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Interview with James Nickols, July 24, 2007 | UNCW Archives and Special Collections Online Database

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Interview with James Nickols, July 24, 2007
July 24, 2007
Interview with retired chaplain James Nickols.
Phys. Desc:

Interviewee:  Nickols, James Interviewer:  Zarbock, Paul Date of Interview:  7/24/2007 Series:  Military Chaplains Length  80 minutes


Zarbock: Good afternoon. My name is Paul Zarbock. I'm a staff person with the University of North Carolina at Wilmington's Randall Library. Today is the 24th of July, 2007, and we're in Williamsburg, Virginia at one of the motels. Our interviewee this afternoon is a chaplain, retired, James Nickols. Good afternoon, sir. How are you?

Nickols: Fine. Thanks. It's good to be here.

Zarbock: Thank you. Well, I'm going to start off with a question I've asked all of the interviewees are part of the Military Chaplain's Oral History Project. What person or persons or event or series of events led you to decide on the ministry as a professional occupation?

Nickols: Well, it was the assistant pastor at St. Paul Lutheran Church and an experience going into the city of New York to see "The Greatest Story Ever Told." And it was a train ride from Northport, East Northport, Long Island in New York to the city, and we went in to see the movie and on the way back I had all kinds of questions about the ministry and so forth. He was responsive, encouraging. One thing led to another, and the Holy Spirit nabbed me and whisked me into a direction of studying for the ministry.

Zarbock: How old were you at that time of the event?

Nickols: I was a senior in high school.

Zarbock: And what year would that be?

Nickols: That would be 1965, '66.

Zarbock: Was your family church-related?

Nickols: Well, we went to church. My mother was United Methodist. My natural father was Roman Catholic. My natural father died; my mom remarried. He was Lutheran, and we all wound up going to a Lutheran church. And moved out from [inaudible], Long Island to East Northport, Long Island and found a church there. I went to an LCA church, but every time I tried to go to confirmation class I would never get the word that it was cancelled, so I was at church on the other side of the tracks. I was speaking-- it was physically on the other side of the tracks. It was a Resina church, and that's where we went. That's where I was confirmed. But just pious parents. Nobody in my family had any clergy, no one was clergy.

Zarbock: Well, so you decided during your high school years?

Nickols: Right.

Zarbock: Off you went to college. Where did you go?

Nickols: Concordia, Bronxville, New York in Westchester County, then Concordia Senior College in Fort Wayne, Indiana, then Concordia Seminary in St. Louis. Got involved with the Seminex Concordia Seminary brouhaha, which led to the exile so I was--

Zarbock: Would you, again, for the sake of history, would you sketch that out a little bit? When you said Seminex and-- first of all, the Lutheran Church is divided into synods.

Nickols: Well, there's-- different Lutheran churches structure themselves differently. The Lutheran church was-- Missouri Synod was a large church that has districts in it. The Lutheran church in America, at the time, had synods which were geographical map based. And so the structure of one, the LCA at the time, the ACL, the American Lutheran Church, same polity they would have synods in their normal districts, so different nomenclature.

Zarbock: But what was happening at the seminary?

Nickols: Well, imagine '69. Jacob Preus was the president of Concordia Seminary in Springfield.

Zarbock: How do you spell that?

Nickols: P R E U S. Jacob Preus. There's a movement within the Lutheran Church somewhat similar to what's going on in the Southern Baptist Convention for these many years. There's a strong fundamentalist movement leading to pushing people of moderate views off of boards and commissions and so forth, and that's how-- the Missouri synod, before it happened in the Southern Baptist Convention. And so Preus was elected on a platform, his mission, his objective was to take down the faculty at Concordia Seminary in St. Louis.

Zarbock: So he was an arch conservative?

Nickols: Yeah. He was a politically astute guy. I don't know how arch conservative he was. And John Tietjen was a young 49-year-old president of the seminary, and so two people came forward, one from Nebraska, one from Wisconsin, to charge that Tietjen was allowing and fostering false doctrine, at which point, when those charges were made, there were no specifications as to what the false doctrine was. So, when I was at chaplain school in July and August of 1973, Tietjen had come from the New Orleans convention where the order control changed into the hands of, I'll call it Preus's party. And so they had their first board meeting in August, at which point they fired John Tietjen. However, they had to reinstate him, because in the constitution of the Missouri synod, it states how a process needs to be followed if a person at an academic institution is going to be terminated, and they didn't do that right. So they had to go back to the drawing board. But the objective was clearly to remove Tietjen.

So, from August until January of '74, it was just a sham. So while what was going on with the Nixon administration and Watergate and the tapes and everything else, there were tapes and all this other stuff that was going on in the Lutheran Church Missouri synod, and there was an investigation. And the faculty was interviewed privately. Students were allowed to bring their class notes. There was taping in classrooms, and handing over the tapes. It was an interesting environment. So Tietjen was fired in January, and then at that point, at that particular moment, the student body declared a moratorium. And then on February 19th of 1974, they walked off the campus.

Zarbock: The entire student body?

Nickols: Except for about six students, yes. About 640 students walked off the campus. "People" Magazine had come out early in that timeframe, too, and had a big write-up on it. I was in "Newsday," the local Long Island kid. So it was a tremendous event.

Zarbock: What was the result of the walk out?

Nickols: It was the start of-- it was called seminary exile, then it was eventually renamed Christ Center Seminex. And then, eventually, with the ongoing talks among the Association of Evangelical Lutheran Churches, which was the splinter group of the Missouri Synod, the American Lutheran Church, the Lutheran Church of America, began the process of talks of merging and so forming the EMCA of 1998-- 1988, excuse me. So the faculty was absorbed at Pacific Seminary, Pacific Lutheran Seminary in Brooklyn, and then at the Lutheran School of Theology in Chicago. So my degree is from the Lutheran School of Theology in Chicago. It says Concordia Seminary, but on the bottom it's a footnote with an asterisk and it says, "Based upon the affiliation with the Lutheran School of Theology in Chicago." That's how we got accreditation, was through them.

