Retired Army Col. James E. Nicholson, 56, an artillery officer who was a veteran of three wars, died Sunday at Fairfax Hospital following a heart attack.

Col. Nicholson, a native of Baltimore, transferred from the Maryland National Guard to the Army in 1942, and was commissioned an officer in 1943.

He served in France during World War II and earned the Silver Star and the Bronze Star.

In 1950, he began the first of two tours of duty in the Korean conflict. He was awarded two Oak Leaf Clusters to his Bronze Star.

In 1966, Col. Nicholson was ordered to Vietnam, where he was a logistics officer. He returned to this country and was assigned to Fort Monroe, Va., until retiring in 1970.

He then worked for three years with the old Office of Emergency Preparedness before his second retirement in 1973.

In addition to his other medals, Col. Nicholson held the Legion of Merit.

He was a member of the Army-Navy Country Club.

He is survived by his wife, Mary E., and two sons, Timothy and Wesley, all of the home in Annandale; another son, James E. Jr., of Fairfax; two daughters, Dorothy Stouffer, of Marietta, Ga., and Jeannette Veith, of Bellbrook, Ohio; his mother, Bessie L. Nicholson, a sister, Kathryn Shipley, and a brother, John, all of Baltimore, and four grandchildren.