by: Captain James Kyle
IN SEARCH OF HEROES
It was a cold and wintry day in February, 2007 when I received a phone call from a former Navy Corpsman. He told me he was responding to my request on the First Battalion, Ninth Marines, Third Marine Division website for anyone who knew PFC Danny Nicklow during the time of his tour in Vietnam from 1966 to 1967. After exhausting all previous efforts I had made during my search to find the answers to the ending of my personal hero’s life, I thought it wouldn’t hurt to give this website a try, not expecting any real results. The Corpsman proceeded to tell me that he was with Danny the day he was killed in Quang Tri Province, in the hills east of the KheSanh Marine Base almost forty years ago. I was completely stunned and became incapacitated for a moment to answer back. Here for the first time I had come full circle with the man who answered my hopes and prayers over the last four decades. I had been determined to find the answer to the question that had lingered over that time span. Was it really Danny who came back to us in late March of 1967 or was it another unknown Marine who was part of the now famous ” Walking Dead” Marine Battalion? Finally here was the person who knew the answer to all my questions. The quest began almost immediately after the military funeral for PFC Danny Nicklow of Friendsville, Maryland took place in late March of 1967. My feelings for this young man from the farmlands of Western Maryland had developed over a brief moment in life. The story of my relationship with Danny and his effect on me began in 1964 and has lasted a lifetime.
After I graduated from high school in Pennsylvania that year I went to Deep Creek Lake in western Maryland for a stay with my great aunt who had a trailer at the lake. With her determination she found me a summer job at a local marina. Little did I know at the time I would meet my life long hero. Danny Eugene Nicklow just didn’t walk into your life, he bounded into it. His infectious smile and energy charged personality dominated his presence with everyone he met. I was no exception. He had come to the marina later that spring because of the commitment he had with the Maryland Boys Youth Association. He had been selected in the state as one of the most outstanding young men in Maryland, and had just gotten back from Annapolis. Danny and I hit it off instantly as we not only bonded together in our job at the marina, but also in our competitive nature in sports. I never forgot the first time we had a one on one basketball game with the victor having to win by two baskets. The game was played with the first one reaching twenty points declared the winner. Neither of us could get a two basket advantage. Danny finally left me exhausted after playing non stop for what seemed like an eternity. His determination and commitment to go to any level to win was unbelievable. He told me as we were playing there would be no time outs, no water breaks and no fouls called. He wanted no excuses from me as we hammered each other endlessly. Just play until there was one man standing. This was the indomitable spirit and attitude of Danny Nicklow, which has never left my memory since. The summer of 1964 was a time and place that seems like yesterday. The country was just getting over the tragic death of our beloved President and just like me; Danny missed his spirit and vision. We talked about politics and the country’s future. Here was a seventeen year old ball of energy who loved to talk about politics just as much as sports. I was being challenged by a new friend not only to compete in the typical outlets for a young man, but to challenge myself in discussing the political and social events of the day.
He had principles and feelings that were going to be defended by him at all costs. He talked about a country called Vietnam in a place halfway around the world. This was the first time I had truly discussed this war with anyone. He told me how President Kennedy had sent advisors to Vietnam to fight the Communist insurgency. He asked me what we should do as a country in this freshly debated issue of the day. I had no clue on how to respond. That summer I vividly recall how Danny would swim across a channel on the lake approximately two hundred yards wide. He would swim to the peninsula on the other side to go to a lodge that served hamburgers for lunch. On his way back one day cramps set in about half way across the channel. I was on the marina dock at the time looking for an item for the marina showroom and saw Danny struggling in the water. At first knowing the practical jokes we played on each other I started to yell at him to swim back underwater. Realizing it was no joke I motioned a nearby boat to pick him up. The man in the boat reached him quickly and hauled him in. Would you believe that only a few days later he swam across that channel again, ate those hamburgers at the lodge, and swam back again unfazed? It was an unforgettable summer. I had for the first time a real job at a beautiful location, with the girls of Pittsburgh and the surrounding area swarming the lake. It was paradise for an eighteen year old coming of age. And of course Danny Nicklow was the main coordinator of all the great gatherings on the lake. The summer went much too fast as I had to return to the reality of attending my first year of college. I had to literally be dragged back mentally from this paradise of the summer of ’64. The only goal I had was to stay in college and return to the lake the next summer and live another dream-like existence with Danny Nicklow leading the charge. Little did I know that world events in the Spring of 1965 would change my life and Danny’s forever. That March the Marines landed in DaNang, South Vietnam as the first full size operational combat unit committed to the defense of South Vietnam. I never really gave it much thought as I left for another summer of adventure at the lake with Danny. When I first saw him that day in June of 1965 he burst upon me and told me about his High School football team that went undefeated. I felt badly about not seeing him play and told him that I doubted he missed me among all his fans. He laughed it off and we went on our way to another memorable summer, even more so than the previous one.