Zarbock: And when did you finish seminary, what year?

Nickols: Well, I finished in March and graduated in May of 1974.

Zarbock: Okay. Well, why did you go in the military chaplaincy, or how soon after your graduation?

Nickols: Well, actually, it was before, when I was starting to minister to my uncle by marriage to my stepfather; he wasn't really my uncle by blood. His name was Frit [inaudible], a German name. Worked for the Department of the Navy. He worked with the shipyard program through the-- started really, before the Second World War, through the Second World War, up to the point when McManara was going to close the shipyard and move it down to the Navy Shipyard at Portsmouth. He decided as a long-time New Yorker, he doesn't think so. But while I was preparing for that, he received or subscribed to the "Naval Institute's Proceedings," the journal, and in it, was an article written by a chaplain. He says, "You know, you really ought to take this magazine, read it, and consider doing this, going into the chaplaincy." And so I found that-- when I got to the seminary, it was-- in the second year of the seminary, you're allowed to pursue something like that, and that's what I did, began the paperwork to become what they call a theological student program, TSP. Now they call it a Chaplain Candidate Officer Program. So I was allowed to be an ensign, even though I wasn't ordained. I [inaudible] 1945 designator and so had I-- had there been a conflict or something, I could have wound up being a surplus warfare officer. [Laughs.] But-- so I started that in 1972, so I was in the Reserves. And then, because of Seminex, I was captain of theological student program in 1976, because I couldn't get a superseding appointment from the Lutheran Church Missouri Synod, and the AELC, I wasn't a member of the AELC, it was kind of redundant. So the Atlantic District of the Lutheran synod-- Rudy Nussmeyer was the district president-- he helped introduce me to James Grave, who was the president of the Metropolitan New York Synod of the LCA.

And so I began the process to become-- get on the ministry of the LCA. And so I was, at that point, I was teaching at a parochial high school in New York, and went down in Manhattan, Lower Manhattan, for my appointment to meet with the cabinetcy committee. Normally, they break down into three groups of four, and some of the candidates hadn't arrived yet, so the whole committee decided to meet with me. So at this big huge table in this conference room, I was sitting in the center, all these people were asking me different kinds of theological questions, and so it was the Missouri Synod wanting the ELCA. So they wanted to make sure I was doing it for the right reasons.

So, finally they were convinced, because I was approved, so then I-- Dave Wright, at the time, was the Chief of Chaplains Office, he ultimately became the Chief of Chaplains, but at that point, his career was Lieutenant Commander, and he was the one that says, "Jim, I've been holding you very long in this period of time, and if you don't get an endorsement pretty soon, I'm going to have to drop you from the program." So I was able to continue.

Zarbock: And off you went to chaplain school?

Nickols: Well, let's see. In '72, I drilled the St. Louis, at the Reserve side on the [inaudible] field, and then I had to do my year internship. I went down to Panama Canal Zone, Balboa-- the Panama Canal Zone. Worked at the Redeemer Lutheran Church down there for a year, at which point I identified or met up with Lieutenant Commander William Will, who wound up, I guess, in the Reserves as a flack, Reserve flack. But he was Lieutenant Commander, United Methodist, if I remember correctly, and he took me under his wing and showed me how to get correspondence courses and taught me to or, you know, start off with the Chaplain Corps history volumes, and so there's a-- I went and did that. And then I did a public relations course, and a whole mess of others. And once in a while he'd get me over to the chapel and preach. He was a better supervisor than my supervisor was. It was really nice going to him rather than where I was. As a matter of fact, you know, the guy was about ready to send me back to the United States who was supervising me. When I finally got back to the seminary, his daughter was dating his son and--

Zarbock: Wait a minute. Whose daughter was--

Nickols: My supervisor's daughter was dating--

Zarbock: Your mentor's--

Nickols: No, the-- one of the staff people who's in charge of the internship programs son. And they're married. They live in St. Louis. So I'm not going to go any further with that one, [laughs] but it was interesting, because, you know, when I got back, they wanted to send me on a clinical pastoral education program, and I said to them, I said, "You know, a clinical pastoral education program is not a discipline program. It's a program for people who are interested in going into hospital ministries and so forth. And I don't have a problem that I'm aware of. I think I'd perform very well in other areas." And so-- and he bought that, so I didn't have to do it. [laughs] So.

Zarbock: Well, who-- I've interviewed other chaplains, and they said, "Well, I went off to chaplain school, and they taught me how to march and salute, and I didn't do any of those things." So who made a sailor out of you? Where did that come along?

Nickols: Well, I think Reserve training was very helpful. I would drill on the weekends, and I would get exposure there.

Zarbock: Somebody taught you how to wear you uniform?

Nickols: William Will taught me how to wear my uniform. That was Panama.

Zarbock: Close order drill?

Nickols: Well, we didn't do any of the drilling stuff, but he showed me how to wear the uniform. Actually, he had me participate with him in a military funeral. So for the year that I was down there, he guided me in all that, so by the time I got to where I needed to be, at least I knew that. And I think if anything taught me how to march, it was the Boy Scouts. And that's where-- so none of it was really foreign to me, by the time I got to chaplain school. And the chaplain school in August, July and August, when I arrived there, it was the first woman chaplain in any of the services was in the class, Diana Pullman. And she was sworn in by Admiral Zumwalt, a Presbyterian.

Zarbock: How did that go, you know, the first woman in anything is under scrutiny, observation, and maybe antagonism.

Nickols: Well, there is-- was. I never thought it would be appropriate to be negative toward her. And I think on the whole she got along well. I think what was trying was the whole notoriety that she was getting. She was in the class and then she'd be whisked off to New York City for "What's My Line." But you're either there or you're not there. You know, there is a lot of notoriety with that kind of stuff.

