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Major J. Brooks Nichols: Commanding Officer, 3rd Battalion, 339th Infantry

Updated: May 11


(Maj. J. Brooks Nichols - U.S. Army Archives)


[James Columbia co-wrote this article. He has researched all the men who came from Kentucky, or lived in that state.]


Jesse Brooks Nichols was born July 11, 1885 in Dunkirk, NY, his parents Edward and Posey Brooks Nichols. His mother died soon after his birth, however his father hired nannies to help guide the young boy.[1] But then, in 1892, when Jesse was five, his father died, leaving the orphan to be raised by his grandmother, Julia A. Brooks. Four years later in November 1896, his grandmother passed away.

Julia Brooks, a widow at the time of her death, was the sole owner of the Brooks Locomotive Works, a massive firm dominating the economy of Dunkirk, NY. Her company built locomotives, sometimes as many as eighty to a hundred each year.[2] She named her grandson, Jesse Brooks Nichols, as well as another grandson, and three granddaughters as beneficiaries of nearly one-half of the Brooks Locomotive Works’ capital shares.[3] Each child’s inheritance was bound up in a trust that would become available to them when they reached the age of thirty. The value of each trust was estimated to be nearly $125,000 [$3.9 million—2020].[4] The eleven-year-old had just become an incredibly wealthy youngster. His grandmother’s will stated, “Clare A. Pickard [was to be] special guardian for Jesse.”[5] Clare Pickard was a respected attorney who handled much of the company’s legal matters. He was tasked with managing Jesse’s trust, seeing that the boy was properly raised, and allocating a sufficient allowance to pay for all child rearing and education costs. He performed his responsibilities admirably; by the time Jesse graduated from the elite boarding school, Hill School, in Pottstown, PA, the value of the youth’s trust was even more than when he first received it.[6]

J. Brooks Nichols—he chose to go by his middle name—went to Yale and while there, developed a friendship with Chester Norton of Louisville, KY. Nichols often accompanied Norton to Louisville, and eventually met Rosa Sparks Dunlap, a young woman of ‘New Money.’ The two fell in love but because of a clause in his inheritance, Nichols could not marry until he graduated from college. Thus, in 1908, when he received his B.A. degree in science, the couple wed. The two went on an extensive honeymoon, traveling to Paris, Scotland, and England.[7] They returned to the U.S. and settled briefly in New York City, and here their first child, J. Brooks, Jr. was born. Then, the small family moved to Louisville, where Nichols worked for a company involved in Kentucky oil and coal. They lived in Louisville for only six months, however, during that time Rosa purchased a five-gaited saddle horse named “Rob Roy,” advertised to be the finest ever to appear in Louisville.[8]

The Nichols family settled Detroit in 1910 when J. Brooks Nichols took a job as the purchasing agent at the U.S. Radiator Corporation. This was a massive company that manufactured heating radiators for nearly all the markets in the United States and Europe. Nichols became the company’s director three years later, as well as taking control of the Detroit Princess Manufacturing. Then, with these large businesses under his control in 1914, J. Brooks and Rosa began construction of a 20,000 square foot mansion on Detroit’s famed Lake Shore Road, that included a “large center hall, drawing room, music room, library, a ballroom … [as well as] a garden, [and] a cottage.”[9] Also included in the construction was a specially built stable for “Rob Roy.”[10]

Two more sons were born, Edward and Norval, and by the time the United States entered the Great War the Nichols family was growing, prosperous, and well known about Detroit. Nichols, in 1917, believing he needed to contribute, took the examination to become an officer, passed, and attended Officers’ Candidate School at Ft. Sheridan, IL. He was commissioned a first lieutenant in May 1917, and captain two months later. The newly minted captain was sent to Camp Custer and in early 1918 was assigned as adjutant to Col. John Craig, the 339th Infantry’s first commander. Nichols was promoted to major in May 1918 and given command of the regiment’s Second Battalion.[11] He proved to be efficient, well respected, and, as a fellow officer recorded, “Every army man you speak with … say Major Nichols is a fine officer.”[12]

Once in Archangel, as commander of the battalion in charge of protecting Archangel, Maj. Brooks immediately began ‘crossing swords’ with the British leadership. They insisted upon, “Running the show and [making sure] the Americans [and Russians] were directly under … British command.” This did not set well with the Americans, nor with the Russian people. Many of the Archangel citizens could not tell the Brits from the Americans, and because they did not trust the British, they also did not have much faith in the Yanks. It became Maj. Nichols’ responsibility to change this situation. His first test came quickly; Archangel’s streetcar drivers went on strike, paralyzing the city. Major Nichols sent out a call to the men of his battalion, wanting soldiers with streetcar experience. Since so many of his troopers were from Detroit, he soon had a number of men he could send out to take over the driving of the stalled streetcars. Nichols announced to Archangel’s citizens there would be no fees charged. Then, “for the next … thirty hours, Americans were conducting the streetcars, or acting as motormen, and at every place … there were two or three American soldiers to keep the crowds from overloading the cars.”[13] The strike collapsed, and the Archangel citizens began to recognize the differences between Americans and the British.

