News: Volk Field honors groundbreaking base commander
Story by Vaughn Larson
VOLK FIELD, Wis. — The late Col. Walton "Wally" Nichols left his mark on this idyllic Wisconsin Air National Guard base by expanding lodging and training facilities during his tenure as base commander from 1980-1984.
The current staff at Volk Field returned the favor, placing Nichols' name on a static display F-102 fighter jet as well as on a granite bench outside the base conference center.
"This is really touching that he would be memorialized with his name on an F-102, which he loved," said his son, Rick Nichols. "He loved being a fighter pilot more than anything."
Col. Nichols, who passed away March 27 at age 83, joined the U.S. Air Force in 1950, serving as a fighter pilot on the East Coast. After leaving active duty, he returned to Wisconsin to pursue an engineering degree at the University of Wisconsin. He also joined the Wisconsin Air National Guard, and worked as the civil engineer at Truax Field. At the request of Maj. Gen. Raymond Matera, then the adjutant general of Wisconsin, Col. Nichols took command of Volk Field in 1980.
"It was a time in the early '80s when we were closing lots of military bases," Rick said. "Father came up here and saw lots of potential."
Lt. Col. Steve Dunai thanked the Nichols family for their support during what he termed "a glorious period in the history of this base."
Between 1981 and 1985 Volk Field increased its lodging to accommodate 1,000 people, which made it possible for the base to host major exercises. The runway and taxiway underwent a major renovation in 1983. A new fire station, service club, dining facility and base headquarter buildings were added the following year. These improvements helped transform Volk Field from a seasonal training site to a year-round facility.
"A lot of what you all did as a family in supporting Wally helped make this the vibrant training facility that it is today," Dunai said, noting that Col. Nichols' family lived with him in on-base housing.
Dick Nichols praised his older brother during the memorial ceremony.
"I'm here, speaking for us, to thank God for Walton Charles Nichols," Dick said. "He was a patriot. He always believed in the job he did. He always believed that a strong defense kept America safe."
Dick said that his brother brought formidable experience as a fighter pilot and as an engineer to his command at Volk Field.
"He was accustomed to this base, in its previous life, as a summer facility," Dick said. "He and the people who worked with him saw the opportunity to turn it into this asset for our national defense. They pulled it off, very much to his and their credit."
Lt. Col. Chris Hansen explained that, with more pilots than aircraft, experience helps get a pilot's name emblazoned on the side of a military aircraft.
"It's the benchmark of arriving as a fighter pilot," Hansen said.
"I'm sure Wally's pulling 6 Gs overhead and smiling that he's got his own F-102 with his name on it," Dunai agreed.
Rick described his father as a "people person."
"He believed in people, family, friends and the military," Rick said, adding that his father was keen on building camaraderie. "He loved to do T-G-I-O parties — Thank God It's Over — whenever they had stressful weeks doing training, and he'd offer that for all the enlisted men.
"Father really believed in taking care of the people that took care of him," Rick continued. "He was a strong, strong people person, and very patriotic — he loved the military."