ENGLEWOOD, Florida –
When Art Nicholas, one of the first naval commandos responsible for the formation of Naval Special Warfare was born, the U.S. president was Warren Harding and the Ottoman Empire had yet to fall. A non-exhaustive list of global events that have come and gone since Feb. 15, 1923 include The Great Depression, the Dust Bowl, the rise and fall of Nazi Germany, the rise and fall of the Berlin Wall, the formation of the Navy SEAL Teams, and the entirety of Beatlemania.
In 1923 the Academy Awards were yet to be established, and the Marathon world record was 2:40:17, set by Aksel Jansen of Denmark. In 2022, Eliud Kipchoge ran a new world record of 2:01:09, finishing at the Brandenburg Gate which stood as a symbol of Hitler's power, a physical barrier between East and West Berlin, and a representation of unity and peace all during Art's life.
On Feb.15, 2023, Art celebrated his 100th birthday. To commemorate this milestone, he was joined by family and friends at his home in Englewood, Florida. So how does one discuss the life of the husband, father, businessman, and decorated war hero that stretches for a century? Start at the beginning.
In many ways, Art’s life mirrors the story of America. His father, John, a Greek immigrant from the Island of Thassos, entered the United States through Ellis Island. He initially found work as a gandy dancer on the railroads, laying sections of track. As such, he and his cousin literally walked across the country, eventually finding themselves in San Diego, California where John trained as a barber and became a U.S. citizen.
In what would become a motif in the lives of this family, John Nicholas found his fledgling career interrupted by global conflict as World War I engulfed Europe, so he joined the U. S. Army. Following the cessation of the war, John would be discharged, ultimately settling in Lansing, Michigan, where he opened his own barber shop.
However, unbeknownst to John at the time a quick trip to Greece before returning to the U.S. at the end of the war had inadvertently negated his U.S. citizenship following his discharge. When the world was thrust into conflict once more during World War II, the U.S. Secret Service took him into custody. The government ordered him to appear in Federal Court which was in the local post office at the time. However, in a show of genuine American spirit, the judge swore the elder Nicholas in as a U.S. citizen once again and informed John that he would visit his barber shop later that week for a touch-up.
Born in 1923 to his immigrant father and homemaker mother, Art’s youth and adolescence were emblematic of the working-class ethos that defined that era in American history. A consistent trait throughout Art’s life was a strong work ethic exemplified by his father and further refined by his time shining the shoes of barbershop patrons beginning at age five.
However, it wasn't all work for Art, as he was also a talented musician and self-taught drummer. Together with a group of friends, he created the "Art Nicholas Orchestra" in a similar vein as Glen Miller. Together, the band got a job at Wild's Casino in the Michigan vacation town of Saulte Sainte Marie located on the banks of Lake Superior. The band was so successful that Art made more money during the brief six-week stint at the casino than his father had made during the first six months of the year. Stashing his earnings in a shoe box for safekeeping, Art partially supported his family that summer during the Great Depression.
In addition to his musical talents, Art was also a talented swimmer, so much so that the Michigan State Athletic Department was able to put him in a Spartan uniform for a semester despite not being technically enrolled as a student. In his brief stint as a collegiate athlete, Art set several school records which would still be standing when he returned home from his time in the Navy.
The machinations of great power competition and brewing global conflict must have felt a world away for the young Nicholas tucked away in the Midwest. Nevertheless, after his short time at Michigan State, Art enlisted in the Navy and reported for duty at the Great Lakes Training Center. For the young Sailor and for the United States, more broadly, the bombing of Pearl Harbor brought the reality of war into sharp focus. Ironically, Art was on leave when the bombing occurred, but he was promptly recalled, like the rest of the U.S. service members away from their duty stations during the attack.
His first duty assignment was in North Africa aboard a cargo ship supporting amphibious operations conducted off the coast of Morocco. Although not a member of the fledgling special operations forces at that time, Art had a glimpse of what would be a part of his future when a new unit, the Scouts and Raiders (S&R), were initially implemented.
Given the increasingly amphibious nature of operations in both the Pacific and European theaters, there was recognition amongst the Allied Forces of the necessity to develop teams of men that could handle a complex and daring mission set. When U.S. Marine forces were restructured, the European, African, and Middle East (EAM) Theater was left without any pre-landing reconnaissance ability. Consequently, the first Amphibious Scout and Raider school was established in Little Creek, Virginia to fill the void.