However, on September 27, 1918, Maj. Nichols was reassigned, when Col. Stewart ordered him to replace Maj. Charles Young, commander of Third Battalion. Maj. J. Brooks Nichols immediately traveled to Obozerskaya and took over command, right in the middle of a disastrous battle. Major Charles Young wrote, “Major J. B. Nichols 339th Infantry, handed me a copy of S. C. No. 9 … dated Sept. 27th 1918, by which I was superseded as Co. O. 3rd Battalion by Major Nichols.” Young continued, “I explained the situation to him and told him it was my intention to delay turning the battalion over to him until after the operation … was finished. He suggested … that as he was to take over sometime he might as well do it [now].”[14]

The Americans were supposed to be conducting a three-pronged assault but this action had completely unraveled. One of the units sat useless, near headquarters, far from where they were supposed to be. Major Nichols, hearing the sounds of combat, ordered this unit to mobilize, and Company ‘I’ immediately headed towards the sounds of the fight. This unit quickly was engaged, but lacked the numbers to be effective. Nichols then ordered the remaining men, those in Company ‘M’, to also advance.

The two companies, along with the other units involved in the operation completed their mission, pushing the Bolos from their defenses. The Yanks then dug in for the night. Strangely, during the night the British high command ordered the Americans to withdraw. Major Nichols refused, and following a fierce argument, the Brit officers backed down. A French contingent was added to the defenses, thus, when the sun came up on September 30, 1918, the Allies were dug in and well prepared for a Bolshevik assault.

Once the combat situation calmed down, Nichols learned that Maj. Young had not battled against any of the British high command’s directives, one of which forced old English rations upon the Americans. Eating greasy mutton and drinking English tea did not set well with Third Battalion’s doughboys, and their rancor against this circumstance did nothing for their morale. Major J. Brooks Nichols recognized his troops’ fragile morale and worked to correct it. The major called a meeting of his company officers and senior NCO’s, asking them what needed to be done. One of the sergeants, speaking point blank, said, “We want coffee,” and from that moment on, Nichols was lectured on the faults of British rations. Private James Siplon (Co. I) declared, “After Major Nichols got in there … He got us coffee … and American rations. Siplon added, “Quite often we had beef stew and potatoes. In the field, bully beef and hardtack … We began to get oatmeal for breakfast, and even once in a while we’d get pancakes.”[15]

As the months slowly passed Major J. Brooks Nichols ignored much of what the British high command demanded, and ran the operations for the 339th’s Third Battalion. Nichols though, was in a tough situation; the arrogant British were still in charge of the Americans and continued to tell the Yanks what to do; and Col. Stewart from his warm office in Archangel often sent messages, recommending Nichols conform to what the British wanted. But Nichols, as long as rations and supplies were assured, only did what he felt best to protect and maintain his troops. The American major struggled, knowing at any time the British might demand his replacement, while at the same time, he knew, as one rifleman who spoke for his comrades, and grumbled, “He was abandoned by his country, [and] that he was forgotten and left to his fate.”[16]

In time, the Americans did return to the United States, and in July 1919, Lt. Col. J. Brooks Nichols was discharged from the Army. He took on the role of officer, and director, as well as a large stockholder in the Franklin Baker Company, a manufacture and distributor of coconut products, and moved his family to Philadelphia. Their Grosse Point mansion was gone, as Rosa, with Nichols’ permission, has sold it while he was in Russia. They would remain in Philadelphia until Nichols moved the company’s headquarters to Hoboken, NJ. They lived in the New York City area until 1932, when the couple separated. Rosa and J. Brooks divorced two years later.[17] She would remarry again, but sadly, pass away in 1937. J. Brooks Nichols retired around the time of World War II and settled in Connecticut, living in Darien and by 1960, Ridgefield. He died in 1970 and was buried in Southbury, CT.

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[1] “Large Industry Survived Years of Depression,” The Buffalo Courier, 17 September 1905. [2] The Railway Age. 18 Oct. 1901. [3] New York Supplement Vol.95, 5 Feb 1906, 298-9. [4] New York Supplement Vol.95, 5 Feb 1906, 300. [5] New York Supplement Vol.95, 5 Feb 1906, 298. [6] Marquis, Albert N. (Ed.), Book of Detroiters, 1914, 369. [7] Columbia, James, 2022. James Columbia is researching and writing about all the men of the 339th Infantry who were from Kentucky. He has created a highly detailed data base of all these Kentuckians. [8] Columbia, James, 2022. [9] Moran, Darby, “Historical Architecture of Grosse Point. www.highbiemaxon.com, 10 Apr 2018. [10] Columbia, James, 2022. [11] Costello, Harry J., “Why Did We Go to Russia?” Detroit Free Press, 27 Jul 1919. [12] Costello, Harry J., “Why Did We Go to Russia?” Detroit Free Press, 27 Jul 1919. [13] Nelson, James C. The Polar Bear Expedition, 2019, 50. [14] Young, Charles, “Report of Engagement,” Historical Files, 12 Oct 1918. [15] Siplon, James, Polar Bear Oral History Project, 7 June 1977. [16] Cudahy, John, Archangel: The American War with Russia, 1924. [17] Columbia, James, 2022.

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