He was just 21 years old.
In 1966, Tommy Lee Nicholas became Decatur’s first casualty in the Vietnam War.
Born March 2, 1944, he graduated from Lakeside High School in Decatur in May 1963. He was employed for several years at the Busy Bee Supermarket before he was drafted into the Army on June 30, 1965, according to a Decatur Daily article reporting his death.
Nicholas completed basic training at Fort Polk, Louisiana. The infantryman was assigned to the 1st Cavalry Division at Fort Benning, Georgia, until he and hundreds of other members of the division were ordered into the war to bolster American fighting troops.
He arrived in Vietnam in January 1966. He was a member of C Company, 1st Battalion, 12th Cavalry, 1st Cavalry Division.
On Feb. 23, 1966, Pfc. Nicholas was killed in a Viet Cong ambush in the Kim Son Valley, South Vietnam. He died as the result of hostile small-arms fire.
The telegram to his mother, Minnie Pearl Nicholas, read in part:
“The Secretary of the Army has asked me to express his deep regret that your son, Private First Class Tommy Lee Nicholas, died in Vietnam on 23 February, 1966 as the result of gunshot wound to left shoulder incurred when ambushed by hostile force employing small arms fire while on combat operation. Death is result of hostile action. Please accept my deepest sympathy.”
During a turbulent era for race relations in the U.S., the African American was the second oldest child of a family of eight. He was survived by his parents, five sisters and two brothers.
A Vietnam marker on the lawn of the Morgan County Courthouse bears the name of Pfc. Tommy Lee Nicholas and others who were killed in Vietnam. The Morgan County Archives Building has a military display which includes his photo.
Posthumous awards to Nicholas, both from the South Vietnamese government, included the Military Merit Medal and the Gallantry Cross with Palm. He received the Silver Star prior to his death in combat, according to newspaper reports.
Wylheme H. Ragland, a friend of the Nicholas family, is a retired United Methodist clergyman who is also a genealogist and historian in Decatur. At 73, he is originally from Anniston.
“When I arrived in Decatur, I was the pastor for King’s Memorial United Methodist Church (from 1977-2010),” Ragland said. “And in the files left by a former pastor, there was information about a recognition service for Pfc. Nicholas (in 1966). Also in our congregation there was the former principal of Lakeside High School (the late C.L. Sheffield). I spoke with him regarding the service of recognition and he shared that he and a former pastor of the church and civic leaders organized the service of recognition for Pfc. Nicholas.
“For 1966 in the South and in Decatur, that recognition service was an historic moment because this town was basically a racially segregated city. And for that moment you had clergy and community leaders and people coming together to honor him in the same building. It was racially mixed and the planning and organizing of it also was racially mixed.”
The speakers included Decatur Mayor Gilmer Blackburn; Barrett Shelton, editor of the Decatur Daily; and Lt. Col. William Ezzard, U.S. Military Reserve Forces, North Alabama Subsector. The ceremony, held 7 p.m. March 4, 1966, drew a standing-room-only crowd in the auditorium of Lakeside High School. The racially segregated all-black school was closed in 1969 under federal court order for integration. The building now serves as the Leon Sheffield Elementary School, named for Lakeside’s former principal.
“His principal remembered him as being a very pleasant, mild-mannered, studious and hard-working young man,” Ragland said.
James Lee Nicholas Jr., 52, of Decatur, shared insight from the family’s perspective.
“He’s my uncle, my dad’s brother,” Nicholas, who works at Decatur Utilities and cuts hair, said. “My (paternal) grandmother told me he was a nice young man that worked at his grocery store. He was just really responsible and kind-hearted. I didn’t get to meet him. Just conversations with my grandmother.”
Editor’s note: This is the 336th in a series of articles about Vietnam veterans as the United States commemorates the 50th anniversary of the Vietnam War.