Now with the Marines committed to Vietnam, this topic came up constantly. He was steadfast in his belief that this was another show of force by the Communists to take down another government. He felt this was another battleground in the Cold War that the US was being challenged on. He proceeded to tell me the history of Vietnam and made the argument that many people fled the North after the Communist takeover from the French in 1954. He said the Communists purged many of the Nationalists that helped defeat the French so they could have total political control over the North. He knew about the background of Ho Chi Minh and his total commitment to Communism. He believed that this was a time of great challenge for the US from any and all Communist threats. My responses to the discussions about Vietnam were always couched in terms of being neutral on the subject. That summer moved faster than the one before and before we knew it Danny was off to Youngstown State in Ohio on a football scholarship and I was back to my college in Pennsylvania for my second year. I had no contact with Danny that school year and just assumed I would see him again at the lake for another summer of fun and adventure. It was now the summer of 1966. I had successfully completed my second year of college and was ready to attack the lake with Danny again for another exciting summer. As I drove toward the lake I stopped at Danny’s house since it was on the way. I met his stepfather at the door and he proceeded to tell me that Danny was not home, and that he wouldn’t be home until September. I looked at him with a puzzled look and he responded by saying, “Oh, you didn’t know, he joined the Marines.” I was speechless for a moment then told his stepfather I would see Danny in September. I left his home thinking; doesn’t he realize there is a war going on in Vietnam and he is headed straight for it? I tried to analyze what had come over Danny to leave college and join the Marines. How could he have made such a decision when a college deferment for the draft was in place at the time? All of the questions I wanted to ask him would have to be put on hold until Labor Day weekend when Danny would be home on leave. I was beside myself. I tried to work at the marina again, but it was not the same without Danny there. I lasted a few weeks and then went to New Hampshire for a sports camp counselor position. I couldn’t wait to see Danny and tell him he was nuts for leaving college and joining the Marines. Danny called me in September when he arrived back home on leave. He was eager to tell me about his first eight months in the Corps. I met him at his home that Labor Day weekend and we proceeded to go to the lake and enjoy the last holiday of the summer. It was just like old times as we went from place to place visiting friends and taking in all the hot spots. We discussed all the basic subjects of the day including the Pittsburgh Pirates and the outstanding season Roberto Clemente was having. Like me, Danny grew up with Clemente and marveled at his athletic skill and pride that he displayed.
