U.S. Army, 47th Infantry Division – Lieutenant
Korean War (July 1951-September 1953)
An accomplished explorer, politician, bicyclist, lawyer, writer, and soldier, Alan Nichols has repeatedly proven throughout his life that he is a true jack of all trades.
Alan Nichols was born in Palo Alto on Valentine’s Day, February 14th, 1930. Soon after his birth, Nichols and his family moved to Pocatello, Idaho where he would spend his childhood and attend elementary school. Nichol’s father worked as the President of the Idaho State College and went on to have more roles in collegial administration, and his mother stayed at home and took care of the children. Nichols worked many different jobs throughout his youth; he was a peach-machine mechanic, he was a tour guide, and he worked for a trail-maintenance crew, enjoying the opportunity to explore what he described as “the dirty jobs”. When Nichols reached the age of 18, he set off for California to attend Stanford University for four years studying various things which peaked his interests. While Nichols was studying at Stanford, he decided to follow in his family’s footsteps and join the military via the ROTC program Stanford offered to its students. Nichol’s lifetime hero for whom he was named, his uncle Alan Nichols, served with the French Air Force during World War I where he was killed in action. Nichols had grown up hearing stories about his uncle’s exploits, and although he had no interest in flying for the Air Force, believed it was his duty to follow his uncle’s example. Other members of Nichols’s family inspired him to join the military as well; Nichols’s great-grand uncle served with Sherman’s Army during the Civil War, and his father served in both World War I and World War II. He always knew that someday he would become involved with the military in some form, and when the opportunity presented itself to Nichols during his time in college, he did not hesitate to take it. Nichols decided to join the Army; although his uncle was a pilot, Nichols knew he didn’t want to fly, however he also felt as though he needed to serve. He left Stanford in June, 1950 to begin Basic Training at Fort Tacoma, California.
Basic Training was difficult for Nichols, but nowhere near impossible. Nichols had always been interested in athletics throughout his youth, so the physical training he went through “wasn’t ever truly hard.” The difficulty of Basic Training that Nichols faced manifested itself in an untraditional form; the training of quickness of the hands and deftness of each soldier was very hard for him. As Nichols stated concerning this issue he had, while also chuckling, “I am not a very clever person with my hands, and I remember that you had to take your rifle, your pistol, all that, apart blindfolded, and put it back together during the night. And it was so hard for me.” Overall, in terms of how effective Nichols thought the training program was at Tacoma, he believed that it was both good and bad. Although he and his fellow soldiers received some valuable basic information about warfare, Nichols stated that the main problem that existed within his Basic Training group was a lack of motivation. As he put it,” The Army had a really good group of men who had been in World War II and stayed in the Army, but the lower strata of society, economically, were the soldiers fighting in the Korean War:”. Nichols remembered, “They brought people who were not effective as soldiers, and they weren’t really learning very fast. They weren’t motivated. And they were not very impressive.” Despite the setback of training alongside soldiers who lacked motivation, Nichols was able to persevere and finish Basic Training just as the United States began sending troops to Korea in 1952. Before he was shipped to Japan to receive further education before fighting, and then subsequently to Korea, Nichols was given a five week leave in which he was able to go on a honeymoon with his newlywed wife in the tropics.
After being educated about chemical warfare in Japan, which was unfortunately necessary due to the fact that there was a growing suspicion North Koreans were going to use chemical weapons, Nichols arrived in Busan, South Korea at the rank of Second Lieutenant. When Nichols first arrived in Korea, he remembered being both very excited and immensely interested in the people and places around him. As he put it, “You don’t know where you’re going to be assigned, and you can volunteer for stuff, we could explore the very foreign and unique country.” Initially, Nichols worked as a liaison officer, whose basic duty essentially was to inspect trucks known as “Chogis” which carried supplies through geographically important South Korean cities and areas. Nichols also coordinated where and when supplies would travel in the region. In terms of his living conditions, Nichols didn’t necessarily live in squalor, however certainly didn’t live luxuriously. While affiliates of the United Nations who were close to Nichols lived in lavish mansion-like compounds, which were always stocked with fresh fruit and great food, Nichols and the other members of the 47th Infantry Division lived in wooden barracks which had two men per room and ate simple rations. Nichols recalled that the general morale of most of the American troops in Korea was fair, however strongly influenced by class tensions that existed back home in the States. Nichols remembered that when the draft was instilled for the Korean War, many men who had gone to college and were in graduate school never had to fight while people who grew up in poverty stricken areas did. In terms of the South Korean soldiers’ morale, Nichols stated that, “The morale of the Korean troops was nothing. They didn’t know what they were doing. They had officers who didn’t know what they were doing. They had just been beaten up [in] every battle they ever got into. But by the time I left, they were the best soldiers I ever saw, or even dreamed of.” Although the United States Army and Nichols clearly made a difference in helping the South Korean Army to be able to defend itself, there were still parts of Nichols’s service which were very difficult. For starters, Nichols was in charge of monitoring multiple cities spread out across hundreds of miles and advising officers from both the United States and South Korea on where they should position themselves. He was on the move frequently, mediating conversations and acting as a vital liaison for the United States in the region, while also sustaining serious injuries to his eyes; while in Korea, Nichols’s eyes became severely infected due to all the dirt and dust he was constantly subjected to. When the medics injected him with penicillin, it only made things worse for the Lieutenant and took him a long while to recover.
