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.