William E. McNicholas
U.S. Navy – 0-6 Captain
USS Ingersoll DD652, USS Somers DDG34, Navy Reserves
Vietnam War (August 1960 – August 1992)
William E. McNicholas was born on May 4, 1942, in New Castle Pennsylvania. He enlisted right out of high school and went to the Naval Training Center in San Diego for basic training. There he was selected as an outstanding recruit and had the opportunity to apply for the Navy ROTC program. Leaving basic training, McNicholas stayed in San Diego and spent 12 weeks going to Interior Communications Electrician School where he learned about sound-powered telephones, the gyroscope, and other essential electronic gear. He also went to Motion Picture Operator school to learn how to show movies, which were much more complicated back in 1960 than they are today. From there he went to Submarine School. After submarine school he was supposed to be on a nuclear submarine coming out of the yards, but he was interrupted to go to Navy Preparatory School in Bainbridge, Maryland. It is a truly wonderful thing that McNicholas wasn’t on that nuclear submarine because that very submarine sunk during a shakedown soon after it left. He recalls the event as “a complete loss of life; a real tragedy.”
But McNicholas was out in Bainbridge, or “God’s Forgotten Thousand Acres” because it was in the middle of nowhere, and is still with us today. At NROTC McNicholas and his peers did drills every week, learned formations, and how to use rifles and swords. They would have to march a mile to school wearing their white uniform in 90 plus degree heat. By lunch time they would all be sweating so much that they would have to march back to change into clean pressed “whites”. Near the end of his time at ROTC in Bainbridge, McNicholas and about 90 others were interviewed by a screening board of 13 people consisting of Navy Officers, Marine Officers, and Professors. The senior member just happened to be the Commanding Officer of the NROTC unit at Penn State. After McNicholas’ interview the captain said, “We’ll see you in the fall,” and he received orders to go to Penn State as a midshipman.
McNicholas was on the drill team his freshman year and went to Cherry Blossom Festival ROTC Drill Team Competition in Washington DC. During the drill routine, the team marched in two rows, spinning their rifles with bayonets and in perfect unison made clean slits down the sleeves of the platoon leader. However, the drill team was very time consuming and McNicholas needed to start “hitting the books” and get the grades up, so he quit the drill team and ended up joining the Zeta Psi Fraternity. He got his commission as an ensign in December of 1965.
After graduating from Pennsylvania State University with a Bachelor of Science degree in electronics engineering, McNicholas received orders to the USS Ingersoll DD-652, homeported in San Diego, CA. He was initially the Electronic Material Officer, but a month after he was on board, he became the navigator. Although he didn’t know much about being the navigator, he learned very quickly what to do and how to answer the captain’s immediate questions of “We’re going here. How long? And which way are we going?” Eventually McNicholas got moved up to become the Gunnery Fire Control Officer of the ship which has four 5-inch 38 guns and three twin 3-inch mounts on it.
In November of 1966, the USS Ingersoll was deployed to Vietnam and assigned to Sea Dragon Patrol off of Dong Hoi, NVN. Their mission was to take out antiaircraft guns along the coast of North Vietnam so that the planes flying in were not getting shot at and destroying vessels carrying supplies to SVN in support of the Viet Cong. On the first morning on station, the Ingersoll and its sister ship, the Stoddard, were sailing in a column formation. The Stoddard was the lead vessel and executed a right turn. The Ingersoll was following in Stoddard’s wake. As Ingersoll approached the turning point, the North Vietnamese, knowing the pattern that the ship was going to take, open fire on the Ingersoll. The Ingersoll responded with gunfire from its 5” 38 guns. The ship had a dud round hit the bridge, no explosion, and no one injured. This marked the first time a US Navy ship was hit by NVN gunfire. A week later the USS O’Brien relieved the Ingersoll, and on their first morning on station, they took a round that killed four. McNicholas said, “It’s a little emotional thinking about it, because that could have been us the week before.”
