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Does History Make the Man?


Fri, Feb 23rd, 2001
Posted in

Monday, February 26, 2001

Editors note: The following article was adapted from a school assignment by the author.

"I wanted to be above anything else a politician. Then along comes World War II, marriage, children, said Lt. Col. Richard Nelson of his 32-year career in the military.

When the war broke out Nelson was twenty-three years old and recently married. He was a WWI baby from Preston, Minnesota. He was getting himself into the most massive military conflict in world history. Nelson was nicknamed "Baldy" at the beginning of the war, because he started going bald at the age of seventeen.

Nelson was called into the Air Corps after a year of waiting. He went to Santa Anna, California, the staging area. The men went through vigorous physiological, aptitude, physical fitness, and medical examinations before they could fly. This was designed to be a weeding out process.

From there, Nelson went to three different flight schools. In Phoenix, Arizona, he was at Thunderbird I, a basic flying school. Then he went from Pecos, Texas to Williams Field in Phoenix, Arizona. Nelson was taught specifically to fly the legendary P-38, a pursuit fighter plane nicknamed "lightning."

The P-38 was a single-seated, two-engine fighter-bomber. In the nose of the aircraft were four fifty-caliber machine guns, one twenty-millimeter canon, and underneath the wings it was able to carry up to two-thousand pound bombs. On the tail of Nelsons P-38 was the letter "B" for his wife Beatrice back at home.

Nelson was taught dive-bombing, strafing, enemy positioning, and cutting off lines of interdiction. He became part of the 428th fighter squadron in the 474th fighter group. There were four squadrons, each squadron consisted of twenty-five aircraft and twenty-seven pilots; out of the twenty-seven original men, only four returned home.

All of the men knew how to fly, all knew each other, all were relatively the same age, and all of them were extremely aggressive. "If you werent aggressive you wouldnt exist very long in aerial combat," declared Nelson. "When we lost a friend, you just couldnt cry. You couldnt worry about it because you had your own particular problems.

The P-38 could stay aloft for up to eight hours. Before D-Day, Nelson had flown from north of London into Warsaw, Poland to provide fighter-support. This was the longest flight Nelson made in WWII. The P-38 is not a pressurized plane. Nelson wore a fleece-lined leather jacket, pants, and boots. His source of heat was a gas-port, a hose that had warm air coming out of it. Nelson would warm up one boot at a time by sticking the hose inside it.. He wore goggles and an English helmet, since the American helmet was too small for his head. Nelson was paid $82 a month as a second lieutenant and $305 a month as a first lieutenant.

Nelson flew during many conflicts in the war, including the invasion of D-Day and the Battle of the Bulge. After D-Day, he went ashore at base A-6, which was the sixth base built on the continent of Europe. From there, he traveled to Northeastern France, then to Belgium, and later to what was then occupied by the Russians. The pilots to an extent followed the ground troops to give them third-dimensional support.

While speaking of the Germans, Nelson expressed that his "WWII experiences were very impersonal." On one occasion, Nelsons instructions were to eradicate anything that was moving. Out in the middle of a field with no protection, was a car moving. As he swooped down to shoot, the man got out, put his hand on top of the car and looked at him as he flew in. In that instance, Nelson hesitated and could not shoot. After learning he was a German, Nelson swooped down again, but only to find the car was already gone. This was the first time he had been confronted with the personality of warfare. "He rolled the dice and he won," commented Nelson on the conflict.

Richard Nelson was in the USAF Branch, of the service. His service number was 14684A. In World War II, he won the Silver Star, the Distinguished Flying Cross, and 104 air medals for his 104 air flights. Nelsons attitude about his experiences was strictly, "I always felt that if I can open up and speak about it, it would heal."

Also Nelson remembers those who never came back, "military people whether they enlisted or drafted, many paid the ultimate price. They had the respect of the people in WWII and had the country behind them. Everyone thought about the boys overseas."

Nelsons long military career culminated in a tour of Vietnam, carrying cargo. He later went on to fulfill his dream in politics as mayor of Preston, Minnesota for twelve years. The question Nelson poses in looking back over his career is: "Does history make the man, or does the man make history?"

By Brittany OConnor

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