Originally a joint school, the Army "Raiders" were trained for beach and land reconnaissance, while the Navy "Scouts" acted primarily as boat crew commandos. Before an amphibious landing, the Navy personnel would locate the correct landing beaches to deliver reconnaissance crews and then serve as guides during the operation.
The S&R were first used during Operation Torch to invade North Africa through Morocco. Their primary role was pre-landing reconnaissance and guiding larger vessels during landings at Safi, Fedala, Mehdia, and Algiers.
To say that the first implementation of the new unit was a complete success would belie the fact that there were some initial missteps and errors. Nevertheless, the S&R units had proven their worth, and as such the commander of amphibious forces in the Atlantic ordered their continued training and relocation to Fort Pierce, Florida.
Following his assignment in North Africa, Art requested a transfer and soon found himself assigned to help establish and train the new recruits at Fort Pierce. After spending a few weeks conducting testing on the amphibious DUKW boats(colloquially known as the "Duck") Art found himself in the rugged marshlands of South Florida.
It would be difficult to overstate the amount of work that went into transforming the soon-to-be amphibious training base. Interviews with the Navy Sailors who were there for the conversion process reveal that those early days mainly consisted of clearing trees and fighting off insects. Anecdotally, Jim Barnes, a fellow S&R veteran, said he never needed to pepper his eggs as the sand fleas took care of that.
The Scouts and Raiders would prove more resilient than Fort Pierce's resident pests. Soon the base was up and running, and much of the training that has since become commonplace in today's SEAL and SWCC communities was created. Each day began early for the men, rising at 0530 to eat breakfast before engaging in long hours of hauling logs for physical training (log PT), boat handling, swimming, and small arms practice.
Art's previous experience as a swimmer were a blessing in the harsh training conditions.
"There was a lot of swimming. A lot of swimming. Especially during the day and at night," the centenarian reports.
"At night it was pretty tough at times because you would either lose your way and there were a couple of times when I had to jump overboard with a line tied to me, and had to be pulled in,” Nicholas said. “It was scary sometimes."
Some of the training recounted by the Sailors read more like a fantasy novel than a recitation of factual events. While Art was in Fort Pierce, there was speculation regarding the survivability of the East Coast in the event of an invasion. At the time, the widely shared belief was that there was no possibility of a successful attack by Axis forces.
Exhibiting hubris and confidence, which has since become a trademark of Naval Special Forces, a uniquely plucky S&R ensign voiced his vehement belief that Fort Lauderdale was vulnerable. Thus, planning for a mock invasion of the Sunshine State began in earnest.
According to Nicholas, the S&R took 11 small boats to Bimini in the Bahamas. They were divided into three-person teams, then proceeded to surround and capture their assigned areas, donned only in Navy blue coveralls, and lightly armed with combat knives. After setting off smoke grenades in city hall, stealing the commanding officer of the local Coast Guard station, and causing an unfortunate bus driver to suffer impromptu incontinence, Fort Lauderdale was deemed capturable.
Unfortunately, some of the other training Art experienced did not go as planned. Prior to D-Day, British and American forces were conducting a practice operation off the southern coast of England at Slapton Sands. The secret event known as Operation Tiger was intended to prepare the English and American units for an actual amphibious assault at Normandy a few months away. Coincident with the event, German forces, specifically the Luftwaffe, were shifting their focus to the English Channel. The pilots collected detailed intelligence leading to calamitous results for the Allies.
Operation Tiger, conducted on the night of 27/28 April, 1944, would become one of World War II's greatest and least talked about disasters. German U-boats interrupted the mock assault, attacking the approaching convoy, resulting in the deaths of at least 749 Americans. It was incredibly embarrassing and potentially devastating to morale considering the rapidly approaching D-Day invasion. The Operation Tiger failure remained a secret for many years with full details only emerging several decades later.
For Art and his fellow Sailors, Operation Tiger and the lost lives of U.S. servicemen were a tragedy. However, the impending invasion in France forced the men to compartmentalize and return to their preparations.
