By JoEllen Conger
Historical, 208 pages
Cover art by Richard Stroud
Let me introduce myself. I’m Nick A. Nickell, and in my late teens, I was just a simple country boy raised on a farm. It changed my life after the Japanese attacked Pearl Harbor. I wasn’t ready for what came next, and this living hell became my story.
~ * ~
The old Marine Corps bus jolted me when it swayed, turning off the main road onto the graveled area at the base railhead. I had almost fallen asleep. It was four A.M. and I felt cold and disgruntled. At three A.M., the company commander had ordered us out of our warm beds and told us to pack up; we were leaving for a train ride. This was life in the Marine Corps.
I was cold because we had turned in our overcoats. Since troop movements were never discussed with enlisted men, we could only guess what that meant; they would be unnecessary where we were going. I listened to the crunch of tires on the gravel as we crossed the huge loading area. This was where equipment and personnel arrived and left Camp Lejeune Marine Base in North Carolina. At least I was happy they weren’t taking us off base to some city railroad station. I hated railroad stations; there was something lonely about them. My mind wandered back to the first time I could remember ever being in one.
The station was in Oakland, California. It had been alive with activity; wagon loads of luggage were being pulled here and there and people were standing in line to buy tickets to board trains. I watched a mother struggle to carry her luggage and still try to keep control of her flock of unruly children. Groups of servicemen moved in all directions. Girls were saying tearful goodbyes to their military sweethearts. One couple stood in a corner talking in low, serious tones. A girl stood alone, leaning against a column crying silent tears. The shoeshine man had business standing by, waiting.
The loudspeaker was blaring information about a train that was either arriving or departing; I couldn’t tell which. The words were almost lost against the background noise.
It was 1943… I was eighteen years old. The whole nation was involved with the war. Everywhere, there were posters and signs encouraging enlistment, extolling the virtues and advantages of buying war bonds, or warning against loose talk— “A slip of the lip can sink a ship.” Everywhere there were signs of the military presence. Army trucks moved along the highways, and uniformed men lounged around street corners in towns and cities. Flags flew from front yard poles, from porches, from the tops of buildings and from ropes tied across streets. Small flags began showing up in parents’ windows, with a star in the center, testament to the young men lost at war. It was a flag that reflected my own sense of sadness and grief for their loss.
I was used to being on my own to make my own decisions, to go where I wanted. But this was different. I had to remind myself that all I had to do was follow the instructions of the chief petty officer in charge of our group. I was standing with about a hundred other young men, who all wore arm bands reading “U.S. Navy.” We were inductees, and we were waiting to board a train that would carry us away from our homes and families, to a new and strange world; to the Navy Boot Camp at Farregat, Idaho. I had been living alone for some time, but for the first time, I felt disconnected, confused and a little lonely.