Zarbock: What was chaplain school like?

Nickols: It was an interesting group of people from different parts of the country, some of whom retired back home, like I did, or went back to seminary, and others who went on active duty. And others just remained in the Reserves. Right now, the only person from our class that's still on active duty is Steven Lenahan.

Zarbock: How many people in the class?

Nickols: Good question. I would think about 20 to 30 or so.

Zarbock: What was the nature of the curriculum?

Nickols: Well, it was a lot of group processing stuff. There was a lot of fallout from the Vietnam War. I know we had people who were in Vietnam that came back and were on the staff. And it was just a lot of introspection, Johari window and other kinds of stuff. But really very good. I mean, it was John Baretsky, Chuck Greenwood, Jim Six, Jim Sign were on the staff there when I went through. And the director was Joe Tubbs, a World War II vintage chaplain, United Methodist. So it was a I just-- very good. I had a good experience there. There was a different kind of quality of it, the leadership there, then, as the Chaplain Corps changed, it just-- different. I don't know how to explain it, but, you know, they viewed-- that's where I learned from Chuck Greenwood, who was a graduate candidate at Annapolis that went into the ministry as a Presbyterian minister, he said that, "Your rank is on your right and your cross is on the left of your collar. Your head is in the middle." And that stuck with me throughout the whole time, obviously, because I share it here. But yeah, you have the balance between rank-- you can't go this way or you're not doing it, you go too far this way, you're not doing it. You've got to keep the Venetia to know where you are. And so that was really important advice.

Zarbock: Were you married at the time?

Nickols: No. I did get-- I wasn't married until it was 1973, and I didn't get married until 1982. [laughs] So. And the Naval Training Command up there at the base, it was a huge operating base that had ships and so forth, and that was-- made it different. And they had a junior officers' club, just junior officers only. It was called the Data, and it was an experience. That was the day when they had closed officer messes, and so you could go there for lunch and for $1.98 and get a lot of different kinds of food. Once William Proxmire pointed the finger at the closed officers' mess, he said, "That's Tex, you know, that went away. Why do things change in the Navy?" People started brown bagging. And so the coming together was not the same. It was just changed. But the base was alive and kicking in those days. It was kind of an experience. And the camaraderie among the students at the chapel chaplain's class quite so good.

Zarbock: It's funny to hear you say about the camaraderie and the esprit, and yet there was such rigid class lines, junior officers vis-a-vis senior officers and probably, then, admirals would be even in another category besides senior officers.

Nickols: If it was rigid, I wasn't paying attention to it. [laughs] I mean, it was-- there is that sense, I think. But on the other side of it, I didn't really sense too much of that among the staff at the chaplain school, you know, we had captains and chaplains. I think they functioned well. I didn't sense that. And matter of fact, I had a gunny sergeant who was our drill instructor at the chaplain school, and he came over and sat down and talked with me and I talked with him. It was a good group of people. Gunny Sergeant Gruber was his name, Hank Gruber.

Zarbock: Well, congratulations. You've just finished chaplain school. Where do you go?

Nickols: Back to seminary. Then I went into exile. And then I taught for a year, then I went back to St. Louis to finish a master's degree in communication. And then--

Zarbock: From where?

Nickols: St. Louis University. And then I took a call to a little congregation in the south part of the city of St. Louis. And I did drilling up in Lambert Field again. And I went to-- 1977, I went to Orlando to the Naval Training Command and I worked at the Recruit Training Command, temporary active duty, they have a different name for it now, but temporary active duty. And then I went back to St. Louis, and then I went-- when I was at the Governor's Island, I did two summers at Governor's Island. And then in 1978, I was approaching lieutenant commander. At that point, if I became a lieutenant commander I would need to get on active duty. So I asked the bishop, you know, if I could be released to go on active duty. He said yes. He had been a chaplain, an Army chaplain, in the Second World War, and he was sympathetic towards that. So after not quite two years with the congregation, he said, yeah, I could do that. So the endorsing agent for the LCA had called me and said, "I have an opening in the Army. Do you want it?" And I said, "No." [laughs] "I don't want it." And he says, "You know, this may be the last opportunity to be in the Army. There may be nothing." And I said, "Well, maybe it'll have to be nothing." And so I hung up. "Well, there it is. I'm toast." [laughs]

I wouldn't be able to do it. I explained to him on the phone that, yeah, I drilled with the Navy. I knew the Navy culture. That's what I'm interested in. I'm just [inaudible]. And so then about 10 minutes later I get a telephone call and he said, "I have an opening in the Navy. Will you take it?" I said, "Yes." Prior to that I'd worked in the Chief of Chaplain's Office recalling Reservists, and I worked in the Chief of Chaplain's office when John J. O'Conner was the chief. And then he had a special project to do a slide on tape program for recruitment which, interestingly enough, was "Called to Serve: The New Chaplain." The motto is "called to serve." I said, "Well, hey." So I did that. I worked with the Navy band and got music and stuff. Now we can do it by PowerPoint. We don't need slide on tape. Run it by computer. But then, in that day and age, it was multimedia, and so that's what we did. I finished that faster than I thought I would, so they put me to work on CREDO stuff with Larry Ellis.

Zarbock: Would you tell me what CREDO stands for?

Nickols: Well, it was original Chaplain's Response to the Emerging Drug Order. And then it comes from a Latin word, I believe, and it was started by Don Harris, who you will interview or have interviewed, but he's the father of CREDO. And it's a great process for helping sailors get in touch with who they are, and to recognize that there's unconditional love for them and that whatever's proceeded in their mind is not pretending to be [inaudible], know that there's grace. So it initially was a issue of drugs in the Navy, which was oftentimes low self-esteem and other family issues. So it's creating a kind of environment in which they were accepted for who they were and transformations in other people's lives. So now I got the courses, where did I lead to? [laughs] Oh, yeah, CREDO and the chief's office. Then there was this new rating that was going to start off. For a long time, chaplains would get wynan 25, 25s, yeomans, yeomen to work admin stuff. If the Marine Corps got a lance corporal that can't shoot or some, you know, sailor or Marine that's on their way out, they would be assigned to the chaplain to kind of, maybe the chaplain would be able to help the person. The person's supposed to be helping the chaplain do the administrative stuff so that the chaplain can do the other things that are important for chaplains to do, like--

Zarbock: I think that's called dumping, isn't it?

