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70 years after World War II, former POW in Ligonier receives full accolades

| Sunday, Oct. 13, 2013, 8:58 p.m.
Sean Stipp | Tribune-Review
John W. Nelson, 89, of Ligonier poses for at portrait at his home. Nelson was shot three times at Anzio in Italy and spent 10 months in a German POW camp during World War II.
Sean Stipp | Tribune-Review
John W. Nelson, 89, of Ligonier shows medals he has just received for his World War II service. Nelson was shot three times at Anzio in Italy and spent 10 months in a German POW camp during World War II.

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

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