Buffalo soldier John Nichols has taken his last ride.
The 96-year-old Colorado Springs native was remembered during a celebration of life ceremony Sunday at the rebuilt 1830s fur trading post Fort Lupton, northeast of Denver.
With Nichols’ passing, only two Buffalo Soldiers from World War II remain alive, according to Nina Amos, vice president of the national 9th and 10th Horse Cavalry Association.
Dressed in blue wool with gold-colored buttons, three members of the nonprofit Buffalo Soldiers of the American West — based in Brighton — rode horses around the interior compound with a riderless horse, symbolizing that Nichols will never ride again. His widow, Marion Nichols, held tight to an American flag as the horsemen made one final pass and salute before spreading John’s ashes nearby.
“What better way for a Buffalo Soldier to go out then to have a riderless horse ceremony,” Marion said.
The mission of the Buffalo Soldiers of the American West is to educate people about the 9th and 10th Calvary Regiments, which were created in 1866 and disbanded in 1944.
John Bell, founder and CEO of the organization, travels the country with others from the group, educating people about the rich history of the traditionally all-Black troops.
John Nichols helped form a Buffalo Soldiers chapter in Petersburgh, Va., and spent the past five or six years educating others.
“He felt it was very important that our young people know history,” Marion said.
John and Marion met at church when he was 83 and she was 70.
“I first realized I was attracted to him because of compassion that he showed to a woman in the church who was having some difficulties,” Marion said. “I just saw how much he cared about her and how compassionate he was with her. It was truly his compassion that said, ‘There is something different about this man.’”
The couple didn’t even date before John got down on one knee and proposed after asking two of her grown sons for permission.
Son Jerry Newman, 61, of Charleston, South Carolina recalls: “My inside voice said, ‘You know what, if you think you can keep up with her, you just go ahead.’ The outside voice was, ‘Glad to have you.’ They were really good for each other.”
John and Marion had a military wedding with Buffalo Soldiers in full uniform in Petersburgh.
“It was wonderful,” she said. “To think that they (the Buffalo Soldiers) were there when John and I got started, and they are there to present things at the end, that’s wonderful.”
They enjoyed nearly 13 years of marriage before John suffered a stroke and died March 20, two days after his 96th birthday.
The last year was especially difficult for the couple.
John had an accident and was in rehab because of a physical condition. Marion was diagnosed with breast cancer, and John ended up in a long-term care center for veterans.
Just as Marion was getting her strength back, she was diagnosed with COVID-19.
“COVID has done me more damage than the cancer did,” she said. “I’m extremely tired from COVID symptoms.”
As the pandemic worsened, John was locked down at the care center an entire year.
But Marion found a way to see her love. She’d make appointments for him at a veterans hospital, where she would be able to sit next to him and hold his hand.
“I even made an appointment to have his nails cut, just so I could be with him,” she said.
Marion had plans to look at a van that would allow her to transport John home, but he died one day before the appointment.
“The last 12 years have been a blessing,” she said. “Not too many people get that at this time in our lives, but we did.”
A Buffalo Soldier start
John was raised in Colorado Springs and was a student at Palmer High School when Japan attacked Pearl Harbor on Dec. 7, 1941. He enlisted in the Army a few months later when he turned 17.
He joined the Buffalo Soldiers because he wanted to ride horses. He helped break and train his wild mustang, which he named Sergeant soon after he had earned the rank of staff sergeant.
But the Buffalo Soldiers were disbanded in 1944 and became mechanized. He wanted to fight on the front lines and had to give up his rank because “no white man would take orders from him,” Marion said. “But he stayed in the Army because he truly loved his country.”
Early on in his military career, John served alongside famed baseball player Jackie Robinson and heavyweight boxing champion of the world Joe Louis. Louis was his squad leader and called John his go-fer. Marion said John enjoyed running errands for Louis.
“Joe Louis told him to go to his bunk, get some money and go get him some comic books,” Marion said. “And he went over to that bunk and he’d never seen so much money in his whole life. He was afraid to reach down and touch it.”
John enjoyed serving in military and learning Italian, German and some French while serving in numerous places including Germany and Fort Carson before retiring in 1964.
Following his military service, after seeing how terribly Blacks were being treated in America in the early 1960s, John moved to Germany for the next 20 years.
He adopted a young German girl who was taken away from her parents, who had been forced to do farm work.
“He said she needed a father so he adopted her, but she later had a problem with the fact that he was Black,” Marion said. “Of course, he didn’t look Black. He was very, very light skinned. He was more Indian.”
John’s father — who left before he was born — was Black and Choctaw. His mother was Cherokee.
A Colorado Springs return
In the 1980s John returned to Colorado Springs, where he remained until about 2006. During that time, he volunteered at Shelter of Hope, working with the homeless. He was also an ordained evangelist, worshiping the Lord.
John fellowshipped with the Rev. James Saunders, 84, of Colorado Springs, at Saunders’ church, Mercy and Peace Christian Center in Fountain.
Saunders remembers John as a kind and hard-working person.
Despite being apart the past year, John and Marion still worshiped together.
Every Sunday they would pull up a religious program, watch it and talk about it. Each night, they would sing gospel songs together.
For the last month of John’s life, his favorite song to sing was “He Has Made Me Glad,” with lyrics that include, “I will enter his gates with thanksgiving in my heart. I will enter his courts with praise.”
“Maybe he knew the end was near,” she said. “He always told me, ‘Ya know I love you, but I love the Lord more. Because if I didn’t love the Lord more, I couldn’t love you as much as I love you.’"
Marion smiled and said, “I love the Lord too.”