Unfortunately I never got serious enough to ask him the burning questions regarding the reasons he joined the Marines. We just enjoyed the whole night with all of Danny’s friends at the lake. I was wishfully thinking to myself that this moment in time would never end. I have never felt even to this day anyone with the charisma and magnetism that Danny possessed. His presence gave you a sense of well being and the best of Life itself. The next day we headed to Frostburg, Maryland, a small college town close to the lake. We met up with some of the local football jocks who were getting ready for the new season at a local watering hole. Danny had played with and against some of these local players in high school. The respect I saw from these players for Danny was incredible. These farm boys and coal miner’s sons whose parents had put themselves squarely in harm’s way just a generation before in both World War II and Korea knew what patriotism was all about. We had all grown up with it. In the coal mining and farming towns of Pennsylvania, Ohio, West Virginia and Maryland, where the states form a confluence in geographic terms and values, the blue collar attitude of sacrifice was paramount. Whether for family, job, or the military, the roots of this area were all about giving, hard work, and commitment. After quite the day and most of the night in Frostburg we headed home to Danny’s house hoping the night would never end. We made one last stop at a small bar and restaurant on Route 40 just west of Frostburg. This would be a moment in time that remains embedded in my memory forever. We finally started to have a serious discussion about the war and the reasons Danny joined the Marines. He was firm in his position about America’s responsibility in the struggle against Communism and the fact he was not going to sit on the sidelines and not take a stand. Just about the time we were ready to leave Danny and I noticed two young black men walk into the bar. Keep in mind this was 1966 and this locale was not exactly downtown Pittsburgh or New York City. The bartender didn’t pay any attention to these two individuals. On my part I just thought about leaving this place before trouble started. But Danny on the other hand strode up to the bar, ordered two beers, proceeded to talk to the two young men, and then offered them the beers he had just ordered. Everything went down hill very quickly as some of the locals did not take kindly to Danny’s motives. A near riot started and the four of us were lucky to leave the bar unscathed. As we left in our respective vehicles the two clenched their fist and gave us the thumbs up. That was the essence of Danny Eugene Nicklow, he always respected the dignity of everyone he met and wanted to know everything about you.
We laughed and joked as we convinced each other that we could have cleaned out the whole bar and for that matter any other problems that existed in the world. The fact that we had a few too many that day and now seemed invincible; we then proceeded to plow through a farm fence and ended up in a cow pasture as dawn approached. Danny was driving his stepfather’s new Grand Prix and we finally realized we had a problem. He drove the car into the garage backwards since most of the damage was on the rear drivers’ side of the vehicle. Of course the next day the ruse was noticed by Danny’s stepfather immediately since the car had been backed into the garage. But somehow it was hard to spoil Danny’s homecoming and we made up some story of how a huge tractor had forced us off the highway. Forgiveness was granted and we took off on Danny’s next assignment. We headed for the local hairdresser’s shop and Danny had his hair colored the brightest color of yellowish blonde I have ever seen. He looked like a human caution light as we headed back to the house. Of course his mom Bernice thought it was another spectrum of Danny’s personality that was irresistible. She was a very beautiful and young mother, and was so proud of her only son who she bore at the age of seventeen. This was to be a time of celebration with him, and Bernice was going to have the best time possible during this last leave before he left home. I had the privilege and honor of being invited to stay with Danny that Labor Day weekend at his home. I was with him and his family for the last formal holiday dinner he would ever have again. Besides inviting his girlfriend, he also invited his cousin, Sharon to the dinner. He was thinking of me as usual as he did with all of his friends by making sure I would have a date for the dinner and an attractive one to boot. We laughed and carried on at the dinner table talking about the hopes and dreams that Danny had after his tour in Nam. This included his goal of attending West Virginia University where he would finish his education. After a great and memorable afternoon with his family I left early that evening for home. I had said my goodbyes and told Danny I would write him. He hugged me and said, “I will see you too in the Marines someday.” Sure, I thought to myself, I’ll just play it safe and finish college. As I drove home that night I thought to myself that the future was without limit for Danny Eugene Nicklow. With his thirst for life and positive attitude, there was nothing that could stop him. It was Monday, Labor Day 1966. This was the last day I would ever see him again. That fall I started my junior year of college and dove into my studies and social life. I knew I would see him back here in no time and we would catch up on his experiences in Vietnam. I called his home for his address and his mom gave me the Unit and Address. It was the first time I heard Bravo Company, 1st Marine Battalion, 9th Marine Regiment, 3rd Marine Division, FPO San Francisco. I never wrote.