Nickols: Yeah, dumping. So with John D. O'Connor's knowledge of the system, the organization, his contacts with the department, and outside the department, came a point when there was kind of a rating created that would be an administrative assistant to the chaplain. They were working and-- George Evans, Bob Gordon, were working on the qualifications-- what are the qualifications for that individual, or the job responsibilities-- so I was working for them with a little while. I had an opportunity to see that process and get a ratings stratagem in the Navy. I'm thankful the rating's still there with these program specialists. It made a tremendous difference in the quality and delivery of ministry to the sailors. So I did that, and then I went back and, having had that experience, John Baretsky was at the chaplain school, Chuck Greenwood was at the chaplain school where I had the chief office at that time, and John Baretsky was functioning as the detailer and he asked me, "Do you want to come on active duty?" And I said, "Is the Pope Catholic?" [laughs] Because he was Catholic. I said, "Sure." He said, "How does Okinawa sound to you?" I said, "If it gets me on active duty, you can send me to--" I didn't know about the Ava Garcia then, but if he had sent me to the Ava Garcia, I'd be fine. So that's how things began rolling. And so when I left the congregation I was serving in St. Louis when I first decided on this, they sent me to battalion 12th Marines in Okinawa.

Zarbock: The year is now what?

Nickols: That would be 1978, 1979 to '80. I left in December of '78 to arrive in Okinawa in January of 1979.

Zarbock: What was life like there, and what was your assignment?

Nickols: Chaplain, 2nd Battalion, 12th Marines, 3rd Marine Division. Lesley LaFill was the chaplain in the other battalion, the 3rd Battalion. And I think it was the 2nd and 3rd Battalion, 12th Marines Artillery Unit. There was an interesting person there at the time. His name was Bud McFarland. You know Bud McFarland, security adviser to presidents? Sought out by Henry Kissinger? He was the adjutant. So he had just stepped down and was getting ready to, you know, retire, and he had taken the job in Washington, D.C., which ultimately led to the National Security Adviser position. But he was there. I had a brief encounter with him. I mean, he wouldn't know me from Adam, but I remember him. [laughs]

Zarbock: Yeah. Yeah.

Nickols: So I was there for a year in Okinawa. I went through the training area through the work up to Team Spirit, which was the winter exercise in Korea, which I did every year but I never made it. I spent my time through rollout. The one thing I did have an experience with is-- Janelle Ferguson was the chaplain for one of the infantry units, and they were all training at Camp Fuji when Typhoon Tip came barreling through, I think it was, like, November. And the fuel bladder was above the camp. The storm ripped-- the soil went off-- it's volcanic soil, so it floated away. The fuel bladder ripped open, and the fuel cascaded into the camp for the Marines, which were billeted in metal Quonset huts. And the fuel spill came into through-- under the doors, and the heaters ignited fuel. And one of the Marines lost their lives to burns, and a lot of them were flown back to Brooks Medical Center. So the sergeant major, the commanding officer, and the chaplain flew back and he had relief up there, to provide live coverage because there was all-- I was tapped to do that.

Zarbock: I'm sorry. Flew back--

Nickols: To Brooke with those Marines alive, to Brooke Medical Center.

Zarbock: In Texas?

Nickols: That's the sanitary-- so that was interesting. Horrific. I couldn't imagine what that was like. I mean, I saw the aftermath of it, the emotional scarring, but I couldn't imagine seeing what went on. You know, those poor Marines. So then I left. My next assignment, they were going to send me to Camp Pendleton, California to follow on the Marines side, and so I talked to the detailer and I said, "I really would like to have a Navy experience, now," and so they, since I was single and that did make a difference, and so I asked for a ship, and so they sent me-- I had orders to the USS California, a power cruiser in Norfolk, Virginia. And so that's where I went. So I left Okinawa and flew all the way back through Alaska, through Chicago, back to Norfolk, only to discover that the USS California, USS Texas, USS Nimitz, that battle group were in Pyrus, Greece, but they weren't there for long because the American embassy in Tehran was overrun by the Iranians and had Americans captive. So that battle group was ordered to the Indian Ocean. And so they couldn't go through the Suez, so they had to go around the Cape. And so they were traveling that way, and so they said, "Well, you're not going to be able to catch them, so where are you going to go?" All the way back that way and further.

So I flew all the way-- I was really sick as a dog, too. I flew back through Chicago. I got to Travis Air Force Base. I got into a plane and flew from there to Japan, and from Japan to the Philippines. From the Philippines to Diego Garcia. And Diego Garcia, at that point, looked like the Fighting Seabees, with all the Seebees building and doing construction on the British Indian Ocean territory island of Diego Garcia. So I slept in the chapel. Oh, Jesus, the chapel. There's no room in the inn. [laughs] And three times they tried to start-- get us out in a plane, but three times, the plane failed. And I says, "I don't think I'm going to get on this plane. I think I'd like to just wait for a ship." So the USS Roanoke, she was a supply ship, came in. So it took I don't remember how many days from [inaudible] to where-- the Gulf of Oman Gonzo Station, as it was called, a gulf of our operating zone, where the ships were. So I was dropped on the [inaudible] of the USS California. I can tell you some stories about that, but if you're doing another chaplain, you may not want to know about that.


Zarbock: Tell me the stories.

