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Not a day passes that he doesn't recall WWII trauma

A World War II history book refreshes Glenn Nelson's memory of serving in New Guinea, the Philippines and Japan. He and the former Dorothy Reinkey were married just a few months after he was discharged. Judy Wiff photo

It wouldn't be honest to say Glenn Nelson lives in the past -- far from it.

But it would be fair to say the past lives with the 85-year-old World War II combat veteran.

Nelson was a college sophomore at River Falls in the fall of 1942 when he enlisted in the U.S. Army.

Over the next three years he witnessed and tried to stop the death of comrades, endured the jungles of New Guinea, had a front-row view of General McArthur's "I have returned" speech and wished for death on the rolling deck of a ship headed for Japan.

Those years are also the source of memories, good and bad, that have comforted, haunted and molded the Pierce County man for the following decades.

"My dream was to be a pilot," recalls Nelson of his attempt to enlist in the Air Force.

But when they held up the chart with the colored dots, he couldn't read the numbers. Because he was color blind, he was not eligible for the Air Force.

"I was really depressed after that," said Nelson of his return home. "Everybody was going into the service."

Though he had a deferment to work on the family farm near Elmwood, in the fall of 1942 Nelson enlisted in the Army.

He was sent for anti-aircraft artillery training at Camp Callan, Calif., where he had an experience not likely back home.

One of his bunkmates owned a chain of theaters and invited Nelson for an evening on the town. The man said, "My friend Ginger is coming to have dinner with me. Do you want to come?"

Nelson agreed, but when he met his roommate and the man's friend, the Pierce County man was astounded.

"I saw that 'Ginger' coming, and I thought, 'My God, it's Ginger Rogers.'"

The "innocent country boy" from Elmwood dined out that evening at a "swanky nightclub in La Jolla" with a movie star.

When he completed his training course, Nelson was told he'd be going to the South Pacific and was sent home on furlough.

He went home to give Dorothy Reinkey a diamond before boarding a ship for the 32-day trip to Australia.

From Australia, he was sent to a replacement depot in New Guinea where he served with the 469th Anti-Aircraft Artillery attached to the 29th Division.

"It was a terrible place -- heat and insects and the jungle, the sound of the jungle, the malaria, the misery of the whole place," said Nelson. "It was a struggle to keep healthy."

MacArthur's return

One of Nelson's most memorable experiences was Oct. 20, 1944, when he had a close-up view of Gen. Douglas MacArthur's famous "I have returned" speech on the beach of the island of Leyte in the Philippines.

Nelson was going about his work, digging in anti-aircraft artillery equipment on the shore when he saw MacArthur headed his way.

"I looked up and saw exactly as it was in the book," said Nelson, referring to a photo he found in a World War II history book. "He kept coming right toward us.

"A lieutenant said, 'You don't have to salute.'"

The general stopped about four feet from him, said Nelson. An aide pulled a big microphone and radio from a brown case and set up.

"We just kept digging," said Nelson. "I didn't think much about it."

Nelson doesn't remember the entire speech but clearly remembers the famous words: "I have returned."

MacArthur had kept the promise he made March 11, 1942, when he and American troops evacuated from Corregidor and went to Australia.

"I saw him many times after that walking in the jungle," said Nelson, who spent most of his time in the Philippines on outpost duty.

"Survival rate at outpost was not too good," said Nelson. The soldiers were sent to remote areas to observe incoming aircraft, gather enemy information and radio back to anti-aircraft posts.

They became proficient at identifying types of planes.

'You always waited...'

"We could see the eyes of the Japanese pilots going over," said Nelson. But nighttime was the worst.

"You always waited for that dreadful night," said Nelson.

The American soldiers strung coils of barbwire around their camp, hung C-ration cans filled with stones from the wire and set up empty pup tents away from their camp as first lines of defense.

"What you listened for was a crack," said Nelson, explaining that the Japanese knocked their hand grenades on a rock to set them off. "They gave away their positions that way."

One night the crack was close, and the dust around him flew. Though he was briefly stunned, Nelson wasn't hit.

But the soldier next to him, a man Nelson knew only as George, took the impact.

In the dark, as he felt the man's ribcage, Nelson could feel the wound.

"He came to and with my hand I could feel he was bleeding profusely," said Nelson.

He dumped wound powder on the soldier's injury, stripped off his own shirt and held the material against the man's ribs.

Along about dawn, the man whispered that he was OK. The soldiers radioed for help, and he was taken out.

"As he left, he said, 'Thanks a lot, Glenn. I'll see you,'" said Nelson.

But at noon, the men at the outpost were notified by radio that George had died.

"I don't think there's been a day in my life that I don't think about that," said Nelson, who paused to control his emotions. "What else could I do to save him?"

He knows he was lucky to survive.

"If that Japanese soldier had had one more spoonful of rice that morning, he might have thrown the grenade three feet farther, and it would have hit both of us," said Nelson.

On the seventh or eighth day on patrol in the jungle, Nelson and his comrades came to a clearing with dozens of dead and dying American soldiers, a chaplain and medic with a clipboard walking among them.

"It was an impression you don't get over," said Nelson. "It was just the same old thing. You get through it."

