Korea. 1951 Gaither Nicholas and Chuck Rothenburg. Company A, 23d Infantry, Second Infantry Division.

 Return To Heartbreak

A Journey Into The Past

Gaither Nicholas

In 1982, I wrote a letter to the editor at the Denver  Post looking for veterans of Heartbreak Ridge. A woman called early on a Sunday morning. She had seen the letter printed on the editorial page. She wouldn't give her name. She told me she sent her husband out on an errand to give her time to call. She told me how sudden noises triggered him 30 years after the war. How he always looked at the high ground when they drove in the mountains, his eyes darting around, nervous, sometimes sweating. It was all unspoken, held deeply  inside.

I discovered most Korean War veterans would not talk to their families. Maybe they thought we would not care, could not understand. The wives and children were shut out. 

A letter to the U.S. Army Chief of Military History  brought a  suggestion to contact the 23rd Infantry  Regiment Association, Korean War Branch. The 23rd Infantry, attached to the Army Second Indianhead Division, captured Heartbreak Ridge. 

A return letter invited me to the annual reunion of the 23rdInfantry at Port Washington, New York, July 1982. I was a journeyman carpenter, considered by most to be a loner, and certainly not a candidate to pry into the lives of military veterans. Something  pushed me to learn more about Korea.

I put on a three-piece suit, and flew to New York.  The taxi dropped me at the American Legion in a tiny drab storefront. Inside, it was at least 100 degrees. I was disorientated, not knowing what to say or do.

Several of the veterans stared at me, obviously  wondering who I was. Someone offered me a beer, and suggested I speak to Gaither. On that overwhelmingly  hot summer day, I met Gaither Nicholas, a tobacco farmer from Crossville, Tennessee, a man of gentle power.

I put my coat on a hanger. We shook hands, and sat down at a longtable. He pulled up his shirt. Holes in his body ran diagonally from waist to shoulder. He was bluntly telling me what war was about. He was trying to shock me. Challenging me to say the right words, demanding from me a reaction, showing me the brutality of war without speaking.

Gaither and I talked about his bitterness after the war,  his uncontrolled violence, the pain of wounds which would surely killed a lesser man. We talked of his moments of oblivion at Heartbreak Ridge. His words touched me. Gaither was hit just yards below the peak of  Hill 931, shot by a North Korean with a burp gun. Point-blank.

He was a working man, showed me his hands. I held out my own rough hands, showed him the cuts and  burns. I think he was surprised. The day before, I was sweating in a hole in Colorado, pouring concrete for a home I was building. I've been a carpenter since college, and proud of it. Some would say I was a misfit.

Nicholas sensed something in me, for he began to tell  me his feelings. After Korea, he admitted, he had been  a violent man, vicious, unyielding, unforgiving, unrepentant. Drink became his life, and a hell it was for his family and neighbors. After 1970,  he found strength within and became a human again. But people don't forget. The past is not easily forgotten.

For Gaither Nicholas, war was not abstract. War was real, and he was determined to force me to deal on his terms, with his  bulletwounds, his fears, his dreams. He attacked me head on, forcing me to deal with his pain.  We talked as only strangers can, with a sense of urgency, sometimes both at once, as if no time remained.

Colonel James Dick told me Gaither Nicholas was one of the finest men he had ever known. Jim Dick knew Gaither as few men can know oneanother. Gaither was with Alpha Company on Heartbreak Ridge, and Jim Dick was his company commander, the man who ordered him to kill. 

Later, I sat at a table of several veterans of Heartbreak Ridge. We talked generally about the 30 day battle, then I asked if anyone remembered a helicopter rescue. They remembered the rescue, all right. One veteran recounted the helicopter rushing over his position, another vividly described the sound of the bullets hitting the hovering aircraft. A third veteran told of cheers when the chopper flew off toward base.

I told them my father was the pilot of that rescue helicopter, and that the downed pilot was killed. It became very quiet, and I could not talk. The veterans were silent.

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Photo Provided by Chuck Rothenberg...


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