After just less than six months of Sea Dragon Patrol, the USS Ingersoll made its way back to San Diego. That is where McNicholas picked up the Navy Achievement Medal for different firing programs he developed and earned the Ingersoll a Meritorious Unit Commendation.
Soon thereafter, McNicholas was transferred to the pre-commissioning crew of the USS Somers (DDG-34). First, he had to go through training to become an ASW/Nuclear Weapons officer. He went through ASW School for about three months, then on to Nuclear Weapons School for 1 month. He then reported to the ship in October of 1967 in San Francisco. McNicholas and three other gentlemen from the ship got a penthouse in San Francisco on Buena Vista Terrace. Up on that hill they could sit out on their balcony and look down on the Bay Bridge, Golden Gate Bridge, and clear into the waters going into Tiburon and Sausalito. Back then the four guys shared a three-bedroom, two-bath, island kitchen, and 20 by 40 foot living room for $400 a month, probably $10,000 now.
The USS Somers (DDG-34) was commissioned on February 10,1968. Before the ship was commissioned and before they had to move, McNicholas and his roommates would “have parties going six out of the seven nights a week” acting like the young bachelor officers that they were. So every Sunday afternoon, their routine was to go to 39 Main in Tiburon, sing along with the umpah band and have a fun time. Two out of the four of them met their future wives on the same Sunday afternoon at 39 Main. One couple got married six months later, and McNicholas and his wife got married three years later. After 39 Main, they would go to other places like Zack’s, Latitude 38, Jolly Friar, or Sgt. Pepper’s and by midnight they would end up back at the penthouse with a bunch of people. Once the ship was commissioned the four bachelors led a completely different life. They were now standing watches on the ship, were responsible for all the work and the manuals, so in turn they partied maybe one day a week versus six.
Coming out of the yards in May of 1968, the USS Somers left to the tune of “Sittin’ on the Dock of the Bay” by Otis Redding. They went up to Seattle to test their sonar and do some repairs then returned to the ship’s home port in Long Beach. There they spent sixteen weeks off the coast testing the brand-new Tartar missile system since they were the first ship in the Navy to have it. Once they finished the testing, McNicholas received orders to Vietnam in late 1968, completed training in San Diego and went to My Tho, RVN as OIC of the Naval Support Activity NSA). Upon arriving in Saigon, he was transferred by helicopter to NSA Dong Tam which was five miles away from his base. The first thing he sees when he’s landing is another helicopter sitting there that had just been blown up the night before from mortars, which McNicholas said, “gave me a great, warm feeling”.
McNicholas went in as the Officer in Charge of the Naval Support Activity and had 300 men and 20 patrol river boats on his base in My Tho. Just a half a mile up the street from the base. The personnel were housed in three hotels leased from VN citizens in the city of 100,000 people. McNicholas recalls My Tho as a beautiful city back in 1969. He said, “The beaches in Vietnam on the ocean would put Hawaii’s beaches to shame. They’re that beautiful,”. McNicholas and his crew spent plenty of time working and giving support to boats, but they also found time to go to the Protestant or Catholic orphanages and play with the kids, meeting all sorts of new people. McNicholas even met the president of Vietnam’s niece who was his interpreter for some time. In his free time he also liked to play football on the soccer field and water ski on the Mekong River with his men, which he believes is how we got the name “Crazy Americans”.
Sometimes McNicholas and his crew would take a boat (PBR-Patrol River Boat) to the nearby villages and give medical help to the people living there. He has videos of them being mortared by Viet Cong as they were coming back up the river. Although they couldn’t shoot back because they didn’t know where the Viet Cong were, it could be anyone. In fact the barber across the street from their hotel turned out to be Viet Cong. He was collecting intelligence by cutting hair. McNicholas said it was unsettling to think about the fact that, “This guy had a straight razor in his hand the whole time while shaving my face, ears and neck. And he was the enemy,”.
