LOLO — Some details are gone from memory. Even 75 years later, some are too tender to talk about.
But, boy, can John Nelson tell war stories.
The 1941 Missoula County High graduate was a U.S. Army engineer and one of 20,000 American, British and Canadian forces who landed on Utah Beach in Normandy on the morning of June 6, 1944.
At 96, he can sit in the home he built in 1977 on the south bank of Lolo Creek and take you back to that fateful D-Day in World War II and its aftermath.
So he did just that one morning this week.
With gentle prompting from son-in-law Dale Moore Jr., Nelson again took his first step off the side of a landing craft ramp a couple of hundred yards off the beach — and plunged under the English Channel into a bomb crater.
He tucked into the breast pocket of his uniform the letter he’d written in a tent at Portsmouth, England, to his mother Anna in Missoula before he and hundreds of others packed onto a rusty old tub of a ship for the night crossing.
“I told her I loved her and the kids,” he said. “If I’d a got bumped off, they would have sent that letter home.”
He was on the beach, bullets and artillery ammo flying but surprisingly little in his way as he scrambled for shelter. Then it was a foxhole amid miles of confounding inland hedgerows that made life hell for weeks.
Nelson is one of just two known survivors of D-Day living in western Montana. The other, 97-year-old Ed Seifert, was a paratrooper who jumped through the dark onto the highlands above the same beach. The two heroes will meet for the first time Saturday and be introduced to another 101st Airborne Division jumper, 93-year-old Verland Lauder of Rexburg, Idaho.
A sold-out gala at the Museum of Mountain Flying will bring together military veterans, smokejumpers, volunteers and boosters alike for the Miss Montana to Normandy send-off. It’s the last big event before the museum’s historic DC-3/C-47 airplane, christened Miss Montana just a year ago, heads off to Europe to help commemorate the 75th anniversary of the D-Day invasion.
Nelson, who was honored at last June’s kickoff event, was initially planning to be in Normandy but a fall on Valentine’s Day set him back. With frustration, he gestured to a walker parked by the couch.
“Who wants to go in one of them damn things?” he said.
It was pointed out there’ll be plenty of people in walkers and wheelchairs among the 2 million or more expected at the event. Nelson smiled in acknowledgement.
“Yeah,” he said. “There’s a lot of old dinks like me around.”
Nelson did most of his growing up on Missoula’s Westside, across the street from Lowell School. His parents, Alfred and Anna, met in ministry school in Chicago, married, and moved to Montana, first to Philipsburg, then Missoula, when John was young.
His father died in 1939, and John enlisted in the Civilian Conservation Corps while still in high school, working on construction projects around Montana. When war came it was a natural step for a CCC man to be drafted into an engineering corps.
“I was in Patton’s 3rd Army, Combat Engineer 249th outfit,” he said. “I’ve got a book over there on it.”
Nelson doesn’t remember how long he and his outfit were camped in the tents at Portsmouth, on England’s south shore. History books say the 249th arrived there from the U.S. in early June 1944.
In a sea of soldiers, Nelson doesn’t remember being scared, but he was apprehensive; hence the letter to his mother and younger siblings that survived Normandy as he did.
“I packed it around for a month or two, and I finally decided I wasn’t going to get killed, so I tore it up,” he said.
When the call came, Nelson and many others jammed onto the rusty ship.
“We didn’t know where we was going. We were headed out in the water, that’s all we knew,” he said.
He remembers little of the southbound channel crossing in the dark to Sugar Red, one of two landing targets on Utah.
The ship put down anchor off shore at 3 a.m. At 5:58 a.m., the assault began. Down a rope ladder Nelson and the others went onto landing crafts that held 32 men apiece. Nelson said his was still 200 or 300 yards from the beach when the sailor running it said, for reasons unknown, this was as far as they go.
American bombers had shelled the landing area and, laden with ammo, a pack and an M-1 rifle, Nelson stepped off the side of the ramp into a crater. He sank to the bottom.
“I can remember this Sgt. Schultz, I’ll never forget his name. He jumped in and hauled me out, but I was getting out all right, I thought,” Nelson said.
