Donald T. Nelson

First Flights

Snow Covered Alps, Rome-Zurich Flight, 1964. Photograph by Donald T. Nelson

Snow Covered Alps, Rome-Zurich Flight, 1964. Photograph by Donald T. Nelson

It’s difficult to imagine now, but back in the 50’s and 60’s airplane travel was the preserve of the wealthy or for businessmen—interestingly enough, the same people who travel first-class today. Most middle-class families couldn’t afford the cost of air travel. On the rare occasions they flew, it was for special trips painstakingly planned and saved for. Flying anywhere was a special event for most people.

Joan didn’t take her first flight until the spring of 1968 when she was seventeen years old. Her dad had flown on several business trips earlier in the 1960’s at company expense, but Joan’s family had never flown anywhere together. Joan remembers her dad taking pictures during one of his flights to Italy in 1964 to show the family. In one photo you can see the wing of his airplane and below, through the cloud cover, the snow-covered Alps. This photograph, taken high above the clouds, amazed a young girl who had always had her feet firmly planted on the ground.  Joan still has the photographs of her father’s trip to this day!

Joan’s first flight was precipitated by a birth. A cousin had been born in December 1967, and Joan had been chosen to be her godmother. Joan’s aunt helped pay for a flight from Pittsburgh to Atlanta where the baptism was to take place. Back then passengers dressed for air travel, and for Joan that meant a skirt or dress, stockings, and her Sunday-best shoes.

As there were no security procedures to go through, Joan didn’t have to think twice about anything she carried in her purse. Joan’s parents took her directly to her gate at departure and were waiting at the gate on her return. After leaving her at the gate, they probably went up to the observation deck to watch her plane take off. Driving to the airport and watching the planes land and take off was at one point a popular pastime for families on Sunday afternoons, even if no one we knew was flying anywhere!

Unlike the tightly-packed flights of today, Joan remembers several empty seats on her flights to and from Atlanta. In fact, she had a row of seats all to herself, with no one next to her. Most of the passengers were businessmen in suits. Meals and drinks were served, and smoking was permitted (smoking was permitted most anywhere back then, including the doctor’s office).

Since baggage was included as part of the airfare, no one brought ridiculous amounts of carry-on luggage with them. There was no insane competition for places in the overhead storage compartments. It certainly seemed like the seats on the flights were roomier and had more leg space than today. Part of this was a consequence of fewer people flying, but it sure seemed like the seats themselves were more spacious. Was that an illusion? Pure nostalgia on our part? We would love to see if there are any statistics on seat size to back up our recollections.

Because she had never flown before, Joan didn’t know that the meals were included in her ticket. She turned down the meal offered by the stewardess (oops, we guess that is “flight attendant” now), thinking she would not have enough cash for the whole trip. Joan didn’t find out until she got home that the food was included in the fare. Of course, now food costs you extra on almost all domestic flights.

The stewardesses on the plane were pretty, glamorous young women in smart, stylish uniforms and high heels. Only single women were hired as stewardesses, and they had to meet certain age and physical requirements for height and weight. They couldn’t even wear glasses. Only the beautiful need apply! It was a coveted profession for girls Joan’s age back then and had been glorified in some movies of the era. A girl who lived up the street from Joan fulfilled her dream of becoming a stewardess. She had been a high school cheerleader and clearly was pretty enough to make the cut.

Before that first flight Joan could only imagine what it was like to be thousands of miles above the earth. Actually experiencing it as a young teenager was exhilarating. She has no recollection of being the least bit frightened on that first flight. She still has little fear of flying itself but has developed a real distaste for the security-crazed, fee-grubbing, crowded, and uncomfortable conditions of modern air travel. Fewer people, less stuff to carry-on, more leg room. The whole flying process was less stressful and more pleasant. Airplane travel has certainly changed quite a bit over the last fifty years, and not always for the better!

Greg, his sister, and his mother had flown as a family before, in 1957 and 1961, to meet Greg’s father in Germany during his two tours of duty there. They had flown propeller-driven planes across the Atlantic, on both occasions arriving at Frankfurt Airport. The planes, as he recalls, were not commercial airliners but part of what was then called MATS (the Military Air Transport Service). The family didn’t fly home on the return trips from Germany but took ocean liners like the USS Patch. Greg remembers being fascinated by the propellers and amazed by the sun glinting off of the wings and the clouds so thick one could almost imagine walking on them.