The city McNicholas and his men were staying in took rounds of mortars two out of every three nights. One time the hospital was bombed which started a fire. So McNicholas and his crew went over to put out the fire which resulted in 12 men getting wounded. Another night the main compound they were staying in took rounds, that time 8 men got wounded from the shrapnel. However McNicholas missed his own Purple Heart because the piece of shrapnel was caught by his wristwatch instead if his skin. The owner of the hotel was very upset too because he payed 50% of the money he got from the government to the Viet Cong to keep them from hitting the hotels.
Anyway, McNicholas’s crew was there to train Vietnamese sailors to take over the base. They lived together and worked together, and McNicholas recalls them being “very intelligent in learning the stuff,”. They ended up being the first US Navy base to turn over to Vietnam. McNicholas still has the flag that was used for the ceremony. After the base was turned over, McNicholas became senior advisor and had to select who in his group would stay or be transferred elsewhere. At this point McNicholas was due to get out of Vietnam, but the Navy wanted to send him to destroyer school in New England. McNicholas said, “Nope. If you can’t give me shore duty, then I’m out.” So all of a sudden, a set of orders came through and he went out. On the flight to Vietnam, “It was like one big party,” but on the flight back “you could hear a pin drop, it was so quiet.”
McNicholas arrived back at Treasure Island and joined the Reserves. But he stayed connected with the people in Vietnam because of how involved he got with them. They sent him Christmas cards and pictures even after he left, and that’s when he started to question the meaning of the war, “All that effort. The 50,000 people that died for nothing,” McNicholas reflected. “The problem was, the government was controlling the war, they weren’t letting the military fight it. We had to read the rule books on what target we were allowed to shoot at each day because it would change. One day we were allowed to fire at them the next day we weren’t,” and when he came back, McNicholas realized that, “This war isn’t being fought to win.”
Unfortunately, because of this pointless war, McNicholas, like many others who served in the military, picked up Post Traumatic Stress Disorder (PTSD). One of the most traumatic moments for McNicholas, besides getting shot at, was when two young Vietnamese sailors he was training wanted to take a picture with him. They had bought a Kodak Instamatic and got someone to take a picture of the three of them. Then the two sailors went into their room and McNicholas heard a boom! He went in and had to clean these two men off of the walls. There was C-4 bomb planted in the camera and when they hit a certain point, the camera exploded instantly killing them both. McNicholas was just one picture away from what occurred which affected him big-time. One of McNicholas’ college fraternity brothers had also gone into the Navy and developed PTSD. But it affected him to the point that he couldn’t talk about anything that he did and as a result became an alcoholic and drank himself to death. There are far too many stories like this, of brave men dying tragic deaths because of their inability to keep a “active life” as McNicholas puts it, when they get out of the military.
McNicholas kept an active life after serving by getting a job working for H. K. Porter Disston Division as their products engineer. He moved to Danville, Virginia, where his friend was the head of the Navy’s Reserve Training Center in Winston-Salem, NC, was the CO and persuaded McNicholas to stay in the Reserves.
In the Reserves, McNicholas got involved in answering the question: Why are Navy ships painted the way they are? So he looked at paint schemes from World War 1 and World War 2, and realized the paint jobs were never tested to see if they were effective. He got in contact with a company, Science Partners, in Williamsville, New York, that did the camouflage program for the Navy aircraft, and worked with them to develop a new program. They conducted a study in San Diego taking pictures and videos of various schemes under various conditions, and found a difference. So as the project director, McNicholas and his team gave presentations to the head of the Third Fleet, the head of the First Fleet, the Naval Sea Systems Command, the Pentagon, the Chief of Naval Operations, and even NATO. In the end, the Navy decided to implement the program that McNicholas developed and he retired from the military as a Captain in August of that year, 1992, after 32 years of service.