During the Normandy invasion, Art was assigned to LST-52 as a Boatswain’s Mate First Class. The Landing Ship Tank, or LST, was an amphibious assault vehicle used for landing soldiers, tanks, and other supplies on the beachhead. Assigned to the beaches of Gold, Juno, and Sword, his team functioned as a Special Forces unit tasked with initially clearing the beaches, then converting the LST into a hospital ship, picking up wounded and resupplying fresh troops. LST-52 was on its third trip when Art kicked a live ammo round and the resultant explosion sent him to the hospital for 29 days. Art was awarded the Purple Heart for his actions and injury during the invasion.
No great war story is complete without our protagonist finding love, and Art was no exception. Following his injury and hospitalization, the young Sailor began a new assignment in Weymouth, England where he was the Assistant Master-At-Arms. When off-duty during this tour, Art returned to his musical roots and began performing with a pickup band to entertain the war-weary Brits and fellow service members.
After being invited to a party in the small nearby town of Dorchester, Art volunteered to drive a truck full of young lads to the event. Then, in a move befitting a true Navy man, Art wandered across to the street to a local bar after seeing the main activity in the dance hall was musical chairs.
If there were an opposite of a "meet-cute," the ensuing events between Art and his now-wife Hazel would fit the definition. Art originally asked Hazel's girlfriend to dance. Unfortunately for Art, the young lady had her eye on a different British sailor and denied his request. Biding his time, Art approached the couple after their dance and boldly told the woman, “You were very rude, and you're no damn good. I'll tell you that right now."
For Hazel, her future husband's ill-tempered behavior would prove fortuitous. Hazel approached Art, where she firmly scolded him, leaving the embarrassed young Sailor to sulk back over to the bar. Adding insult to injury, when Art struck up a conversation with the bartender intending to drown his sorrows in a lager, he discovered that the man was, unfortunately, Hazel's father.
Improbably, the young duo had a movie date scheduled by the end of the night and, in Art's words, "that continued."
After the war, Art left the Navy and moved back to Michigan to start building a career and a family. He and Hazel were separated for 16 months, and during that time he worked a variety of odd jobs to support himself. Bouncing around from shoe salesmen, to bartender, to restaurant worker, he found more consistent work at the REO Motor Car Company inspecting various parts that were used to build trucks intended for the Korean War. After that war ended, Art was offered and subsequently took a job as a salesman selling corrugated boxes. Then, with the encouragement of a local banker, Art would set out on his own to start a company that became Corrugated Paper Products Inc.
Never content with only one goal to occupy his time, Art's post-war life was also filled with philanthropic pursuits. In the 1960s he was instrumental in building St. David's Episcopal Church in Lansing, Michigan, as well as developing a blueprint for Real Services Inc. in South Bend, Indiana which provides housing, transportation, and nutritional services to senior citizens.
Proud of his Hellenic roots, Art is a member of the American Hellenic Educational Progressive Association, the largest and oldest fraternal organization dedicated to preserving Greek heritage in America. In addition, he continues to exemplify the traits of selfless service embodied by so many of our servicemen and women, donating time and money to replace tattered American flags, establish Hospice chapters where they are needed, and fund home repairs for those in need.
Art's life and war experience came full circle when he, his wife, and two grown daughters had the opportunity to visit the five beaches of the Normandy coast in the Spring of 2009 on the 65th anniversary of the invasion. The local French receptionist presented the veteran with a silver medal, French and America flags, and a diploma recognizing his role in the D-Day invasion upon the family's arrival at Utah Beach.
Then, at Omaha Beach, Art had the opportunity to participate in a flag lowering ceremony, folding the American ensign during evening taps. It was a powerful moment for the man, the backdrop of white crosses signifying the thousands of men who died on the beach. The setting sun fitting for the soldiers who gave their lives to prevent Hitler's fascist spread.
"I didn't know if I could stand it emotionally," he said.
"I thought I might start crying like a baby."
In many ways, Arthur Nicholas embodies the American Dream—an immigrant son with working-class roots, who fought for his country, raised a family, and built a successful company. Moreover, if one were to use a single word to sum up this amazing man it would be “builder.” Arthur Nicholas started his own band, was a critical member of the group that paved the way for Navy SEALs and SWCC, and literally helped raise a church.
The country has changed dramatically over the past century. One could argue it would be near impossible to swim at Michigan State without being enrolled as a student or support a family on six weeks of playing gigs at a casino. Nevertheless, individuals like Art built this country, and it will be people like him responsible for building our future.