Friday, June 5, 2009

WWII Fighter Pilot Remembers Amazing Event: Contacted by Italian Family that Rescued Him

Members of the Italian family who rescued retired Air Force Lt. Col. Albert Nickels stand on the wreckage of his P-47 Thunderbolt outside Parma, Italy in April 1945. Colonel Nickels served as an Army Air Corps pilot during World War II. This photo and others taken during his wartime ordeal were recently sent to him. It is the first time he has seen this photo since it was taken 64 years ago.

Sent to me by my friend, 95th BG bombardier Maurice Rockett. Thanks, Maurice.

by Rudy Purificato

311th Human Systems Wing historian

6/5/2009 - BROOKS CITY-BASE, Texas (AFRNS) -- As a former World War II fighter pilot trained to expect the unexpected, retired Air Force Lt. Col. Albert Nickels recently experienced something unimaginable relating to his wartime service. Nearly 64 years after having escaped death following the crash of his P-47 Thunderbolt, a member of the family who had rescued him contacted the now 86-year-old Airman to provide photographic evidence of his wartime ordeal.

"I couldn't believe, at first, something like this could happen. I was elated," said Colonel Nickels about the initial e-mail he received in January. The e-mail was from a 91-year-old family member representing the late farmer who was instrumental in saving the colonel's life near Parma, Italy, on April 26, 1945. The farmer's son sent a black and white photo of the colonel's downed P-47 in a field. Colonel Nickels also received color photos of the field as it looks today, plus an exterior shot of the farm house where he had been taken, and an interior image of the attic where he was hidden from the Germans. The unexpected cache of memories included a color photo of the hospital where Colonel Nickels was treated, and a black and white photo of him in civilian clothes, a common disguise for downed American pilots. This helped Allied underground forces smuggle them through enemy lines. "Benfiglio Ruggieri said that his father had always wondered what had happened to me," says Colonel Nickels, explaining that Mr. Ruggieri was fulfilling his late father's request to locate him.

The photographic revelation to Colonel Nickels was akin to experiencing the stunning effect characterized by the old slang expression "a bolt from the blue." Unlike many wartime veterans of his generation, he has never revisited the land where he had served in combat. Colonel Nickels was a member of the 64th Fighter Squadron, 57th Fighter Group of the U.S. 12th Air Force based midway between Pisa and Rome in Grossetto, Italy.

During his 74th and last combat mission to find targets of opportunity, Colonel Nickels crashed in an orchard. "I saw a flash that momentarily distracted me. I was flying low and hit the trees. The Germans got to me first. Two SS troops shot at me. One bullet hit (grazed) my head. They thought they had killed me," recalls Colonel Nickels. Minutes later a group of German Wehrmacht soldiers found him alive. "I spoke fluent German because my grandparents were from Germany," the colonel said. "I asked them if there was a hospital nearby. They laughed. They thought I was a German turncoat disguised as an American flier." One of the German soldiers was left behind to kill him. "He shot two times over my head and left," Colonel Nickels confessed.

The farmer's family then came to his rescue. After hiding him in their farmhouse, he was taken to a hospital in Parma where he was treated for a variety of injuries including four fractured ribs. He made it safely back to Allied lines only days before the war in Europe ended. Today, Colonel Nickels serves as a volunteer in the Brooks Retiree Activity Office. He is grateful to the farmer's family for helping him then and for the photos he recently received. He no longer travels, but his daughter, Linda plans, to personally thank the farmer's family for him when she travels on vacation to Italy in June.


Jane said...

Lt. Colonel Albert (Nick) Nickles was one of my father's (Lt. Col. Jack Morgan's)best friends and roommates during WWII. We took a copy of this story to him this week and it brought back many many memories of his service days and his friendship with Nick. Thank you for publishing such a wonderful piece. Dr. Jane Mikoni

r morris said...

You're welcome, Jane. Do I know your dad?

Jane said...

You probably don't know him, although he was a career AF pilot. He's now in a health care facility and I've come home (Texas) to help my mother care for him. Am a college English teacher (narrative theorist and memoirist), so his autobiographical work (and letters from his friends, such as Nick) mean a lot to me. He has written about Nick's rescue in his memoirs--from a first person pov.

r morris said...

Jane, I'm also a writer and teacher and love oral history/stories. We should discuss the topic more. Let me know if you'd like to.