korea 65: The Forgotten War Remembered.

Duty in Vietnam
In the Vietnam War, she received the Bronze Star for her exceptional service. “Vietnam,” she comments, “was the hardest one to do. Really hard. But I [also] survived that one." She drove her own Army jeep and tended to President Eisenhower as his personal nurse while at DC’s Walter Reed Hospital and also spent extended periods with Mamie. She thoroughly enjoyed them both. In the era of her promotion to Lieutenant Colonel, she was at the highest rank a woman could achieve.

Her US Army work included assignments in Alaska, California, Germany, Korea, Minnesota, New Jersey, Texas, Tokyo, Vietnam, and Washington, DC.

Helping Orphans
In her off-duty time, she helped missionaries with medical needs at orphanages and helped with supplies for the children by organizing folks back home to donate, especially at Christmas. While in Vietnam, her 12-year-old niece, Valarie Nichols, led a drive at Friday Harbor that provided clothing, toys, and candy for 250 orphans.

Awards & Decorations
Barbara was awarded the Bronze Star at Madigan Hospital after a year in Vietnam, as an operating room supervisor and chief nurse in a field hospital (Seattle Times, April 17, 1966).

The following list includes a number of her awards: Bronze Star Medal; Army Commendation Medal; National Defense Service Medal; Korean Service Medal with 7 Battle Stars; Vietnam Service Medal with 3 Battle Stars; United Nations Service Medal (Korea); Army Meritorious Unit Commendation; Republic of Korea, Presidential Unit Citation Army Nurse Corps Association; and USPHS Cadet Nurse Corps.

Barbara provided POA Michele Penberthy, with whom she was very close, with a list of her affiliations, as follows. Barbara considered Michele as part of her family.

Life memberships included: Retired Officers Association, VFW, USAA, Disabled American Veterans, Onalaska Area Historical Society (WI), Steilacoom Historical Museum Association, and Retired Army Nurse Corps.

Other memberships included: Tacoma Pierce County Genealogical Society, Olympia Genealogical Society, Pilgrim John Howland Society, The National Huguenot Society, Queen Ann High School Alumni Assoc., General and Washington State Society of Mayflower Descendants, Daughters of the American Revolution, Billy Graham Association, Syogrns Syndrom Foundation, Descendants of Anthony and Susannah Cally, Inc.

A worthy career
With Barbara’s advanced skill in the operating room, coupled with specialized training and common sense, she served with distinction whenever and wherever needed. She was a compassionate but no-nonsense US Army nurse. She retired in 1969 and was proud to have served. Unfortunately, she suffered the rest of her life from peripheral neuropathy due to Agent Orange exposure.

In recent years, decades after her retirement, Barbara was recognized repeatedly for her service. Some recognitions included KOMO's Eric's Heros; Quilt of Valor, Honor Flight to Washington, DC, the Legacy Washington Program’s Korea 65, the Forgotten War Remembered (exhibit and book); as an honoree in various parades, honored by the South Korean Government, and raising the 12 flag for a Seattle Seahawks game in 2017 after visiting the team during practice. She was invited to bring friends to the game with her in a limo provided by the team. She chose: Mary Hanna, Alfie Alvarado-Ramos, Michele Penberthy, Terri Hicks Carillo, Shirley Stirling, and her physician, Dr. Samantha Richie.

Many other groups and individuals recognized her with certificates and medals. She was happy to be recognized but more interested in thanking the service men and women she met along the way for their service.

Family & friends
Barbara had close family ties and many friends, including fellow mountaineers, church members, travel companions, club members, and neighbors in Lakewood, Panorama, Lacey, Tacoma, and elsewhere! She took care of her mother to the end of her life, and they enjoyed living together in Germany and Washington, DC, taking full advantage of site seeing opportunities. Also, many thanks to the staff and residents of Panorama for their love and care.

Barbara was a member of Lacey Presbyterian Church and enjoyed her church family. A special church and Panorama friend toward her life's end was Dottie Maynard.

Genealogy Way-back
Barbara loved genealogical research and joined the Mayflower Society, as a descendant of John Howland. Howland fell overboard but was rescued during the Mayflower’s 1620 voyage.

She also joined the Daughters of the American Revolution (DAR), as a member of the Mary Ball Chapter (1988), and later transferred to the Sacajawea Chapter (2016). One special friend at the Mary Ball Chapter was Honorary Vice President General for Life Beverly Bills, a national officer who recruited Barbara for membership. Another special friend was Sacajawea Chapter Regent Shirley Stirling, who first met Barbara when she helped her transition to the Sacajawea Chapter, a club closer to her retirement home. Barbara’s direct-line patriots of the American Revolution included Henry Amick, PA, Private; Abel Nichols, CT, Private; John Nichols, NY, Soldier; and Asa Corbin, MA, Private. She was the first researcher to prove their qualifying terms of service.

Hiking and Travel
Throughout her life, Barbara enjoyed camping, hiking, backpacking, and all sorts of travel with family and friends. She was a member of the Mountaineers Club and organized a hiking club at Panorama, the “Up-The-Hill Gang.” She and Maya also made overland jeep explorations. Barbara hiked and traveled all over the world, through many years, with her good friend Mary Hannah – they were friends to the end of her life.

Mary Hannah provided this list of their adventures: Kenya, Tanzania, Zimbabwe, South Africa, South Cape, Victoria Falls, Galapagos Islands, Machu Picchu, Peru, Ecuador, Canadian railroad trips to Vancouver, Montreal & Quebec City, Alaska, Yellowstone, Mt. Saint Helens, Craters of the Moon, Olympic Mountain Range, Cascade Range, over the Cascade Pass, Marblemount-to-Stehekin, Packwood, Lake Naches Loop, Snowgrass Flat, Duckabush, Mt Rainier Skyline Trail, Pacific Crest Trail, and Vermont “Country Inns along the trail” trek.

Preceded in death
Barbara was preceded in death by her parents, Bernard Vilas Nichols (1896-1966) and Esther Miriam Amick (1902-1976); her brother, Robert Amick Nichols (1923-2011); Robert’s wife, Lorena Iona Edgerton (1925-1994) with whom she attended nursing school; nephew Scott David Nichols (1949-200); great-nephew, Brian Russel Nichols (1988-2005); and great niece Heather Reanne Nichols-Huxhold (1981-2022).

Survivors include niece Valarie Jean Nichols of San Jose, CA, Valarie’s daughter Tacy Jean Nichols of Renton, WA; Tacy’s son Marchal “Blayk” Lee Nichols; her nephew Kimball Ryan Nichols and his wife Erin of Trinidad, Colorado; Kimball’s children Robert Amick Nichols II, Breann Nicole Nichols, Jeffrey Ryan, and Nichols-Huxhold; her cousin Henry Amick, of Port Angeles; and her sister-in-law, Yvonne “Vony” Nichols of Marysville, WA. In addition, she is survived by six great-grandnieces / nephews; and several other cousins.

Two Services 

Cemetery Service - Saturday, August 19, 2023, at 10:30 AM. A graveside service will be held at Mountain View Cemetery, 4100 Steilacoom Blvd. SW, Lakewood, WA. This would have been Barbara’s 101st birthday. The service will include a 21-gun salute and full military honors. There will be no reception.

Church Service - Saturday, September 2, 2023, at 2 PM. A celebration of life will be held at Lacey Presbyterian Church, 3045 Carpenter Road SE Lacey, WA. The service will include SAR/SAR color guard and Beverly York playing the bagpipes. A reception will follow.