70 years after World War II, former POW in Ligonier receives full accolades
By Craig Smith
Published: Sunday, Oct. 13, 2013, 8:57 p.m.
After being shot three times at the Battle of Anzio, Italy, and spending 10 months in a German POW camp, John W. Nelson said he wasn't thinking much about a handful of military medals as he headed home to Ligonier.
“I got discharged, and I figured that was the end of it,” he said.
Nelson, 89, came home, got married and started working at Westinghouse.
Nearly 70 years after he was wounded, Army Master Sgt. John W. Nelson has a full collection of his military medals — including a Purple Heart, a Bronze Star and a POW medal — and is looking forward to benefits he didn't know he was entitled to, his family said.
The four-month battle at Anzio, south of Rome, was one of the most brutal of World War II. Allied forces counted nearly 30,000 casualties, including 16,000 U.S. soldiers, according to the Army Center of Military History. German casualties numbered more than 27,000.
“I'll never forget it,” said Nelson. “It didn't work the way they wanted it to.”
The Allies planned to bypass strong German defenses 60 miles to the southeast, which were preventing the liberation of Rome. But the Anzio beachhead became a death trap.
As Nelson led a team that was attempting to take out a German machine gun, he was shot three times.
“Two in one leg and one in the other,” said Nelson, who spent three weeks in a hospital in Naples.
At Stalag IIIB, food was scarce. They ate the same food every day and didn't have a change of clothing.
“Bread and soup,” Nelson said. “You were lucky if you got a piece of potato and a little meat.”
But he said he'd do it all again.
“It was all right,” he said. “I learned a lot. I saw a lot.”
His time in Stalag IIIB outside Furstenberg, Germany, might make him eligible for disability pay, said his daughter-in-law, Cheryl Nelson, 65, of Simpsonville, S.C., who led a yearlong effort to replace Nelson's medals and complete paperwork for his benefits.
“Men and women who served need to find out what they're eligible for,” she said. “They served; they deserve it.”
A display with his sergeant's stripes, division badges and medals hangs on a wall in Nelson's home, where he and his wife, Dorothy, who died in 2012, raised four children: Don Nelson of South Carolina, Sharon Anderson of Ligonier, John Nelson of Beaver Falls, and Ray Nelson of Donegal.
Missing medals are a common problem, especially for World War II veterans, most of whom are in their late 80s or early 90s, according to military historians.
Many members of the “Greatest Generation” have become “heroes lost to history” and take up the quest only to obtain or replace their medals in later years at the urging of their families.
It can be a difficult task.
During the war, paperwork was sometimes sloppy, and records were lost. A 1973 fire at the National Personnel Records Center in St. Louis destroyed the records of 16 million to 18 million military personnel.
And the government stores many military records in boxes or on 3- by 5-inch index cards.
The Department of Veterans Affairs estimates that 1,800 World War II veterans die each day. By 2025, about 57,000 of the millions who served likely will be living, the VA predicts. In Pennsylvania, the number of World War II veterans will drop from about 80,000 today to fewer than 14,000 by 2020.
Craig Smith is a staff writer for Trib Total Media. He can be reached at 412-380-5646 or firstname.lastname@example.org.
Show commenting policy
TribLive commenting policy
You are solely responsible for your comments and by using TribLive.com you agree to our Terms of Service.
We moderate comments. Our goal is to provide substantive commentary for a general readership. By screening submissions, we provide a space where readers can share intelligent and informed commentary that enhances the quality of our news and information.
While most comments will be posted if they are on-topic and not abusive, moderating decisions are subjective. We will make them as carefully and consistently as we can. Because of the volume of reader comments, we cannot review individual moderation decisions with readers.
We value thoughtful comments representing a range of views that make their point quickly and politely. We make an effort to protect discussions from repeated comments either by the same reader or different readers.
We follow the same standards for taste as the daily newspaper. A few things we won't tolerate: personal attacks, obscenity, vulgarity, profanity (including expletives and letters followed by dashes), commercial promotion, impersonations, incoherence, proselytizing and SHOUTING. Don't include URLs to Web sites.
We do not edit comments. They are either approved or deleted. We reserve the right to edit a comment that is quoted or excerpted in an article. In this case, we may fix spelling and punctuation.
We welcome strong opinions and criticism of our work, but we don't want comments to become bogged down with discussions of our policies and we will moderate accordingly.
We appreciate it when readers and people quoted in articles or blog posts point out errors of fact or emphasis and will investigate all assertions. But these suggestions should be sent via e-mail. To avoid distracting other readers, we won't publish comments that suggest a correction. Instead, corrections will be made in a blog post or in an article.
- Long-serving fire chief shrugs off honors
- Bank nixes Jeannette finance plan
- Officials say programs are making Pennsylvania roads much safer
- Scottdale passes budget without tax increase
- West Newton again holds line on tax rate
- Judge rejects deal in metal theft case
- Latrobe raises earned-income tax rate
- Geyer Performing Arts Center to present ‘The Nutcracker’
- Gettysburg journey finally complete for Honor Guard members
- Inmate population up over 2012
- Sewickley Township worker accused of threats seeks pre-trial program