Back in England, the same tech sergeant had told the men that no matter what, “hang onto your piece because you’re damn sure going to need it during the day,” Nelson said with a smile. “And he lost his rifle going in after me.”
Some 156,000 Allied forces landed by air and sea on five beaches along a 50-mile stretch of the heavily fortified coast of Normandy that day.
Nelson considers himself one of the lucky ones. Utah, the westernmost beachhead, was taken with relatively few casualties. On shore, as he ran to find cover, he came to a concrete barrier.
“I looked over that wall and right in front of me was a miniature tank, with some wires going out of the back,” he said.
It was a Goliath tank, devised by the Germans as a radio remote control land mine. Fortunately for him, its operator wasn’t alive to detonate it.
For almost two months after D-Day, Allied and German sides engaged in what became known as the “hedge war.” Ancient hedgerows, or mounds of dirt built by the Romans served as property lines. Old irrigation ditches had become tunnels used for enemy fortifications. The whole mess was all but impenetrable until Gen. George Patton’s troops arrived from England on what Nelson remembered to be July 26.
He chuckled at the ingenuous way “some GI” devised to disable German prisoners during that time.
“We took their belts off and cut all the buttons off their britches, so they had to walk holding their pants up,” he said. “You know, that was a pretty shrewd move, wasn’t it? It sure demobilized ‘em.”
Nelson cringed at another memory, of the enemy soldier he shot from a tree. The bullet went through the man’s neck.
“He just bled a minute. We lit him a cigarette but we had to put it in the hole in his throat because he couldn’t get any air from his mouth,” Nelson said.
John Nelson spent 2 ½ years in the service. Just two years ago the German government dedicated a monument to the 249th Engineer Battalion on the Rhine River at Neirstein, Germany, for the bridges they built in 1945 that enabled Patton’s army to breach the river on the march to Berlin.
He never met Patton, but Nelson was with his Army when it liberated a concentration camp near the Czechoslovakian border. Even the hard-bitten general blanched at the death and emaciation they encountered. Patton made the civilians in the town nearby walk through the camp and “see what their leadership had done,” Moore said.
In May 1945, a few weeks after Germany surrendered, Nelson was walking with a buddy through a destroyed rail yard in Denkendorff when a mine exploded.
“Next thing I knew I was sitting on the ground,” he said. “I felt something cold running down my back. I reached my hand back there and pulled it out and it was all bloody.”
Nelson lost a lot of blood, Moore said. He spent six weeks in a hospital in Regensburg, a time that brought at least one fond memory.
Actress Marlene Dietrich visited the hospital, and only Nelson and another man were well enough to go outside to meet her.
“She sang us a couple of songs. She sang ‘See What the Boys in the Back Room Will Have.’ And then she sang the German marching song ‘Lili Marleen.’ Hey, that was pretty neat,” Nelson said with the broadest smile of the day.
First medics, then doctors tried, but they could never dig out all the shrapnel from behind his right shoulder.
Home in Montana, Nelson made engineering his livelihood, helping build the Hungry Horse Dam and nearly every I-90 bridge from Missoula to Idaho. A rodeo career left him with a broken leg. He met Amy Vinson of Big Arm and, at age 40, married her. She passed away in 2005. Their daughter, Jeanie Nelson, lives with Nelson now.
Lately, the shrapnel in the shoulder has made it difficult to move his right arm.
“The bone’s kind of grown over that bullet, and you can see it in there,” Moore said.
When he was discharged from the Army, he didn’t mention the wound because he was told it would have delayed the process a couple of days.
“I wanted to get home,” he said.
So it wasn’t on his discharge papers and he didn’t receive a Purple Heart. Moore said U.S. Sen. Steve Daines is working to rectify that.
And Moore said getting Nelson back to Normandy next month is not out of the question. A rousing reception awaits those D-Day survivors who do appear.
“I’m working on some things,” he told Nelson.
Nelson himself seemed noncommittal. He allowed that it would make his friend Kathy Ogren, one of the leaders of the Miss Montana to Normandy project, very happy if he went. But there are other considerations, even beyond mobility issues.
That war, he said, was a long, long time ago.
“I didn’t leave anything over there but a little blood.”