In September of 1953, Alan Nichols was released from the military at Fort Ord in California. He left the military anxious about where he go next, and what he would end up doing. Nichols had his heart set on going to law school, and very much wanted to focus on his wife, whom he hadn’t been able to spend time with since his honeymoon before he went to Korea. Within a couple months upon returning home, he began to work selling real estate and also started attending Stanford Law School, achieving his goal of studying the law. From Stanford University, Nichols received both a Doctorate of Jurisprudence as well as a Doctorate of Science. From the California College, Nichols went on to receive a Honorary Doctor of Science, proving that he was an exemplary scholar. When Nichols finally got out of Stanford, he began work for a large law firm in San Francisco. After about six years working steadily there, he and a friend both decided they wanted to start their own firm. And so they did. The firm Nichols and his partner created impressively went on to be a top law firm in the Bay for over 30 years. During that time Nichols had two children, was divorced, and was very active in politics. He was president of the school board in San Francisco as well as the President of City College. He was interested very much in education, and even ran for the Board of Supervisors, yet unfortunately lost. As a Republican in a very Democratic city, it was too great of a challenge to win a seat on the Board. Nichols’s political career went very far however; so far in fact that he even ran in 1990 for a seat in the U.S. Congress against current Congresswoman Nancy Pelosi, who bested him in a very close race. Needless to say, Nichols was very gifted in consolidating knowledge in many different facets of life; a gift that would later manifest itself in the very unique pastime he had – exploration.
Besides being an avid scholar and politician, Alan Nichols is an accomplished explorer. In the years after he returned from Korea, he developed a passion for studying and exploring what are called sacred mountains; mountains that are central to certain religions and are the source of many myths and legends. Nichols has traveled all around the world climbing these mountains and writing about them and his experiences studying them. In 1978, when China opened the Tibet Autonomous Region up for foreign tourists, Nichols was the first Westerner to have permission to travel to the sacred Tibetan sites of Mount Kailash and Lake Manasarovar. Nichols has also bicycled the entirety of the Silk Road, which is 10,300 miles of rough terrain from Istanbul, Turkey to Xian, China. He completed this feat in just four segments, beginning in 1989 and ending in 2005. In 2010 and 2012, Nichols was chosen by the prestigious Explorers Club to lead the first ever set of expeditions into seldom traveled areas of Inner Mongolia and China in hopes of discovering the tomb of the Mongol emperor Genghis Khan. In 2012, he was appointed to serve a three year term as the President of the Explorers Club. At the age of 86, Nichols is still ready to explore more; in September of 2016, Nichols is planning on going back to Asia to uncover more mysteries about ancient cultures and myths. Needless to say, sacred mountains and exploration are passions that Nichols has enjoyed delving into for most of his life.
As a proficient explorer, military officer, lawyer, politician, and widely read author, and after studying, exploring, and writing multiple books and pieces of literature on his passion, Nichols has come up with advice that he believes can benefit all people. As he stated, “No matter what age you are, you don’t have to be any part of some specific religion; but you have to understand that the spiritual side, your spiritual side, is the most important of anything you do or think. It is what makes us who we are.”Coming from someone who knows so much and has seen so many different and unique aspects of human life, Nichol’s advice clearly holds merit. As for Nichols’s own spiritual side, it has undoubtedly guided him throughout his life to a point where has not only been successful in each of his challenging professions, but successful in life in general.
Interview by Joshua Dov Epstein on February 7th, 2016