King Of Spies by Blaine Harden
Donald Nichols was a working class boy who came from a troubled background in pre-Second World War United States. His mother ran out on his father when Donald was still very young, and left her husband to raise four bewildered sons. As a result, David Nichols grew up hungry and angry, two qualities that were to shape his career when he eventually became top spymaster for the United States before, during and after the Korean War. This is his story.
Walter Nichols Snr took his sons from their home in New Jersey to Florida to try to begin again. They had very little and the children were forced to work from a young age to help provide food for the Depression-era family. David took the quickest way out of poverty, which was the US military, where he became a motor pool mechanic, serving in that capacity throughout the latter stages of World War 2.
After the war ended, Nichols had no desire to return to civilian life, the military giving him everything he needed. He re-enlisted and, having been recruited by the Counter Intelligence Corp, found himself in Korea, then divided between Communist and US forces after the defeat of the Japanese who had occupied it. Nichols took to life in South Korea like an army duck to water and was not to leave there for many years.
By the time Nichols was twenty-three, he was in control of his own, virtually unsupervised, army of spies, well-resourced and with connections that went all the way to the top of the South Korean government. It was unprecedented. His organisation was simply known as NICK, and was more influential in matters pertaining to Korea than the CIA. Nichols had serious backers in the form of US ambassadors and generals, as well as Korean military and politicians. The working class boy from New Jersey managed to take his street smarts and use them to gain control of the US fight against Communism on the Korean Peninsula.
When North Korea launched their ill-fated offensive on South Korea on June 25th, 1950, Nichols had already been warning the US Command for months that an attack was imminent claiming that it would take place between June 25th and June 28th. His constant reports were ignored by generals too arrogant to take the word of a lowly officer. It was a decision that was to cost a number of them their jobs, General Douglas MacArthur included. It was also a sequence of events that was to elevate Nichols into the spying stratosphere.
During the war, which the Communists would have won if not for the incompetence of North Korean leader, Kim Il Sung, the US forces were decimated. They and their South Korean allies were forced to flee to the safety of the Pusan Perimeter where they set their final defensive lines. The Communist forces waited and foolishly allowed them time to regroup. They also allowed Nichols time to acquire extensive reports from behind enemy lines, reports that were to prove vital in pushing back the Communists.
Nichols engaged in a program of agent infiltration. Using Koreans, some of whom were defectors from the Communist North, Nichols managed to acquire targets for the US Air Force to destroy. He also retrieved information on Russian T-34 tanks given to North Korea. These armoured vehicles were virtually unstoppable but Nichols’ reports provided a means of slowing them down and negating their effectiveness. His network was almost entirely responsible for turning the tide of war. The US military pushed out of Pusan and caught the Communists in a counter attack which almost destroyed the North Korean Army. Only the intervention of the Chinese prevented the entire Korean peninsula from falling into US hands.
Nichols was no angel. He was present during massacres carried out by South Korean forces against civilians suspected of having Communists sympathies. Official US reports were already stating that tens of thousands of South Koreans were already dead by the time war broke out, killed by their own government. Syngman Rhee, President of South Korea, was a close friend of Nichols. Rhee was also an egomaniac with sociopathic tendencies who ordered the execution of countless civilians in his insatiable need for total power. Union leaders, rival politicians, community leaders all died upon his OK.
In one of the most notorious incidents of the war, but not the only one by any means, Nichols personally witnessed South Korean forces execute approximately 2000 prisoners near the city of Taejon in the first week of July, 1950. He was photographed, along with other US military personal, at another site of execution. The photograph is included in this book and we can see the men looking on, with Nichols taking a photograph of the killings. The bodies were dumped in mass graves. The full story of the Taejon massacre has never fully been made public and the US military for years claimed that the North Korean Communists were responsible.
Often, to satisfy the purposes of identification, the heads of North Korean sympathizers were sent in buckets to the High Command. One photo, contained in this book, shows Nichols standing with other US officers as South Korean military look down at a head in a bucket. The image is surreal. Nichols tried to excuse his part in this by saying that it’s just the way the South Koreans did business. However, he later claimed that the memories were driving him mad, demonstrating at least some remorse for the role he played.
After the conclusion of the Korean War, both sides were back where they started, albeit with even more resentment. North Korea had been bombed into the ground by the US Air Force, and sustained very heavy civilian casualties. Today, the memory of, and stories from, the airborne destruction of North Korean cities, towns and villages is used to good effect by the government there, in ensuring that the population remain solidly anti-American. Given the wilful carnage caused by US bombers, including the use of massive amounts of napalm, who can blame them?