McNicholas, working for Porter Disston, was put in charge of a new product called the electric grass shear. They were predicted to sell 25,000 but sales hit 300,000 so McNicholas was traveling 90% of the time looking for new supplies of product to make the grass shears. On a return trip from the Orient on a Thanksgiving he went to LA and his then girlfriend, who was a stewardess with the weekend off. It was a Sunday afternoon, like the first time they met at 39 Main, , and they had gone out to get dinner and cocktails. At about eleven pm the two spontaneously decided to go to Las Vegas and get married. They got married at one thirty on Monday morning, with their cab driver as the best man. Then she flew back to San Francisco where she lived and McNicholas flew back to LA, then up to San Francisco that same night. The next morning he flew down to LA and that night she flew down to LA with all of her stuff, and by Wednesday morning they were en route to Pennsylvania and finally to Danville where McNicholas lived. Then following the summer of 1971, he and his wife packed up and drove across the country and moved to California.
McNicholas got a job working for Clorox and by Christmas moved into their house in San Rafael that they still live in today. Eighteen months later, he left Clorox and went to Georgia Pacific to do the installation of a new production plant. Next he went to work for Optical Sciences Group which did Fresnel lenses for fighter jets, stick-on lenses, and press-on lenses. He got cut from there when the company misjudged production, so McNicholas got another job working as an industrial engineer for Armour. During this time he also got his master’s degree in business and labor relations after graduating from Golden Gate University in 1979. But, McNicholas wanted to be a plant manager, so he left Armour and went to work for a company called Industrial Devices. In 1985 McNicholas got into a partnership with a gentleman and the two of them formed a company selling technical products. His partner and him were some the first people to sell complete AutoCAD systems, which included the AutoCAD software, an IBM computer, a 12” monitor, black and white, a 20”color monitor, a printer, and a plotter, plus installation and training of two days for $35,000. Then when one vendor of a product they represented refused to pay commissions owed and his partner had a quadruple by-pass, McNicholas ended up going to work for Sofa Industries as a regional manager. Then he went to Campbell & George and worked in sales for 22 years. They finally let him go because of age discrimination in the spring of 2012, which he has a lawsuit to fight, which he won.
But in the meantime, McNicholas has been working part time doing consulting for companies such as EO Products and Deep Root irrigation. He is also involved in Rotary and has been president of his Rotary Club in Tiburon, CA, being involved in a lot of projects. McNicholas is currently in Scottish-American Military Society, which does honor guards for various functions.
Being in the military gave McNicholas a “different focus and understanding of what life was all about”. He had been through the pluses and minuses in life while being in a leadership position which enabled him to develop that characteristic. He has become very responsible after having to be responsible for the safety, and wellbeing of 300 other men. He said, “Even though I enjoyed it and had fun and everything, I was still—I was the guy that had to answer if anything happened.”
Throughout his experience on the USS Ingersoll, USS Somers, and the Reserves, a few extra-memorable moments stick out to McNicholas. On the Ingersoll, he remembers the baseball team that he was a part of and how they played baseball whenever they went into a port. He recalls it being “a lot of fun when we won.” On the Somers, there was an interesting moment when 2,000 people were aboard the ship the week after the Rose Festival in Portland, and one of the ASROC alarms was set off. “And the ASROC emergency team, with rifles, came scrambling. And you’ve got several hundred people on the ship. Which was a total nightmare to try to get the ship cleaned up.” A Vietnam memory was when the USO show staring country singer Porter Wagoner came to the base and and performed “Green Grass of Home,” “which was very memorable”. The entire experience was very memorable to McNicholas and the camaraderie that he experienced will always be special to him. He still communicates frequently with his friends from Ingersoll, Somers and the Reserves.
What McNicholas thinks needs to be learned from the Vietnam War is “if we’re going into war, let’s go to win… and stay out of places which you don’t belong in. Let them live their life. If they want to fight, let them fight. Stay out of it and don’t supply weapons or anything,”. He has been able to come up with this opinion because of the deep level he got to know the Vietnamese people: understanding them, their culture, and their religion. He believes that it is important to “take a look at the world, and learn and understand the history. Follow history. Live with history.”
As the epitome of a man who won’t let what he doesn’t know get in the way of his plans, McNicholas’ lesson is to focus on what you want to do, develop a plan, and you’ll get there.
Interview Conducted by Cassidy Bruner on May 27, 2017