Nickols: Well, there was, you know, the chaplain on the ship that was leaving, the crew, I mean, people couldn't wait for him to leave, and he couldn't wait to go. [laughs] And so it took me about six months to earn the trust of the crew. I mean, I was trying to figure out, "What's going on here," but then whole pieces were beginning to fall into place, and I understood. By the time I left the ship, it was a different thing.

Zarbock: How did you build that trust?

Nickols: Just being me. [laughs] And just, you know, being authentic. And caring about everybody, regardless of whether they were a Christian or not. It didn't really make a difference to me. I mean, that's important, my relationship with God, Christ, is important, but I remember, you know, Paul's words always coming back to me and still do, you know, "I became all things to all people to win more." So I just-- be a friend. I would be a friend. But it was all a lot of growing. I mean, I was-- a young part of being a chaplain there. If I had the wisdom, now, of my experience and being young, it would really be very nice. [laughs]

Zarbock: But it doesn't work that way.

Nickols: It doesn't work that way, yeah. But it, you know, I just-- you know, I just-- the reputation of the chaplain was, is that he really only cared for the people that, you know, were Christian, really evangelical Christian, some of them. And, you know, he had done some things that made people question him. You know, I can't speak to his integrity or anything but, you know, it's important that you play by their rules. If there's a chlorine causality, you shouldn't be in a shower using water. Coming late and demanding your breakfast at the war room. You know, that scene from the movie in "Patton," where Patton arrives and taking over the command of this tank unit that really failed. And looking around, you know, officers start coming to the dining facility and saying, "What are you doing here? Breakfast is over. Breakfast is over at 8:00. Get out of here. Get shaved. Put your tie on. Put your-- you know, slacks on or whatever you've got to do. Put your pants on." So that was an interesting challenge. It was a good experience. And it's an isolating experience, because you're out there on a ship all by yourself. There's no-- it's like the dentist or the doctor, you know? We didn't have a dentist on, but we had a ship's doctor. You know? And there are specialties like that. You know, you're the one of that specialty. You have a hard time sharing. And where the sharing came home, was the Roman Catholic priest who came over to conduct Mass. Being Lutheran, that has Roman Catholic roots to it, Holy Catholic faith, and so, you know, and being formerly Roman Catholic myself, at least I knew the language. So we became close friends, and we were able, you know, to talk about things. So I was-- he was my spiritual director when I was out there. And he was ultimately the person who introduced what would become my wife to me. [laughs]

Zarbock: Are you still friends?

Nickols: Yeah. Jack Kemper. He lives up in Pennsylvania. Now there's a Roman Catholic priest you can search for. [laughs]

Zarbock: Where does he live in Pennsylvania?

Nickols: Butler, out in the Butler region of Pennsylvania.

Zarbock: Where is that?

Nickols: It's along the Pennsylvania Turnpike. Either direction. It's kind of like central Pennsylvania. Jack transferred and returned to the States to be on staff at the Naval Hospital in Portsmouth. And then from-- then the ship, went back to Norfolk. It had a big to-do. President Carter came out the aircraft carrier, the Nimitz, and welcomed us back, you know, from the aborted rescue mission with the Americans. So it wasn't a successful venture. [laughs] I saw the-- when we were out there, I saw the helicopters, the Sea Stallions, that they used to try to rescue them. They were brought to the Nimitz off the Kitty Hawk, then they were launched from the Nimitz to try to rescue the Americans. So that was a-- that great period of what President Carter called the malaise of America. From there, I went to-- we went back to Norfolk, and then we had another Indian Ocean deployment. And then we came back, and the ship went into the yards for a major overhaul. And that's when I met Janelle. So I left and then I-- we met in December or January. And I proposed to her in May, and we got married in September, so boom, boom, boom. [laughs]

Zarbock: Tape number 2. Chaplain James Nickols. 24 July 2007. Paul Zarbock, interviewer. Please go ahead, Chaplain.

Nickols: Well, from USS California, came back, met Jack Kemper, who was the Roman Catholic Priest who came from the USS Nimitz to hold mass on California, in California, would be the most appropriate legal way to describe it and, as I was there visiting-- getting ready to visit crew members who were in the hospital, it was proper protocol to visit the chaplain's office, let them know that you're in the hospital and so forth, because it's their territory. And so I did that for two reasons. One because Jack was there and two because of the protocol. And that's when Janelle was introduced to me, and so we got to know one another. I took her to the ship. Wasn't a pleasant view of the shipyard, had cables going through it, it was being ripped here, torn there, so it wasn't a natural environment which was, I think, water underneath it. And so in May, I had proposed to her, in September we had set the date for marriage and so we had marriage at First Lutheran Church on Colley Avenue in Norfolk, Virginia. Ross Chower, who was the chief chaplain at the time officiated the wedding, John Dong, who was the pastor of St. Peter's Lutheran Church in Manhattan, preached; Tom Bailey was the Lutheran who did our pre-marriage counseling. A lot of things I told Janelle was that, as chaplains, if we don't emulate, model what we ask others to do, you know, so I said, we're going to go through marriage counseling and so forth and we did that. So he officiated the communion service. Pete Polowski, a Roman Catholic priest, was my best man. Jack Kemper was the Roman Catholic priest and commanding officer of [inaudible], the department heads were sword bearers and the sailors were ushers that I had gotten-- we were involved in the commander was just religious programming.

So one of the things that was kind of nice during my time in California was that they had asked me to work on a crew's book and so we submitted the crew's book for umm... chief of naval information, CHINFO competition and we won the crew's book award for the ship of our class. That was nice. And one of the ushers, at that time, he was OSMSN Sharp, he did all the cartoons in the crew's book, which was phenomenal. He just really did a neat job. I don't know where he is today, but he...

Zarbock: You said OS?

Nickols: Yeah. Operational Specialist.

Zarbock: Okay.

Nickols: He was a sharp kid.