The stalemate between the two warring sides did little to slow down the operations of David Nichols. He continued to send his spies into North Korea, most of whom never returned, to acquire information useful to his superiors. But time was running out for the self-proclaimed King of Spies. Nichols had made many enemies, not least among the top brass of the military and Air Force. Some resented his lack of a formal education, and working class background. Others just didn’t like the way in which he did his business. There were yet others who were suspicious of his unquestioned power and influence. He wasn’t a naturally popular person, running his group with ‘Prussian’ direction.
There was also the issue of Nichols’ sexuality. He was known, unofficially, to be gay. There were reports of sexual encounters with young Korean men. But Nichols’ power was considerable, and his friendship with Rhee, President of South Korea, was perhaps a deciding factor for many in turning a blind eye to what was then a criminal offence. But the US High Command was out to get him, and so eventually he was forced from his office and Korea. Before he knew what was happening, David Nichols woke up in a mental health institution. He was to spend quite a bit of time in and out of such places for the rest of his life.
When in psychiatric care, Nichols underwent repeated bouts of electroshock therapy, then a commonplace practice. Think Randal McMurphy in One Flew Over The Cuckoo’s Nest. It didn’t help him. But he did manage to get out and re-join society as a civilian, having been given an honourable discharge from the armed services. He became a property investor, using the huge illegal funds that he had acquired during his time in Korea to set himself up as a person of means. He was what would be the equivalent today of a multi-millionaire. He lived for a time with his loyal brother, Judson. Some of Judson’s children spoke to the author and their words are included in this biography. David Nichols, somewhere along the line, acquired a number of children, brought back with him from Korea. One of them, Donnie, was claimed as Nichols’ own son but that is disputed. Nichols claimed that he had met and married Kim Hwa in South Korea and that she died a few years later, having given birth to Donnie. However, Nichols’ colleagues in Korea state that they had no knowledge of any wife or indeed female companions, and Nichols made repeated statements to the effect that he ‘hated’ women (perhaps due to the actions of his mother).
When living in Florida, with Donnie, Nichols was accused of abusing several young boys, friends of his ‘son’. He took his son and fled to Mexico, hiding out for a while before being convinced by Judson to return home. Back in Florida Nichols managed to beat the charges against him, more in part because of his service record rather than his innocence. It was not to be the last time he faced such accusations, with a state prosecutor stating publicly that Nichols was “a pedophile who posed a danger to the children of Hernando County”. The former spy had already been committed to a psychiatric facility by the time new charges emerged. He was never to leave and was found unconscious there on May 20th, 1992. He died in the hospital psych-ward, in Alabama, on June 2nd of that year.
David Nichols was buried in Brooksville, Florida. There were few people in attendance. On his gravestone is the name of his mysterious wife. Nichols had previously presented the cemetery manager with a metal box in which he claimed were the ashes of his ‘wife’ Kim Hwa. No one knows if there was anything in the box. On the reverse of his marker are the names of both his mother and father, apparently reunited after decades, neither being actually buried there.
Even though there was substantial evidence of Nichols’ homosexuality, and his abusing of many children, he never acknowledged either his true sexual orientation nor his deviant behaviour. For many, the creation of a wife was just one more tactic that the spymaster was employing to build his legacy. Of the three children he brought home, only one survived. His whereabouts is currently unknown, as is the treatment he received at the hands of the man who tried to claim him as a ‘son’.
King of Spies is a fascinating read. Rebel Voice has more than a passing interest in the Korean War, and this book provided a very strong grounding in trying to understand that conflict. It has reports from participants in the war, spies, administrators, generals, doctors and family members. It’s very well-researched and will ensure that the reader leaves with a comprehensive understanding of who exactly David Nichols was.
In wars there are heroes. Then there are those who are portrayed as heroes. There are those who think themselves heroes. There are those who are ruthless, immoral and lucky. David Nichols appears to have been the latter. This biography tells his story, warts and all, and for that the reader can be grateful. It is a sensational tale that deserves to be told, if only to better understand the types of people who frequent militaries all over our planet. That’s a scary thought, but perhaps there’s no point in trying to hide from the truth.
Sult scale rating: 8.5 out of 10. This is an excellent biography of someone most will never have heard of. David Nichols played an instrumental role in the Korean War, but it was his dark success and ruthless desire for power that destroyed his career, and sexual perversions that destroyed his life. He was the ultimate anti-hero in that he managed to affect the outcome of a war, and perhaps shorten it thus saving lives, but he engaged in immoral practices to get there. He was also a paedophile, and it was this perversion that finally removed all credibility from a man who was at one time regarded as the King of Spies.
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