It was late March 1967. I had just come home as always for the weekend so my mom could wash my clothes; and I had planned on going out later to the local bar and dance hall. I had just turned twenty-one, my father had just bought me a brand new ’67 Camaro, and I was ready to celebrate. Life was good and I was cruising through it. After arriving home that Friday afternoon my mom asked if I had seen the local newspaper that day. She handed me the paper. On the front page it stated that PFC Dan E. Nicklow from Friendsville, MD had been killed in action in Vietnam. I just stared into nothingness and was numb. I couldn’t go anywhere that weekend. I walked around aimlessly, thinking how selfish I was for not even writing Danny one letter. I called his home and talked to his stepfather who told me they expected Danny’s body to arrive back home by the following week. I went back to school and went through the motions, skipping a few classes and not attending much spring football practice. I wondered how this could ever happen to the one person who was destined for a future of greatness. How could God take away this young spirit with so much potential? I had found a friend who I felt would be with me for a lifetime. Someone who inspired me to take on life without fear or prejudice. Someone who always thought of others first and was willing to put his actions into reality. He had that golden touch that I would never see again. As I drove to Danny’s home the following Thursday for the wake I felt this must all be a mistake. They must have misidentified the Marine who was killed. It couldn’t possibly be Danny. I felt that once I actually saw Danny’s mom, Bernice she would tell me it was a misunderstanding and he was just wounded or that it was another Marine. As I entered the house the truth hit me square in the face.
The scene was heart wrenching. A Marine stood guard next to the coffin. Bernice was sitting on a chair with her head slightly down and her body language in total denial. She looked up at me and could barely speak, only uttering my name. I did not want to be here. This was not right. I clenched my teeth as hard as I could, fighting the pain deep inside of me. This was the first time I really had felt a close relationship to someone who died tragically. I returned home that night thinking about all the times we had traveled the same road; together, on old Route 40 in our summers of adventure. Going through the daily routine the last three months of school, I tried to move on with my life, trying not to think about my lost friend. As much as I tried to forget, his spirit grew inside me, constantly asking the same question. Who are you? I tried to answer that question every time Danny would ask me. Was I the good time Charley? Was I the frustrated athlete? Was I the average student? Was I always going to do enough to just get by? Was I someone who would never cause waves? Was I always taking and never giving? Was I going to go through my entire life without challenges? Would I always give up at the first sign of failure? Who am I? Danny’s spirit would not let go. It was determined to drive me to answer all those questions and more. I traveled straight to his home after my junior year of college ended.
I arrived at Danny’s home unannounced that summer of 1967 and met Bernice at the door. She instantly gave me a big hug and kiss and told me I must stay the night. She looked much better since the funeral and seemed like she was as busy as ever. Bernice and Homer, Danny’s stepfather, treated me as if I was their new son. We went out to eat that night and the following day we went on a picnic at a lake in Pennsylvania. The one night stretched into a week and every day I found myself doing something for Bernice and Homer. Mowing the lawn, running errands, cleaning out the garage; doing everything that a son was expected to do. The last night I stayed with them I laid awake in Danny’s bed thinking to myself, where do I go from here? Was I going to finish college and teach in a local high school and stay safe in my own little world I had created? Or was it time to challenge myself? As I said goodbye to Bernice and Homer the next day I thought to myself; I need to travel the rest of the summer and see a little bit of the world. What better place to go than California. I had also promised Bernice that I would go to Camp Pendleton and try to help retrieve some of Danny’s personal effects. She was told by the Marine Corps that everything coming back from Vietnam was being stored, separated, and eventually sent out to the appropriate family from the Marine Base in California. As soon as I arrived in San Diego I headed for the Camp.
I had no problem getting on the base. I was directed to the proper storage warehouse where all items from Vietnam were being sent. I met a Gunnery Sergeant who told me that nothing had come in yet under PFC Nicklow’s name and that he didn’t expect anything for some time. I asked him why the delay. He looked at me with an answer which I have never forgotten. He said the casualty list of Danny’s unit was so great that it made him sick. And that any items coming in from First Battalion, Ninth Marines were coming in slower than any other unit in the Corps due to the circumstances they were in. He told me they were engaged with a superior number of enemy forces and many of his old buddies were coming back in body bags. I thanked the Sergeant for his time explaining the situation and left the base with my stomach in knots. This was not the news I expected. Later that day I was sitting at my favorite fast food restaurant in San Diego when a young man walked in. I only noticed the side of his face. His profile looked just like Danny’s. I thought to myself, it could be him. Maybe he had come back to California and had amnesia and didn’t know who he was. My instant wishes were repulsed when he turned around and I saw his face. This wishful hope would last a lifetime unless I met someone who was with Danny the day he was killed. In my mind it was the only way I would ever have closure. Little did I know at the time but Danny’s mother Bernice was in doubt as well, and would remain so for years to come. DID THIS PERSON EXIST? After a great summer in San Diego I headed back to Pennsylvania looking forward to finishing my senior year of college. On the flight back we experienced a terrific thunderstorm near Chicago and the plane was hit by lightning. As the plane got through the storm I thought about commitment to others, not just myself, for the first time. I thought about Danny and the many others who had given their lives for something as old as the nation itself. Freedom from oppression, freedom from fear, freedom of self expression, freedom of religion, freedom from prejudice, all of the freedoms imaginable that only this country represented in it’s short history. And the 60’s represented a rebirth of many of those original aspirations of the founding fathers. It was time for me to get involved personally in a commitment that would change my comfortable and easy lifestyle.