Zarbock: Did you-- how did you and your wife arrange your professional careers?

Nickols: Well, I got-- we got married. I flew up from Orlando, got married. She got an assignment at the naval hospital in Orlando, so she was at one command as I... and I was at another. In those early days, it was difficult to get-- they were apprehensive about assigning husband and wife, wives to the same commands, and now that's not an issue. Modern time you know, today's Navy pretty much. But then, it could have been. But it was a four-month-- not quite four months. It was September, November she got down there by December, so that worked out. Then, after that point, she finished her assignment at the naval hospital and she resigned from active duty and went to the reserves.

Zarbock: So she was or still is, I guess, an ordained--?

Nickols: She still is. She's still ordained United Church of Christ. I mean, I was Lutheran. Now the United Church of Christ and the ELCA, Evangelical Lutheran Church in America are in a communal relationship...

Zarbock: Yeah.

Nickols: So we started the reform Lutheran long ahead of what the national churches. After-- then I was at the naval training command in Orlando, Florida, for three years. I became the first chaplain to be really on-staff at the nuclear power school. There was a change in the navy with John Mailin's retirement. When we tried to get an office in the Naval nuclear power school, the comment that was made to me was that, well, you know, "If we give an office to the chaplain, the next thing we'll have to do is give space to the Navy Exchange."

Zarbock: To the?

Nickols: Navy Exchange. "Haha... you know...I don't understand that comment." So we never really got an office. What happened prior to that, is that, if you wanted to visit into the spaces, you had to get a visitor's pass, then you had to get an escort and then you could go around. But, being on staff, you'd walk in like anybody and could go wherever you want to go and so that's-- we finally got that.

Zarbock: What were your duties?

Nickols: Well, my-- there were three chaplains. There's a recruit training command, the Steven Russell memorial chaplain. There was the chaplain of the Navy training center, itself, on base, and then down which blossomed into Orlando International Airport, was McCoy Air Force Base, was McCoy housing down there, but it was take over by the Navy. There was a chapel down there. So I had the center chapel called a side chapel and a lot of retirees attended the chapel there. It made it really difficult for students to be involved and try to change the music and so forth; I ran into a lot of resistance. So the only thing I could do is I held services and devotions in the morning over at the-- one day a week over at the Naval Nuclear Power School auditorium and that's where we did it. It was a struggle. Yes, command chaplains can be difficult. Command chaplain can be difficult, that came in was an interesting piece of work. I don't know. And the chaplain that I thought was a friend, turned out not to be very helpful, either. When I was getting ready to-- it was my next-to-last fitness report in that command, and this chaplain calls me into his office and sits me down and says, "You know, the front office is questioning my professionalism," and I said, "What do you mean?" And he says, "Well, you know, you were almost about to be relieved," and I said, "I was? And why wasn't I?" You know? And the other thing about fitness reports is you shouldn't be seeing a fitness report; that's adverse at the moment that you have to sign it. I mean, it should be six months before that; you should have sort of an evaluation that says where you are and so forth, so the individual has an opportunity to take remedial correction, here.

Zarbock: Sure.

Nickols: There was no remedial correction given. As it turns out, I set up an appointment to talk to the commanding officer at that time and-- his name was Delero, Captain Delero. She had freed it up from Xo to 3, of course; the commanding officer contacted the command chaplain and asked what this was about. So I went over and went through the fitness report with her, and I said, "You know," I asked her, "Captain, are you interested in-- " First of all, I said, "Captain, is my professionalism being questioned?" She says, "Absolutely not." I said, "Well, this is what this certain chaplain said, that the head office is considering questioning my professionalism." And so she reviewed it; she changed a few of the grades and she said, "No; my intent is to see you promoted." So I went back and struggled on and when I was getting ready to detach, lo and behold, didn't he try to do it again. So, at that point...

Zarbock: What was the motive behind this?

Nickols: I don't know. They just didn't like me or something. I don't know. The leadership just wasn't interested in really doing anything. I mean, they just were kind of-- I wanted to do something. I was engaged and I was trying to do things for the sailors, to get them involved in the chaplain program, which was heavily dominated by retirees. It's not that I didn't want to see them there, it's just that that's not the point or the primary initiative is to invite ministers, young men and women who are serving over...

Zarbock: Yeah.

Nickols: ...and going through the nuclear power school.

Zarbock: Yeah.

Nickols: And so there was a difference of vision. Of course, the vision is set by the command chaplain and so I, you know, but I wasn't undermining him or doing anything unseemly but it was really a struggle. And part of it may be because the commanding chaplain had taken a side room and had the priest consulting mass at the naval hospital and guess, oh, by the way, who's in the naval hospital? My wife as the chaplain there and there was a memorandum of understanding between the Naval Hospital and the senator about providing Roman Catholic coverage at the hospital. And so it wasn't forthcoming. And so she went through her chain of command and it came down on the other side so they couldn't get at her, so there was an effort to get at me. That's how we walked away looking at the situation. So, when I was there, they checked out my fitness report and Captain Delaro completely rewrote it. The testimony of my experience as the fact that I made it as captain, you know? [laughter] Against their wishes, you know? That was the worst-- if you're going to ask me a question about what was my worst experience, that would probably be it. It was that moment in time.

But the one thing I have learned to do is to stand my ground, and I wasn't going to be intimidated, and I knew that what I was doing was right and, you know, throughout the whole time of my training, no one had ever questioned my professionalism. I knew that everybody who had ever accounted me knows that I stand for something. I didn't fall for anything. I feel like I'm, in the words of Steven Colley, my principle centered and I've been trained to be principle centered. So that experience was kind of tough but they were great people and they were great sailors and I made some great friends at that experience down there who we still keep in contact to this day.