Greg was living in Pittsburgh when he took his first solo flight in September 1968. He had been accepted to Arizona State University and had to get to Phoenix, Arizona to start college. For Greg the trip represented an escape of sorts. He couldn’t wait to be away from home and on his own. He doesn’t remember many details of that first trip except that at the airport they thought he was on the ASU football team and gave him a ride to campus on a bus carrying other (real) football players.

Today Greg and Joan are seasoned air travelers. Indeed, we enjoy travel, or more, specifically, being in new, exciting, and exotic places. What we don’t enjoy so much anymore is the getting there. Over the years government regulations and airline greed have eroded the experience for the average flier. While “being there” is great, “getting there” is no longer half the fun!

Donald T. Nelson, Hero

Donald T. Nelson, Home on Leave

Donald T. Nelson, Home on Leave

Both our dads were decorated war heroes. In this post, we are going to talk about Joan’s father, Donald T. Nelson. Donald entered military service in 1941 and qualified for Officers Candidate School in the field artillery at Fort Sill, Oklahoma. On June 23, 1942 he was appointed Second Lieutenant and assigned to the 158th Field Artillery, 45th Division at Fort Devens, Massachusetts. He was promoted to First Lieutenant on May 20, 1943.  On July 10, 1943 he landed with the first wave of troops near San Croce Camerina in Sicily, serving as a forward observer officer. He fought in the “Bloody Ridge” battle near San Stefano, Sicily and was awarded the Silver Star for his leadership and courage under difficult battle conditions.

On September 11, 1943 he participated in the landing near Salerno, Italy. He was wounded during a German tank assault on September 12th and later was awarded the Purple Heart for injuries he received in his right eye, forearm, chest, and thigh. After recovering in a hospital in North Africa, he served as a Field Artillery School instructor at Ft. Sill, Oklahoma. Donald was promoted to Captain on January 20, 1946 and retired from service in March of that year.

Joan’s dad was blind in his right eye for the rest of his life. Like many men who had fought, he rarely spoke about his experiences. Joan didn’t know he had served as a forward observer until she was a teenager. She was watching an episode of the television show Combat! in which an American Army forward observer fighting in France had gone ahead of the others to check out the German enemy’s position. Her dad was sitting nearby in his favorite chair reading the daily newspaper. During the commercial break Joan turned to him and said something about the courage forward observers must have had to go ahead alone and how dangerous it was. That was when he told her he had himself been a forward observer during the war.

In March 1993 Joan’s dad returned to Sicily with his former Army comrades. He visited Scoglitti, the small fishing village on the south coast of Sicily, where the 45th Infantry Division made its amphibious invasion on July 10 fifty years earlier. He revisited “Bloody Ridge” near San Stefano, the site of the toughest fight of the Sicilian campaign.  “Bloody Ridge” was a series of five steep ridges about 3,000 feet high firmly occupied by German troops; they were successfully taken by the Americans after four days of intense combat. Joan’s dad also visited the grave of one of his best buddies in the 45th, First Lieutenant Capers R. Wactor, who died in Sicily and is buried at the Sicily-Rome American Cemetery in Nettuno, Italy.  One of the hardest things Joan’s dad had to do during the war, he said, was contact Caper’s new bride and tell her that her husband had died on July 17, 1943.

Going back to Sicily was a cathartic experience for Joan’s dad. He opened up to his family for the first time, and Joan finally learned details of what he had gone through. He shared with her the newspaper articles he had saved from the war years:

“Beachhead Battles Nothing New for Gary’s Lieut. Nelson. Fought in Sicily and Italy: Wins Silver Star for Heroics”
“Lieut. Donald Nelson Wins Silver Star for Gallantry in Action”
“Gary Lieutenant Wounded in Italy”
“Gary’s Lieut. Nelson Gets Purple Heart”

Joan’s dad was one of thousands of Americans who showed courage and heroism during terrifying times. We have often wondered how we would have reacted under similar circumstances. We all think we are brave, that we wouldn’t flinch from danger. We would all like to think that there is a hero in us, waiting to emerge when duty and danger call. In this era of superheroes like Superman, Spiderman, or Captain America, we think that only the extraordinary can be heroes. But Donald Nelson shows us that real heroes are real men who rise up from their ordinary lives to do extraordinary things when they have to. Then they go home, have children, live quiet lives and answer the questions their inquisitive daughters ask them.


The Gary Post-Tribune, May 1, 1944

The Gary Post-Tribune, May 1, 1944