Major Malcolm Wheeler-Nicholson had an extraordinary military career. Just recently I spent time in the National Archives in Washington, DC once again sifting through files there. One of the treasures found was MWN’s test for entry into the US Army. His test score—99 out of 100! That’s pretty impressive, I’d say.
From photos, family stories and by combing through the Major’s many pulp adventure stories based on his own exploits and juxtaposing these against archival military records it’s possible to get a fairly accurate timeline of where he was and when and what he was doing.
As John Locke noted in the introduction to The Texas-Siberia Trail, the recent reprint of some of the Major’s adventure tales and as Gerard Jones noted on the cover of the book, Wheeler-Nicholson was unique in that his stories were based on actual adventures unlike some of the other writers of the time. The stories in The Texas-Siberia Trail published by Off-Trail Publications are organized by the biographical military adventures of “the Major” rather than the dates published. The reader then gets a sense of the flow of MWN’s real life adventures.
When MWN was middle-aged and had quite a few energetic and talented teenagers working for him in the new comics venture that would become DC Comics, his stories must have seemed fantastical and unbelievable. And that is often how people like Vincent Sullivan related them to later comics historians with a roll of the eyes and shrug of the shoulder. That MWN was also court-martialed in a dramatic manner with headlines in the New York Times added to the question of his veracity. Not to mention that the world he came from was far removed from that of so many of the young writers and artists who worked for him.
It’s a good lesson for all of us who toil in the comics history field—just because somebody put it in a book doesn’t mean it’s so. Many of the stories that abound about that early period when the Major was creating original comics like New Fun and More Fun with Siegel and Schuster, Bob Kane, Walt Kelly and artists like Craig Flessel, are oral anecdotal history. There are a lot of great stories but it’s good to do some background checking before buying them all the way. I love to trace some of these tales back to the person who appears to be the original teller. It can offer some interesting insights about the motives and intentions of the teller.
So what do we know about Major Malcolm Wheeler-Nicholson’s military history? The facts from the archives are clear. “Nick” as he was called by his fellows graduated from Manlius Military Academy in June 1910. Manlius was one of the four feeder schools into the US Army at that time. He did well on his tests to enter the US Army, specifically the 2nd Cavalry as a second lieutenant in 1911. His first assignments were to Fort Leavenworth, Kansas, then Fort Meade, South Dakota and finally to Fort Bliss outside of El Paso, Texas.
He spent several years there on the Mexican border chasing bandits. Under General Black Jack Pershing he commanded Troop K of the African-American Buffalo soldiers. This period made a deep impression upon him and it figured prominently in many of his stories such as “Shavetail” (a term for a new 2nd Lieutenant) and one of the hardback novels published originally in Adventure Magazine, The Corral of Death. One of my favorite stories of this period is “The Sable Phalanx” from Adventure Magazine, nominated for an O’Henry Short Story Award in 1932. Two African-American soldiers are the Rosenkrantz and Gildenstern of the story and it is through their telling that the action is revealed.
In 1915 Wheeler-Nicholson was stationed for a time at Fort Ethan Allan, Vermont and Plattsburg Camp where he was an instructor. He accompanied the 9th Cavalry Machine Gun Troop to the Philippines to engage in the continuing fight against the Muslim Moros. There are a number of stories in the pulps from this period such as “The Captain was Crazy” and “Dark Regiment” that reveal a nasty side to this operation and a possible mutiny that may have been averted at the last moment among his men. This is an ongoing area of research with help from military historians particularly Robert Wetteman who teaches at the US Air Force Academy in Colorado Springs. It was also during this time that MWN was promoted to Captain and then Major and won awards for his troops’ machine gun readiness. That’s the ability for these men on horseback to dismount and prepare the heavy machine guns and have them in place in a very short time period.
In 1917 the Major appears to be in military intelligence according to Army records and he was in China and Japan according to passport records and ship’s manifests. He was then sent to Siberia with the American Expeditionary Force commanding the Third Squadron, 9th Cavalry. The AEF is a little known aspect of the US involvement during World War I in Russia at the time of the Bolshevik Revolution. It was even more exotic and adventurous than his service in the Philippines. The Major saw firsthand the cruelty of the Cossacks and wrote frequently about this period of his life in his pulp adventure stories like “The Red Spider’s Den” and “The Song of Death.” These stories are rich in detail of the time and place and gave the Major an understanding of the forces that would come into play later in World War II.
After this heady adventure by 1919 he was back at Fort Bliss and chafing at the bit to go to Europe. In September of 1919 he was issued a passport for diplomatic service and went to France to study at the Ecole Superieure de Guerre, attached to the American Embassy in London and to the American Cavalry on the Rhine. A fascinating story in the pulps entitled “The Shadow of Ehrenreitstein” from this period of his life hints at an attempted military coup by the Germans immediately after World War I. There is evidence in Army records that there may be some basis of fact in the story.
By December of 1920 MWN’s troubles with his superior officers began to surface and he came back to the United States to Fort Dix in New Jersey. The subsequent attempt on his life and the sensational headlines in the New York Times in early 1922 when the Major wrote an open letter to President Harding culminated in a court martial. He was absolved of all counts with the exception of the letter to Harding and put back in the files meaning he would never be able to advance his military career. The court martial is a whole other adventure and much too long to tell in this post but there’s a lot more to the story than was previously thought. After leaving the Army the Major embarked on his writing career for the pulps, started a newspaper syndicate, developed early comics and after the loss of DC went on to write numerous articles and books during World War II about military strategy such as Battle Shield of the Republic. His assessments were highly regarded and he penned numerous articles during World War II in Look and Harper’s Magazine to name a few.
It is obvious from his precise descriptions of military life in his stories and his concerns later in life about how the military operated during wartime that the Major truly loved this life and had studied it well. His military bearing throughout earned him the sobriquet–“the Major” and some of his own children referred to him as “the old man,” a military term denoting the person in charge. Major Malcolm Wheeler-Nicholson served his country well in more ways than his service and I honor my grandfather for his military career.