So, after that, we went to the advanced course, I think, to Port Rhode Island for a year, 39 weeks of professional development training courses all linked up in one week increments. It was an interesting experience but I couldn't quite fathom the pedagogy. You know, there was a little bit of this, a little bit of that. Just, I didn't know what the organizing principle, you know, so one week, we'd be doing this and so it felt like, you know, workshops, you know?

Zarbock: Yeah. And disjointed, to boot.

Nickols: It felt disjointed, you know; there weren't any organizing principles. And then the Navy, for a long time, was seriously considering how to offer a Master's degree in the program, and I think Arnie [inaudible], Benny Hornsby, Arnie [inaudible] by Don ________________'s, you know, they worked hard to try to get that, and finally it did happen as the Southern University recognized the curriculum and gave, I think, 18 credits toward a master's degree or something like that. So what I did eventually, was to take that and finish a Master's Degree at Salve Regina human resources management. It was-- if people are going to engage in a year-long process like the one at the Naval War College, to end up with just a piece of paper that's printed on a printer isn't satisfying, you know? The Naval War College and wind up with a master's degree, why couldn't we do the same? You know, it makes it worthwhile in the course of study. So that was a good turn of events. I don't know if that's-- that's not there any more, again, but, at that time, it was. So I went through that program and then left there and went to Governor's Island, New York, which is a tiny island on the tip of Manhattan which, at that moment in time, was getting ready to be the center stage for the rededication of the Statue of Liberty and all the festivities there. And so that's how we lived above Secretary, at the time, Secretary of Transportation, Elizabeth Dole and her husband, who was the senate majority leader, Robert Dole. So we have a picture of Elizabeth Dole and Robert Dole next to us with our daughter, Jennifer [inaudible]

Zarbock: How would you describe your relationship with the Doles?

Nickols: Well, brief. [laughter] They were very nice; they were very cordial but they were also active in these events that were there so we were living in temporary, in an apartment above them in a building, and their comings and goings [inaudible]. I showed them the chapel, I showed them a few other things I had and talked to them. That was neat. It was a good experience. Had an opportunity to see some of the people who were involved in the-- I met David ________________, who was conducting all the events there and a few other people. Willard Scott of NBC News fame...

Zarbock: What, if any, was your role?

Nickols: We didn't have a role in it.

Zarbock: Okay.

Nickols: In that process at all. We just conducted our everyday events, our worship services and met with the people and so forth, filled in wherever they needed us to fill in.

Zarbock: You know, I said to you before we started, that I was going to ask you three questions; funny things that you remember, sad things that you remember and idiotic things that you experienced. Could you fill me in on funny things, sad things, idiotic things?

Nickols: Well, the funniest thing that comes to mind is when we were on the battleship Missouri after the Gulf War. A sailor was sent off for the death of his father and he came back to the ship after the war. He couldn't get back during it. And so he came back to the ship, and he was Roman Catholic and talked to the Roman Catholic priest about something, and so the Roman Catholic priest came to my office and says, "I really have something very strange here I need to talk to you about." I said, "Okay." And he says, "I've got a sailor who was in here saying that he's sleeping with his father." I said, "Sleeping with his father?" And he said, "Yeah, he's sleeping with his father." "Did you ask him how he's sleeping with his father?" And he discovered that he had his father's remains with him. How he got the remains through the airports, through all the security and everything else, even back pre-9/11, I don't know, but he did. So, as we were getting ready to head toward Australia-- Fremantle, Australia-- he wanted to have his father, who was a sailor who had never had an experience of going through, crossing the line, he wanted to take his father and put him in a gas mask and take him to the crossing-the-line ceremony. So, at that point I said, "Well, we have to look into a lot of different things, here." So I went down to the XO and I said to him, I said, "Can I talk to you for a second? I've got something and I think you better sit down." Just when you think you've heard it all, you haven't. [laughter] A sailor, he wanted to have a burial at sea. So I said--

[ tape glitch ]

Nickols: ...the story that I just said and said, "Oh, by the way, he also wants to have his father buried at sea." Well, that created an issue, too, because you just can't dump anybody off the side of the ship and then people see that happening and wonder what's going on there and it's not explained. So it's really important to be up front, no secrets integrity. And so we had to go back through the chain of command, back to San Diego Naval Hospital, this is what we've got, authorization to have this burial at sea. So it was not only taking-- you follow through the crossing-the-line ceremony, "Yes, we can bury your father at sea." [laughter] That was unusual.

Zarbock: So there really was a full and formal burial?

Nickols: Mm-hm.

Zarbock: Honor guard and all?

Nickols: Yeah. We did it right. He was a vet. You know, he served in the military.

Zarbock: That's nice.

Nickols: And then the saddest-- and there was a number of those, but I think the most tragic of all was the bombing of the USS Cole and being involved with the memorial service for that, and being involved with the family members.

Zarbock: How did that come about?

Nickols: Well, in October of 2000, the Cole was near a fueling station in Yemen, and it was attacked, a gaping hole was-- in the hull of the ship. I mean, it was a huge hole, got to see it down at the shipyard in Passa Gula, and I was the director of operational ministries for the Atlantic fleet. At that time, the Atlantic Fleet. Now it's known as the Fleet Forces Command, which was a position where 4th chaplain billet were decremented at Sublan, Submarine Forces Atlantic and Air Forces Atlantic, Airland, and the only force code left was the-- I was the surface forces billet. And so there was this idea of having a chaplain that was at the service forces also, be the chaplain for submarine forces and also for the Air Forces Atlantic. Oh, by the way, there's the seeves that are over here. So when I came into the position, I brought some organization to it because I said, you can't have people rotating in and out of staff billets; you won't be able to develop relationships with the command structure. So the chaplain that worked with me, it was either him or it would be me. I would go over to these staff meetings so we got ourselves onto all these staffs and we formed continuity.

