PACIFIC OCEAN -- There are many Sailors currently serving in the Navy who have had a least one member of their family serve in the military. Maybe they had a grandfather who served for a short time during WWII or an uncle who was called to service during Vietnam.
For some families, however, following in the footsteps of their forefathers' military service has become a family tradition and part of not only their honor, but also their courage and commitment to defending and preserving the American way of life. Twenty-three-year-old Aviation Maintenance Administrationman 2nd Class Mason Nichols, a Sailor on board the aircraft carrier USS Nimitz (CVN 68), comes from a long line of family serving in the Navy. Nichols, a native of Seneca, S.C., is a fourth generation Sailor. His great-grandfather, three grandfathers, father, brother and himself have all served as Sailors in the Navy for the past 69 years, almost continuously since WWII.
"I've been in the Navy for three years," said Nichols. "I joined when I was 20 years old because I didn't want to continue with college and wanted to start a career. The military was the right route for me. I never thought of joining any other branch except for the Navy. I wanted to travel and have my college paid for. At the time I joined I needed maturity and respect. I thought the Navy could give me that."
When Nichols was five years old and his brother was seven years old, they were adopted by the Nichols family. Dwayne Nichols, their father, had just finished a ten-year service in Navy as an Aviation Electronics Technician 1st Class only a few years prior to adopting the two boys.
"My dad really liked being in the Navy," said Nichols. "He joined after high school when he was 18 years old and served from 1982 to 1992. While he was in the Navy he got his Bachelor's degree in Electronic Management and when he got out he continued his education by obtaining a Master's degree in Business." During Dwayne's time in the Navy, he obtained his wings and as part of an aircrew traveling all over the world performing aviation electronic technician work in H-3 helicopters and P-3 aircraft. His squadron, HS-15, took him to two ships: the USS Independence (CV-62) and the USS Forrestal (CV-59). Dwayne served in VP-45, as well as being designated as a master training specialist during his time in the Navy, training aviation electronics technicians.
In addition to working in the aviation field, Nichols and his father had another thing in common during their time in the Navy. "He was also stationed in Jacksonville and we were stationed in the same hangar just at different times," said Nichols.
Dwayne made rank quickly during his time in the Navy going from E-1 to E-6 in six years. He was also awarded the Coast Guard Special Operations ribbon during his service, which is rarely awarded to Navy personnel. "My dad tells me all the time that he is very proud to have both my brother and I in the Navy," said Nichols. "I joined first, then my brother joined when I was in DEP [Delayed Entry Program]. Now that I'm in the Navy I feel honored to follow in my family's naval tradition." Mason's brother, Lt. j.g. Justin Nichols, is currently a helicopter pilot stationed at Naval Air Station (NAS) Mayport, Fla., attached to squadron Helicopter Maritime Strike Squadron (HSM) 40, flying MH-60Rs. "He came in under the BDCP [baccalaureate degree completion program] officer program about three years ago during his junior year in college and he chose [to work in] aviation," said Nichols. "There were only two applicants selected for the BDCP program in the state of South Carolina that year, and my brother was one of them. I was very proud of him and glad that he was selected once he graduated college. Later he moved to Pensacola, Fla. to do his aviation flight training, while I was stationed at [Fleet Readiness Center Southeast] FRCSE in NAS Jacksonville, Fla., and we were able to see each other." According to Nichols, it is a personal goal for him and his brother to be stationed together eventually at the same command or at the very least at the same base so they can see each other more often. Although Nichols and his brother were adopted, they still kept in contact with members of their biological family, including their biological grandfather, retired Chief Petty Officer Rodney Powers, who is now deceased. "My biological grandpa on my biological mother's side was a chief petty officer," said Nichols. "Before he made chief he was a gunner's mate who worked in aviation. He was stationed on the Kittyhawk, the Lexington and the Enterprise and was also a member of the aircrew." In addition to his biological grandfather being in the Navy, Nichols' mother's father, retired Aviation Structural Mechanic (Handling) 1st Class William E. Bowman, and his father's step-father, Machinist Mate 3rd Class Roy J. Vehorn, also served in the Navy. "That man [Bowman] loved the Navy," said Nichols. "He was enlisted for 24 years and served during both WWII, Korea and Vietnam. At first he came in as a tail gunner on a SBD Dauntless Dive Bomber during WWII. That's where he was awarded his Purple Heart, after his aircraft returned to the ship with many bullet holes and he and his pilot crashlanded on the deck.
Unfortunately the pilot did not survive. After WWII Bowman was honorably discharged from the Navy. However, when the Korean conflict started, he was called back and was designated as an Aviation Structural Mechanic. At that point he chose to stay in and make it a career. He retired in 1968. During his career he served on the USS Essex (CV-9), 83rd Construction Battalion in Pearl Harbor, 96th Construction Battalion in Tykuh, China, USS Hector (AR-7), USS Jason (APH-1), USS Brass Canyon (AF-36) and with squadrons VP-40, VP-31, VF-174, HS-9 and VC-4. After Bowman retired from the Navy, according to Nichols, he became very religious. He went on to become a church pastor and pastored several churches in the Southern Baptist Convention. Bowman passed away in 2003.
"My grandpa was a great Sailor and a great guy all around," said Nichols. "He flew not only the American flag, but the Navy flag in his front yard until he died." Machinist Mate 3rd Class Roy J. Vehorn, Nichols' father's step-father also served in the Navy during WWII and received the WWII Victory Medal for his service from 1944 to 1945. He served on board the USS Wharton (AP-7). "He [Vehorn] loved the Navy," said Nichols. "Everything in his house was Navy related and he went to annual get-togethers with his friends that he was stationed with on USS Wharton until he died. Everyone on that ship stayed in contact with one another throughout the years. There was so many letters [my grandfather] had from all the guys he served with on that ship from over the years. He told me countless stories about his port calls, but none of which can be repeated. He had a lot of fun during his time in the Navy." In addition to his brother, his father and three grandfathers serving in the Navy, Nichols' great-grandfather is also a military veteran. Seaman 1st Class [E-3 today] Eli R. Layne, Nichols' father's grandfather, also served in the Navy during WWII from 1944 - 1945 and was awarded the WWII Victory Medal. Besides Layne and Vehorn, every male in Nichols' family who has served in the Navy, served in the aviation field and Nichols is proud to continue not only his family's naval tradition, but their aviation tradition as well. "There's a long line of my family being in the Navy, mostly in aviation and there's a lot of pride," said Nichols. "We're all proud of each other and our naval service."