When I got back from California I called the Marine Corps Recruiting office in Pittsburgh. My choice was clear, determined and without hesitation. I would become an Officer in the United States Marine Corps. I would commit myself to becoming an involved American. In my own way I would enter the breach of the 60’s maelstrom. And of course I had help with this decision. It came from my best friend and my personal hero, Danny Eugene Nicklow. If I would never have met this young man I doubt if I would ever had made this decision. I would have more than likely went through life never creating waves, never getting involved, never taking risks; just being safe and going with the flow. The commitment was the easy part. Getting into the Marine Corps was another matter.
After I took my first physical for the Marines in Pittsburgh in September of 1967 I got a call from the Recruiting Sergeant, Staff Sergeant Beem. He told me there was a problem with my X-ray and that I needed to come back in for another one. This was the same spot on my lung that the local Draft Board had categorized me as not acceptable for induction. I thought it would be different when you volunteered for the service and they would ignore any small defect. Later that fall I went back for a second physical. I knew that I had time to pass this physical since I wouldn’t have to report to the Marine Officer Candidate School until after I had graduated in May. Again the same results after the second physical. The holidays passed and in January I went back for another try. Again the same spot, the same rejection. Finally I felt I had to convince Staff Sergeant Beem that there was a determination in me to get into the Marines no matter what it took. I proceeded to tell him about my friend Danny Nicklow and how his loss had made me think about commitment and accountability in life. He called me literally the next day and told me my lungs were clear of any spots and I was good to go into the Marines after I graduated. Funny, that nodule or spot on my lung has reappeared on every x-ray I have taken ever since! Anyway I had gotten my wish and was off to the Marines. My quest to be a Marine was not only a challenge for me, but a journey that would lead me to answers about myself and answers about how, where, and under what circumstances my hero perished. I would now as a fellow Marine get to know the entire history of the now famous Marine Battalion who were still in sustained combat in Vietnam. After my own training I would be headed straight for the answers; right to Vietnam as a Marine Infantry Officer. After approximately eight months of training I got my orders. After two weeks of leave I would be off to the Nam. During the whole time of my training at Quantico I tried to find out as much as I could about First Battalion, Ninth Marines. Every one of the Marines I came in contact with had similar stories of the brutal campaign that 1/9 was fighting against the enemy. I met several Marines who came back to Quantico that had served with other Battalions of the Ninth Marine Regiment. Their story of what happened during the mid-March period of 1967 was that they didn’t know anyone who survived the mortar attack that fateful day of March 16th. Here for the first time I learned it was mortars that hit Danny’s group that day. Other than that I really couldn’t find any eyewitnesses to his death. WAS HE SOMEONE I WOULD EVER MEET?
