Robert A. Nelson
By Terry D. Janes
Robert A. Nelson honorably served the 702nd Tank Battalion, 80th Infantry Division in W.W. II as a driver in Service Company, A Company and possibly Battalion Maintenance. Unfortunately, he has passed away. His Son, David has been so kind as to share his memories of his father, along with his dad's mementoes of the war. If anyone should have information about this man that would be helpful to the family, please contact me. Many of the items Robert saved were considered mundane and trivial at the time, and many G.I.'s just threw them in the trash. Thanks to Robert's foresight, we now have a record of some of these items! My thanks to David Nelson and Michelle for their help in making it possible to share the following pages with the public. I am sure that somewhere up there, Robert is awfully proud of his family! I know they are proud of him too! I do strongly disagree with Robert on one subject. Like many other vets, he thought his memories were not important. Wrong! He has added significantly to the historical record! I join his Son, David in thanking Robert here. To any vets still living, I ask you to reconsider your own position on this topic, and consider Robert Nelson an object lesson. History doesn’t serve the past or present; it serves the future. Take the time today, to record your memories and mementoes while you still can. Tomorrow may never come! Your children and grandchildren will be glad that you did! So will historians like me!
My father was a veteran of World War Two. Like a lot of veterans of wars, he did not like to talk about it much. However, from time to time he would bring up a little story or two if something jogged his memory; maybe a movie or a documentary on TV or something. I've been told that the less a vet talks about his war experiences, the chances are better that it's all true. As we all got older I would ask him if he could write down some notes about his memories of the war so the stories would not be lost when he was gone. He would always say "Ah, nobody wants to hear those old stories anymore"... Now that he is gone I think it is time for me to write about some of the things he told me before I forget them!
Dad was trained at Camp Campbell, Kentucky where he was licensed to drive a variety of heavy vehicles, including tanks. One of the things he talked about was the difference between the American Sherman tanks and the German Tiger tanks. Our tanks had much lighter armor and smaller caliber guns than the Germans, but we had a lot more tanks than they did. He told me one method of beating a Tiger was to outnumber it. If a Tiger happened to be caught out in an open field, a group of the much quicker Shermans would attack from different sides. One would run in, take a shot, then turn and run. Another tank would come in from another direction and do the same, all in an effort to distract the Tiger's gunner. The idea was to eventually get one of the Shermans in position for a shot at the rear of the Tiger where it was most vulnerable.
My dad had a one-in-a-million opportunity to take out a Tiger. He was driving through an old town in France where the streets were so narrow that the tank just barely fit. Sometimes when they turned a corner the rear of the tank would knock part of a building off. As they rounded one corner, there in the street ahead of them was a German Tiger tank with its rear facing them. It must have backed into the side street to act as an ambush for our guys. Dad's gunner fired an armor piercing round directly into the back end of the Tiger, and then followed up with a high explosive round into the same hole. His exact words: " I saw the hatches pop open and two Germans climb out of the tank on fire. I watched them fall to the ground and burn to death right in front of me. I saw their clothes burn away, then their skin. That was the first time I saw someone die that way." Then he got real quiet for a while.
One day, dad came upon one of his buddy's tanks just sitting there. It looked okay until he walked around the other side. There was a hole in the side near the front of the tank. He opened the driver's hatch and there was his buddy sitting there, dead. The German round came through the side and took the drivers legs off clean. The co-driver was also dead. He didn't know what became of the rest of the crew.
He said a lot of the guys there had the feeling that they were not going to survive the war, and dad always felt if it was his time to go, he wanted to go down fighting. He volunteered for a lot of extra duties, and one of them was to make a fuel pick up. He was on his way back to his unit with a truckload of full gas cans. As he started to make his way up a small hill he began to take fire from a German machine gun nest at the top of the hill. Rather than jump out of the truck and run away, he floored the gas peddle, hung on to the steering wheel with his right hand and started firing back with his Tommy gun in his left hand. The way he described it, he was hanging halfway out the side of the truck because he thought "if the truck gets hit and explodes, I will be thrown safely out of the truck by the explosion".... Who knows what would have really happened? But as it turned out, the two Germans in the nest were probably stunned by what they saw because they stayed in their position and kept firing until my dad ran them over. He didn't stop to see what happened to them.
Another day, the convoy they were in was stopped on the road for a little rest when two German Messerschmitts flew over, strafing them. Everyone hit the ground and crawled under their vehicles. Dad thought to himself "we have all these guns here and no one is shooting back". So he climbed up into one of the trucks that had a machine gun on a ring mount. As the two planes came back for another run he started shooting at them. One of the planes started smoking and with that they stopped their attack and took off. He didn't actually see if the plane went down so he didn't get any credit for downing an aircraft but he was just happy to give some payback.