While in the Philippines, Nelson witnessed, off the shores of Leyte, one of the most decisive battles of the war.

For three days, he and other American soldiers watched what looked like "a huge lightning storm" off shore.

"The biggest naval battle in history was going on," said Nelson. For days American and Japanese battleships waged their war, and in the end the Japanese suffered their worst defeat of the war.

American forces sunk four enemy carriers, three battleships, six heavy cruisers, four light cruisers and 11 destroyers.

"That just knocked the Japanese navy out of commission," said Nelson.

From Leyte, the American troops moved on to the Lingayen Gulf.

The passage took eight days. The sea was so rough that one minute the soldiers would be looking down on the ship ahead of them and the next they'd be looking up at it.

Kamikaze attacks

The men were crammed together on the decks, wearing the same clothes day after day and no warm food, which was alright because they were deathly seasick.

Each evening just as it was getting dark, Japanese kamikaze aircraft dive-bombed the craft.

"We were so sick, I actually prayed they would hit the ship," said Nelson.

During the night the ships would drift apart. Come morning they would come back into formation and plow forward, said Nelson.

Toward the end of his time in the Philippines, the soldiers were trained for their move toward Japan.

Nelson remembers an officer going down the line of soldiers, saying alternately, "You will live. You will die." They expected that half the men would be killed in the assault.

Then suddenly training was suspended for a day. A newspaper nailed to a tree said President Truman had dropped the atomic bomb on Japan.

"We all looked at one another, (and wondered) what the heck is an atomic bomb?" recalled Nelson.

He spent exactly a year in the Philippines before his unit was loaded on ships bound for Japan.

When the Americans landed on the island of Shikoku, the Japanese civilians lay face down in the sand and asked for mercy, said Nelson.

Although they'd been taught a few basic words and symbols, the soldiers weren't confident of the reaction they'd get from the Japanese, a fear worsened when Nelson and a couple of other soldiers were sent off to make a delivery 12 miles down the beach.

Nelson was driving.

"I started out and I got lost," he admitted. But then they recognized a symbol on a building and assumed it was a police station.

"So bravely I walked up and knocked open the door," said Nelson. Inside were about 20 police, 10 on each side, and three apparent officers on a platform in front.

They all jumped up and bowed, said Nelson.

"I said, 'We are lost. Can you help us?'" he recalled. A man who spoke English gave him directions. Nelson shook the man's hand and went back outside to see about 200 Japanese surrounding the American vehicle.

"Our weapons carrier was an island in a sea of Japanese," said Nelson, who feared walking through a crowd of women, children and old men. He said he was sure he'd be attacked by people who lost husbands and sons in the war.

But the crowd was more curious than dangerous, said Nelson.

"They'd never seen Americans," he said. "A lot of people don't understand this, but Japan was a closed nation for centuries."

'My favorite president'

While some have questioned the morality of dropping the atomic bombs on Japanese, Nelson believes it saved millions of lives.

"I wouldn't be here today if the atomic bomb hadn't been dropped," he said, adding he was grateful to Harry Truman.

"He's always been my favorite president," said Nelson. "We needed Harry Truman."

Nelson, a lifelong Republican, said Truman is the only Democrat he ever voted for.

The bomb dropped on Hiroshima destroyed the city. "All I saw was smokestacks and demolition," said Nelson of the view from a train.

He spent three months with the occupation forces in Japan before being sent home.

Following the war, Nelson returned to Elmwood. He arrived home mid-week in January 1946 and started third-quarter classes at River Falls the next Monday. In May he and Dorothy were married.

After he graduated in 1948 with a double major in biology science and agriculture, Nelson taught as a long-term substitute for six weeks at River Falls High School. Then he took a full-time job teaching agriculture education in Spring Valley and taught for 10 years.

He taught another seven years part-time, combining that work with farming.

When his son Greg returned to the home farm, Nelson took a job as marketing specialist at Central Livestock. He still serves on the Hiawatha National Bank board, spent 18 years on the Elmwood School Board and has been actively involved in his church and an enthusiastic supporter of Elmwood schools.

"Our life has been perpetual motion," said Nelson, adding there's a reason for that. It keeps him from thinking too much.

"If I wasn't a workaholic, I'd be an alcoholic," he said. "I was fortunate to get a good wife and a good family and survived it, but I gotta stay busy."

His war memories still haunt him.

"My thoughts go back," he admitted. Keeping busy and appreciating the life he has is his response to the memories. "Otherwise I think I'd be in a mental hospital."

For a long time after the war, Nelson avoided gatherings of veterans.

"I just didn't want to talk to anybody who talked about their war experiences," he said.

Later he joined the Elmwood American Legion and is an active member to this day.

"They are a great organization," said Nelson.

The four most important things, the grounding forces of his life, he said, are his wife and family, his Spring Lake Lutheran Church, the farm now operated by his son and the Elmwood schools.

The Nelsons' four children are: Greg (Vicki) Nelson, who has the family farm; Dr. Carrie Nelson, a physician at Myrtle Werth Hospital in Menomonie and Red Cedar/Mayo Clinic in Elmwood; Ann (Dave) Seigel, an elementary school teacher in West St. Paul; and Arnie (Lori) Nelson, business manager for Winfield Solutions in Baraboo.