Finding happiness in the face of pain
Robert "Nic" Nicholson passed away, but not before he found what we all seek
Declaring independence from the British in 1776, the founders of our country cited the pursuit of happiness as an unalienable right. It’s a right Robert “Nic” Nicholson almost died defending during World War II, before beginning his own quest to find internal peace.
That journey ended on Jan. 5 for the longtime Broad River resident, who passed away at the age of 93.
Nicholson enlisted in the Navy the day after Pearl Harbor was bombed. Practically a child in 1945, he flew his Grumman Avenger bomber on a mission in the South Pacific. He was moments away from trauma most would find unimaginable - and a burden he would shoulder for more than 60 years.
Hit by enemy fire, Nicholson knew that he, gunner Irving Rainey and radioman Willie Wilson were going down.
Nicholson brought the plane down on the open ocean - the best landing of his young life, he thought, he later said. He soon came face-to-face with the grim realities of war that would haunt him for years to come.
Wilson, Nicholson’s brother in arms, perished in the crash landing. Rainey survived the crash and risked his life retrieving Wilson from the partially-submerged wreckage.
The men floated in the water for hours, surviving enemy fire from Japanese planes.
Nicholson may have survived the incident physically. But it took a devastating toll on him emotionally, said his widow, Fran Nicholson. The experience was "life-altering," she said.
"He was a wreck after the war,” she said. A relative suggested he go see an Indian medicine man in Louisiana. Nicholson believed the man healed him, his wife said. “That man remained with him, in his heart and mind, for many years,” she said.
Also heavy on Nicholson’s heart was the obligation he felt to serve his country. He remained enlisted in the Navy Reserve and eventually earned a law degree from the University of Tennessee. He returned to active duty in time for the Korean War.
“He went back in as a lawyer and worked his way up to captain,” Fran said. “He became a member of the Judge Advocate General’s Corps.”
Nicholson was teaching at Southwestern Community College in Sylva when he met Fran. A short time later, they married and moved into their house in Broad River. The couple opened what Fran believes to be the first health food store in Black Mountain - Healthy Harvest.
But Nicholson continued to struggle with his perceived role in the death of his radioman. He found comfort, however, in the work he did with the late Chief Two Trees, a medicine man of Cherokee and Sioux heritage who lived in Old Fort.
"He used to see people on his porch," Fran recalled of Chief Two Trees. "People would come from all over to see him."
He found comfort in doing naturopathic work, which was inspired by his first encounter with the medicine man after the war.
Yet happiness continued to elude Nicholson.
"He had (post traumatic stress disorder) but didn't know it," Fran said. "That was something that was never really talked about when he was younger."
He also carried tremendous guilt about the death of his young radioman in the war, until he tracked down his long-lost gunner, Rainey.
Nicholson found his friend in a coma in Maine, according to Fran. But their bond was still strong.
"When Nic walked into the room, (Irving Rainey) had a tube from a tracheotomy in," Fran said. "But he had a chalkboard and he wrote 'brother' on it when he saw Nic."
Rainey's condition began to improve, and so did the healing for Nicholson. When Rainey came to visit in 2009, Nicholson heard a story that finally gave him some peace.
"Nic told him about the guilt he had experienced for over 60 years about the death of Willie Wilson," Fran said. "(Rainey) said 'It was not your fault, Nic. He had loosened his harness and when the plane hit the water he lunged forward and hit his head.' That relieved an unbelievable burden for Nic."
Fran believes learning the truth about the crash changed her husband for the better.
"He had carried it around for so long," she said.
Nicholson will be laid to rest at noon on Thursday, Jan. 26 at the Western Carolina State Veteran's Cemetery in Black Mountain.