Dad was always collecting souvenirs. In one of his letters home to my Grandmother he wrote about how he would always pick up a gun he never saw before and carry it around for a few days until it got in the way. Then he would throw it away only to find another one shortly thereafter. He told me he had two duffle bags full of stuff to bring home, but one of them was stolen on the ship home. He said people were stealing things left and right from each other, but no one really cared because the war was over and they were going home. Along with a lot of German medals, flags and other souvenirs, the best thing he brought back was the German Luger he took from a captured officer. He got the whole rig; the belt with a real neat buckle, a holster with a spare magazine, and the bayonet that came with it. There is also a German helmet with the Nazi emblem on one side and the eagle on the other. The Luger is still in great shape after sixty years. Dad had the gun chrome plated in one of the towns they liberated in the war. He said you could get anything chrome plated for a pack of cigarettes at the local metal smiths. It seems like that was one of the big fads of the time, although now a gun collector would frown upon a weapon being treated that way. "It takes away from the value", they say. I say it makes it more valuable as a war memento, because that was the thing the boys did back then. But, that's just my opinion.
Another day, the convoy was on the road, when suddenly one of their buddies was killed by sniper fire. Off the side of the road in a low-lying part of a field, there was a clump of shrubs. Somehow the Americans figured out that was where the shot came from and began to pour fire into that area with everything they had. Dad said he was laying at the edge of the road on his stomach, looking through the sights of his weapon, when he saw a small white flag on a stick pop up. There was also a hand sticking up from the brush, waving at them. Dad took aim on the hand and saw his shot go right through the hand. Parts of the shrubs moved aside, and two Germans came up from a foxhole that they had dug to conceal their position. They walked towards the Americans with their hands in the air, and as they got closer it became apparent that they were just kids. Towards the end of the war, all that Germany had left were young boys and old men to send out to fight. These two boys were stripped of any other weapons they had, then were marched down the road to become POWs. One of the boys was older, very well built and he was very cocky towards his captors. This was the one dad shot in the hand. He had his white flag tied around his hand. As they were marching at gunpoint, he kept turning back to the Americans and laughing at them and saying things in German, as if to egg on the G.I.'s. One of the soldiers happened to be good friends with the guy who was killed. He was prodding the German along, telling him to shut up. The boy kept it up, and finally the American soldier had had enough and fired a shot from his sidearm into the boy's back. The young guy kept walking and laughing at them. So the American fired a few more rounds into him until he fell to the ground dead. I don't remember if dad said anything about the American getting in trouble for shooting a POW, but I think under the circumstances most people would have looked the other way.
He talked a little about the celebrations that would take place after the Allies would liberate a town or city. All of the civilians would line the road as the army drove through. The people would hang out of the upper windows of the buildings cheering on the liberators. People on the street would run up to the vehicles to offer bottles of wine, bouquets of flowers and baskets of food to the soldiers. And of course the single women would try to kiss the GIs. I don't think they had to try very hard. But the Allies still had to be cautious as there were some people mixed in who did not support the liberation, and would approach the convoy with "gifts" concealing grenades or bombs.
The soldiers did appreciate any food the townspeople offered them. They were getting tired of eating army food and sometimes the supplies did not keep up with them anyway. To supplement their diet, Dad said they would look for farms where they could find eggs, fresh vegetables, or even some livestock that could be cooked up. He told me he ate some vegetables that he never even heard of before the war, and would probably have never tried if not for being there, in that situation. But when you are hungry enough, it's surprising what will taste good to you.
Another thing he talked about was always feeling cold for long periods of time. Some times his feet would get wet, there was no time to stop and change socks and he said there was nothing more uncomfortable than having cold, wet feet for days at a time.
He also mentioned that towards the end of the war, the Germans they captured would say things like; "Give us back our guns and we will fight the Russians with you, because one day you will have to fight them anyway"...
My brother Bob gave me this next tale. I had never heard this one before. One day, Dad and a couple of his buddies reported to the medics that they were urinating red and they thought they were really sick or something. The doc couldn't figure out what was wrong with them until one of them mentioned the cases of red wine they found, and had been drinking almost non-stop for several days!
I used to work with my dad at a machine shop. One of our co-workers was also a World War Two veteran, named Al Smith. Both Al and my dad talked about the first time they saw a German jet airplane. Between the sound they made and the fact that there was no propeller on the aircraft, it scared the crap out of them. But then as time went on, they started to come across these aircraft hidden in between trees alongside the roads they were traveling on. As they later found out, the Germans were running out of both fuel and qualified pilots for these machines. Our guys in the tanks would just destroy the planes as they drove by.
One of the most amazing things about Dad's military experience is the fact that he kept just about every single piece of paperwork that had anything to do with him going to war. I have come across such items as the first notice he received to report to the draft board, his train ticket stub for his trip to basic training, every field manual he was issued. There were receipts for having his uniform cleaned, as well as receipts for souvenirs he was bringing back home after the war. So far I have come across only three letters from Dad to his mother, as well as one very touching letter from Nanny to Dad written the night before he left. I wish there were more; it is the best way to share what they were feeling at the time. I know he held a lot back in his letters, but at the same time I think he was wise enough to keep all of this documentation because somehow he knew this experience would be much larger than anyone imagined.
Well, that is all I have for now. I may update this from time to time if something shakes loose from my memory, or if I receive anything from relatives who might remember a little story or two from way back. There is one last thing. My Dad was the greatest Dad ever, from the greatest generation ever.
January 4, 2005
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