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Vet's D.C. trip brings back memories of an unforgettable war

Photo by Rachelle Klemme World War II veteran and Wadena resident Ray Nicholson looks over one of the war-related documents he kept. Nicholson's unit went through Battle of the Bulge and captured the Remagen Bridge in Germany.

When Ray Nicholson visited the Minnesota area of Washington, D.C.'s World War II memorial one afternoon in April 2011, he said he was approached out of the blue by a woman and little girl.

"Were you, by any chance, in Belgium?" the woman asked.

"I sure was," the Wadena native replied.

"Well I am from Belgium, and I want to thank you for what you did for us," the woman said. "I am teaching my daughter what freedom costs."

Nicholson and his companions in the Central Minnesota Honor Flight were going through a ceremony to honor the veterans, and their shirts and caps were hard to miss.

Nicholson had been to the nation's capital before, but not the relatively new war memorial.

The trip was underwritten by the Staples Lions Club and funded by a variety of donors, so World War II veterans would not have to pay to see their own memorial.

Nicholson recalled the conversation with the Belgian traveler as a highlight of the trip.

"It was kind of a joyful moment, and tearful at the same time," Nicholson said. "We hugged and shed tears, and I said 'Yeah, the Belgian people were very good to us.' She's so grateful for the freedom that we brought when we delivered them out of the hands of Nazi Germany."

Nicholson fought in the Battle of the Bulge, and was part of a group that took the Remagen Bridge in Germany. He served in the 482nd Anti-Aircraft Artillery Automatic Weapons Battalion, 9th Armored Division.

Additionally, Nicholson was awarded the Bronze Star, one of the highest combat awards in the United States Armed Forces. His unit received two presidential citations, and he has battle ribbons and three battle stars on his cap, as well as mementoes from reunions around the country.

Nicholson kept many wartime documents and honors, but not his initial draft card from the Roosevelt administration, something he said he should he have kept. He was 21 when he enlisted.

Nicholson was inducted into Fort Snelling in 1942, and underwent basic training at Camp Callan, north of San Diego. Following his training, he went on to Camp Haan in California in 1943 and learned about automatic weapons.

But Nicholson's life wasn't all business.

While many soldiers waited after the war to get married, Nicholson didn't.

"I had been in the military eight months when Lois and I got married," he said.

Troops were entertained through the USO.

He showed a photo of Bob Hope putting on a show for troops in France. Only two or three men in their unit had a camera, and others usually weren't allowed to have them.

But it was a war. Nicholson said that on Christmas Eve 1944, he slept on the roof of his halftrack vehicle during the Battle of the Bulge.

The battle is now well-known as a decisive moment in World War II. Nicholson said they were well aware even at the time that it was a do or die situation.

The weather was in favor of the German military, he said, adding that it was cold and snowy, and they used burlap to camouflage their tracked vehicles and suppress the sound. Because of overcast skies, the allied forces did not have air support at first.

"In the Battle of the Bulge, we were actually used to strike the areas that enemy troops were dug in in foxholes," he said. "We had four .50 caliber machine guns. They were zeroed in at 600 feet."

Nicholson said there were more casualties from frostbite than enemy attacks, but the latter took their toll as well.

"I lost one of my tracks," he said. "The German tank took him out. Sgt. Weis was his name, and I never saw him again."

Nicholson added that the battle was a long siege. Soldiers went days without showers and decent food, and they were low on fuel in their track vehicles.

"Every day we had a new password, and that was communicated to us over the radio," Nicholson said. If soldiers did not have the password, "You were dead meat, at night especially."

Nicholson also said once reinforcements were able to arrive, it turned the tide in a hurry.

Nicholson's unit moved on to take an important double railroad bridge.

"We took the Remagen Bridge," Nicholson said, adding that his group captured German prisoners.

"We got the bridge, and General Eisenhower, our national commander, he said, 'Thank God, you shortened the war six months.' And we did," Nicholson said, adding that if the German military had won the Battle of the Bulge, the outcome of the war would have been completely different.

After the Remagen Bridge incident, Nicholson was promoted to First Sergeant.

"My First Sergeant, he had a battlefield commission, and my battery commander elevated me to his position as First Sergeant. And that was the rank I had when I was discharged," Nicholson said.

Along with the promotion, Nicholson saw intense destruction.

When the Allied troops moved into Germany, they also saw the concentration camps firsthand.

Nicholson's group encountered one camp near Munich, just prior to the fall of Germany. He said human bones were still in ovens.

"It's pretty revolting," Nicholson said. "It's unreal what human beings will do to other human beings. They're worse than animals, I'll tell you."

Munich was where Nicholson was rotated out to return home.

Combat in the European Theater of Operations ended in the spring of 1945, and after being discharged in Camp McCoy, Wisc., Nicholson returned home Nov. 5, 1945.

But Nicholson's life is more than just a war story.

Nicholson was born and raised in the Wadena area, and returned to live in the area after the war.

"I got into Wadena on midnight," he said. "Carried my duffle bag six blocks to where Lois lived down Second Street, just straight south of the railroad depot at midnight. I was the only one around. Only one that got off the train that night."

It happened to be his wife's birthday. She knew he was arriving, but had no idea exactly when, so it was a surprise.

Nicholson revisited Remagen Bridge in 2000, and it looked completely different. His unit was named on a plaque by the bridge, and there were two museums, with an American flag and a German flag in close proximity to each other flying over the museums.

Now that he's home, Nicholson has called to mind Memorial Day.

Nicholson said he used to go to Memorial Day exercises, but walking is more difficult for him now, so he is unsure about going this year.

The Central Minnesota Honor Flight completed another Washington, D.C. trip this year with a third group of World War II veterans.

Stan Carlson of Central Minnesota Honor Flight said he was with the 2011 group, and it was an honor to get to know Nicholson and his family.

Honor Flight's goal is to get veterans to their respective memorials while they are still able.

According to Thomas R. Tougas at the Minnesota Department of Veterans Affairs, there were 34,400 World War II veterans still alive in Minnesota in 2010. Estimates are that around 28,216 are alive today.