So, when I came into the-- I usually got into the office around-- or I came around 5:00, I would work out from five to six. I was in the office by six. So the chief of staff called around 7:00 or something like that and said, "I need you over here right away for this Naval Service Forces Atlantic," and got into his office and the early word was that Cole was bombed. They didn't have any particular details and so we had to sit and watch the process as we began to learn the extent of the damage to the ship and the potential loss of human life. And we were also trying to beat the clock before any of the media started to interview family members. So our task was to try to organize a response, a pastoral care response.

So the first thing we did was try to get in touch with the ombudsman, get them together, let them know what's going on and, of course, they were concerned because their spouses are on the ship and we don't know who is injured and who's dead and who's not. And so that was the hardest part. So we organized-- we made use of the OQ, Eli Hall over the former Naval Air Station side of the house because I told the admiral, I said "It's a great place." It's a conference room, it's got places to watch people. It's got an officer's club across the way and people can be fed. It's away from the media. It's not easy access to the media but there's immediate access to the interstate. People are usually focused on the main gate. This is not the main gate.

So that's what we did, and as we learned things, we got Naval Fleet Family Services, counselors over there, American Red Cross was bringing food and-- So, the families, as it began to wheedle, and people found out who they were, we had a crisis center going on. This one husband and wife came down from Richmond and had a huge picture of their son, that they had gotten the word he was okay, but someone in the department of Navy or something like that, it wasn't quite clear how that all transpired, but I had the list of who was alive and who was not, the best at the moment, and, well, Bob [inaudible] who was working with me at the time, I was looking at the list and he came over to me and-- because I was with them sitting them on the-- like, we were using the OQ, we didn't have couches, so we just used beds, sitting on the bed next to them, and they came down because they wanted to be a source of support for other family members. But I had to break the news to them that their son was not alive.

And then I flew to Dover, then I flew down to meet some family members who wanted to see the ship, so I was there with them and then, even after I left a year later, I still found some, almost a year later when they found some remains still on the ship to return to the family. One family called me up and wanted me to do a service of re-interment. Yeah, so. That was hard, and it still is hard, because even when the family members today are trying to press this law case against Sudan, Yemen.

Zarbock: Not to trivialize the significance of what you said, but being boundaried by the tape, I'm going to ask you to segue into, if you please, the third question, can you recall any incident of monumental foolishness, error, blunder? Not malevolence, but just, as we were chatting off-camera, the phenomena[sic] of "Wake up, it's time for you to take your sleeping pill." You know, the military's got these "By George, an order's an order," rules-are-rules and regulations-are-regulations, and you're not going to make up your own. Can you recount any event in your career?

Nickols: There were, I mean, there were a lot of instances, some come to mind, of stupidity, where I would say, "Why are we doing it this way even if it's the regulation?" I can't think of any that come to mind, that sticks out and says--

Zarbock: Good.

Nickols: That's in the history books. Being my personality type, being at least in Myers-Briggs a NT, I would always ask this question, "Why are you doing it that way?" you know, so I find myself doing that-- but, no, nothing really stands out.

Zarbock: Well, before we get to the final question that, you know, is looking at how do you see you-- do you have anything else you'd like to comment for the tape?

Nickols: No, I think, you know, it's nice that your project, this is being undertaken. There's a lot of good information that is just out there that people can benefit from.

Zarbock: One of the hopes that I have is that eventually these data can be used for recruiting purposes, but probably even more specific than that, to find out what you don't want. Oh, I've always wanted to be a military chaplain. Well, you know, the glamour of wearing a tin helmet in a foxhole in World War II in a sweaty shirt and killing the enemy is probably not an accurate, wholly accurate picture of what a chaplain goes through, or at least not according to the interviews.

Nickols: When I was in Somalia for Operation Restore Hope, you know, when one is out to sea, most people don't live, move and breathe around the clergy person, not even in a congregational situation. I had an opportunity to be-- if you're authentic to your faith and to your own mind and being a friend to your neighbors, you know, that my faith reminds me that I need to be, it's an opportunity for both the clergy person and the service member to be vulnerable in a different way than they really allow themselves to be, and to touch people at a different point in their life. And you never know how one is touched. I mean, I've gotten letters, years later, from individuals that said, "This action really made a big difference in my life," and, at the time, you scratch your head and say, what action was that? What did I do? You know, and I think one of the things that I struggle with, is just trying to be me. I mean, you need a sense of being honest and I don't see myself as having a personal hidden agenda for any particular reason. I just wanted to do the best job I could do and, early on, basically, at the chaplain school, just being influenced and being faithful to your calling. If you're faithful to your calling, it doesn't make a difference what really appears on your fitness report or any place else, you know? So coming from my point of view, I just wanted to be faithful to my ordination there.

Zarbock: Were you in Somalia?

Nickols: Yeah.

Zarbock: How long were you there?

Nickols: From December of '91 to the end of April of '92.

Zarbock: Where were you stationed?

Nickols: Well, I started out at Mogadishu airport and then wound up, I went to ________________ and then ________________. I was the regimental chaplain for the 7th Marines.

Zarbock: How did you pull out? How were you removed from Somalia?

Nickols: Well, we flew out in a plane, out of Mogadishu, flew in on a plane to Mogadishu airport and flew out. So it was an interesting experience.

Zarbock: Well, experience. That leads into the final question. Given your educational background, your family background, the experiences that you've had as a professional, the experiences as a military officer, how have you put this together into Chaplain Nickols's credo?

Nickols: Faithful to god, faithful to home. I often tell-- I work with college kids at Christopher Newport University as part of my ministry and reformation with my church, and I often tell people, really, what I was was a canvas minister in uniform. So it's been a great experience. I mean, I have no regrets. I'm satisfied with where I've been, what I've done and all along the way, I couldn't have plotted it out, planned it out; it was as the insurance industry would say, it was an act of god.

Zarbock: And that sounds like a pretty good way to end.

Nickols: Yeah.

Zarbock: Thank you, Chaplain.

Nickols: You're welcome.

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