When I arrived in the Vietnam I was assigned to the Second Battalion, First Marine Regiment, First Marine Division. I was disappointed since I had requested to go to 1/9, but was told they were being ready to be pulled from the field due to their sustained period in continuous combat operations. Thus I was put in charge of a rifle platoon in E Company 2/1. Now I would walk the hallowed ground where my friend had fallen nearly two years prior. I volunteered to stay with my platoon beyond the first six months required in the field if you survived as a Marine Lieutenant. I wanted to give them all I had to help them survive. It was an honor to lead these Marines, who like Danny and others had come from the farms, inner cities, and coal and steel towns. Most were barely out of high school and none came from privilege. But they were tough, straight forward and fought for each other. I couldn’t ask anything more from them. With my own responsibilities in place it was difficult to do much investigation into what actually happened to Danny. However when I went to DaNang to go on a seven day R&R leave I met an older Gunnery Sergeant who was attached to 1/9 during his last tour in Nam. He distinctly knew of Danny reporting into the Battalion initially and told me about another Sergeant named Harper, who apparently was very close friends with Danny. I asked where I could find Sgt Harper, and was told that he had been killed the same day. This would be the first of several times I would hear the name of Sgt Harper and his association with Danny. I thought I had seen or heard that name before. Of course I had; I had seen his name at Quantico under the casualty list of 1967 who served in 1/9. Now I knew he was killed the same day as Danny. This would be the link to what happened to Danny. If I could find someone who knew Sgt Harper they must have known Danny also. I HAD TO FIND HIM. After my tour in Vietnam I reported to Camp Lejeune, North Carolina. I was so proud of the young Marines that I had led into combat. I had the distinction and privilege to lead a Marine infantry unit into combat. Nothing in my life would ever come close to this experience again. But the memory of my Marines and all those who had fallen in this conflict convinced me to begin the vigil; the continued determination to honor and never forget all who had given the ultimate sacrifice. Especially the unit of which my hero, Danny Nicklow served.
When I got back to Lejeune I found the time to research the recent history of this now famous battalion. I learned they had gotten the nickname the “Walking Dead” from Ho Chi Minh himself, who in 1966 determined that his forces, which had been battered that year by 1/9, would seek revenge. And that this battalion was already considered deceased, just not buried yet by the Communist leader. I found out that Danny and his fellow 1/9 Marines were sent to the far reaches of Northern I Corps in 1967 where they faced the best of the North Vietnamese Army regulars. They were engaged in the beginning of the greatest battle of the Vietnam War; the Battle of KheSanh. By the time 1/9 was pulled from the battlefield of Vietnam on July 14, 1969, the results were staggering in terms of bravery, sacrifice and honor. The battalion endured the longest sustained combat and suffered the highest killed in action rate in United States Marine Corps History. The battalion was engaged in combat for 47 months and 7 days. The battalion sustained casualties of 747 killed in action and 2 missing in action out of a typical 800 man battalion strength; a 93.63 percentage rate killed in action. That is not counting the greater amount of wounded over almost a four year period of continuous combat. One of the many facts that I uncovered about the Vietnam experience was that the average amount of time in combat for a Marine would be in excess of 180 days in the field, whereas the WW II Marine averaged around 45 days of continuous combat. All of the numbers haunted me, but the number that always stood out was the 2 MIA’s of the battalion. In my dreams I always felt that Danny could be one of the MIA’s and there could have been a mistake in identifying him as killed in action. This could only be verified by someone who was with him the exact day he was killed and saw it happen. I pledged to myself and to Danny’s family I would find the answers if it took the rest of my life. WHERE WAS HE?
Leaving Marine Corps active duty in 1972 I decided to stay in the Reserves with plans to attend law school. After my tour at Camp Lejeune I was pleased to see Bernice on several occasions and shared with her the wonderful experience of her newborn son Jeff. I never brought up any discussions about my discoveries of the battalion that Danny was in. I felt she was determined to lead a brand new life with her new son and was ready to move on. It was time to carve out my own place in life as well. My newborn son arrived at the end of 1972 and my desire to enjoy life to its full measure would take me to California. Arriving in San Diego the next year I remembered the wonderful time from my trip in 1967 and was determined to live there. One of the characteristics of the city was that it was a Navy town which meant a lot of Marines past and present lived there. I knew of all the place in the world to live this was not only paradise in 1973 but also a place I just might find that one person who knew about my lost hero and how he left this world. Life goes extremely fast once you commit to it totally; raising a family, going to school, working full time; all of the things Danny and all the heroes like him never came back to experience. One thing I found time to do was send flowers to his gravesite every anniversary of his death. It was a constant reminder of never forgetting the sacrifice of Danny Nicklow, and also the pledge to find the answers about his last days. Just as important it was a reminder to lead a life that Danny would have lived; always getting involved, staying positive, being there for oth