Harold Nelson, now 107, received the Silver Star for his actions at Anzio, Italy, in World War II after the Army ruled that a letter his one-time company commander sent to his mother, mentioning his nomination for the award, was evidence of its submission. US Army photos. Composite by Kenna Lee/Coffee or Die Magazine.
If, like many company commanders, Army Capt. James Pearman Jr. wrote letters to the families of fallen soldiers under his command, he may have written dozens, or even hundreds, in the spring of 1944. The 7th Infantry Regiment, which included Pearman’s F Company, suffered more than 10,000 casualties and at least 2,131 combat deaths as it fought across North Africa, landed at Anzio, Italy, and then pushed into Germany — even though the regiment’s full strength was set at 3,500 soldiers.
But on May 7, 1944, rather than write a letter of condolence — perhaps he had simply written too many of those — Pearman instead wrote a short, cheery note to Louise Nelson of Wolbach, Nebraska, to tell her that her son, Staff Sgt. Harold Nelson, was very much alive in Fox Company.
Not only that, Pearman wrote, but Harold Nelson had fought so bravely during action near Anzio that he had been put in for a Silver Star.
“I know you will be glad to hear of his excellent service,” Pearman wrote to Louise Nelson. “His name has been submitted to regiment for the 'Silver Star Award' for his gallant actions in combat. He is well and in good health.”
A letter from a commanding officer to a worried mother led to a soldier receiving a long-overdue Silver Star. US Army image.
At her home in Wolbach, Louise Nelson very likely focused most closely on Pearman’s final words — “he is well and in good health” — but it was the mention of the Silver Star that an Army review board noted in June 2022 as it considered Nelson’s file.
Tuesday, Oct. 4, Harold Nelson, now 107, was awarded the Silver Star after the Army’s Board for Corrections of Military Records found that Pearman’s long-ago letter to Nelson’s mother represented legitimate evidence that he had been nominated for it. US Army Maj. Gen. Charles Costanza, the 3rd Infantry Division commanding general, presented the award to Nelson at a ceremony on Fort Carson, Colorado, hosted by the 4th Infantry Division. Nelson lives in Denver, about an hour from Fort Carson.
Nelson said he'd never found out why he didn't get the Silver Star after World War II and figured he'd never find out after his original military records were destroyed in a fire at a federal records facility in 1973. But the letter, according to the Army, served as evidence, along with Nelson’s testimony about his actions.
Maj. Gen. Charles Costanza, the 3rd Infantry Division commanding general, and World War II veteran Harold Nelson at Nelson's Silver Star Medal ceremony at Fort Carson, Colorado, Tuesday, Oct. 4, 2022. The Army Board for Corrections of Military Records awarded Nelson the Silver Star based on his detailed account of combat with 2nd Battalion, 7th Infantry Regiment, 3rd Infantry Division, during WWII and a letter from his then-commander, Capt. James Pearman Jr., who described his efforts to award Nelson the Silver Star Medal. US Army photo by Pfc. Bernabe Lopez III.
Nelson and Pearman’s 7th Infantry Regiment was with the 3rd Infantry Division during its three-year campaign from North Africa into Germany. In all, Nelson and the 7th made six amphibious landings during the war, the most of any US unit, including the Army and Marines in the Pacific. Nelson made five of them. One of the most intense campaigns of the war came at Anzio, as the 5th Army, which included the 3rd ID, came ashore in January and fought almost continuously for five months.
Pearman’s letter was written during a rare lull in the fighting, in early May 1944, just weeks before the 3rd ID would lead an Allied breakout from the city that would eventually end in the capture of Rome.
In a 2019 interview on YouTube with Remember WWII with Rishi Sharma, Nelson discussed his life and the campaigns he fought in. He described the actions during the fighting around Anzio that led to him receiving the Silver Star and what it was like to fight in one of the war’s longest and bloodiest campaigns.
“I spent nearly all my time on the ground to keep from getting killed," Nelson told Sharma. “From all the artillery and rifle fire and sometimes aircraft. Every time we stopped, we dug a foxhole.”
In two years, Nelson said, he took one shower.
Newspaper clippings from World War II of Harold Nelson. Image courtesy of 3rd Infantry Division/Facebook.
In the engagement that led to him receiving the Silver Star, Nelson told Sharma, his platoon had just jumped off from their defensive line when they were engaged by Germans in a house, where a US tank had hit a mine earlier.
“I ran out of ammunition, but I saw a tank alongside a house,” Nelson said. “I ran to that tank and climbed on top of the tank and fired the machine gun into the house through the windows and door.”
An original report submitted with the Silver Star application quotes Nelson after the fight saying, "I would have fired the big gun on the tank, but I didn't know how to shoot the blang thing."
A hand grenade flew out the window and hit his backpack, Nelson said.
“We called them potato mashers because they had a long handle like a potato masher,” Nelson said. “They would go off when they hit something, and that’s what hit my pack.”
The potato masher exploded when it hit him.
“It blew my pack off but didn’t hurt me, although I smelled blood,” Nelson said in his interview with Sharma. ”Yes, you can smell blood. But I couldn’t find any blood on me.”
As Nelson kept up the fire from the tank, the Germans in the house surrendered.
“You're scared, and you're running and really don't know what's going on,” he said. “I just didn’t want to get killed.”
As the 7th moved on Rome, Nelson's platoon commander was killed, leaving him in charge of the platoon. After Rome, the 7th was told to prepare to ship out for Operation Overlord, the invasion of France that would lead to Germany.
World War II veteran Harold Nelson at his Silver Star Medal ceremony at Fort Carson, Colorado, Tuesday, Oct. 4, 2022. US Army photo by Pfc. Bernabe Lopez III.
According to remarks by Costanza at Nelson's Silver Star ceremony on Tuesday, the Nebraskan's experience in Europe was two years of near-constant combat.
In November of 1942, during the amphibious landing of Operation Torch, Nelson's landing boat was hit by a torpedo fired by a German submarine.
He made a second landing under fire during Operation Husky, the invasion of Sicily. Later in Sicily, he participated in two rubber-boat landings to flank German forces; during one, he was hit by shrapnel in the chest. He was also shot in the head in Sicily, his helmet protecting him from the round.
After landing in Italy, he was again shot, a second round to the helmet, and knocked out a German tank that had overrun his lines with a bazooka.
His fifth amphibious landing was at Anzio.
Once in Rome, the 3rd ID got some needed rest and then prepared to ship out for the invasion of France.
"We was getting ready to load on our invasion ship in Rome, and my company clerk came running to me," Nelson told Sharma. "He says, 'Harold, you don't need to go; you're going home on rotation furlough."
"That was the sweetest words I ever heard."
Now a first sergeant, he'd accumulated enough time in service — the most in his unit — to be sent home. Once home, Nelson married his high school sweetheart, according to the Army. Francis and Harold Nelson were married for more than 50 years and had two daughters, according to the Army.
Newspaper pictures of 3rd Infantry Division soldiers taking German prisoners in Anzio, Italy. Image courtesy of 3rd Infantry Division/Facebook.
Speaking to Sharma, Nelson also described a final defensive stand he and a handful of US troops made as the Germans tried to overrun Allied forces in Anzio before they could establish their beachhead.
“I was in this foxhole, I’d been there for weeks and weeks, and the Germans made their supposedly final attack, and they came down on a side of a hill across from me,” Nelson said. The Germans, he said, were between 300 and 500 yards away. “My medic was watching me from his foxhole. He was keeping track of how many enemy I shot, and his last count was 21.”
Finally, he said, a German soldier spotted him and shot at him. A bullet grazed his arm and stomach — the third time Nelson was shot in combat, an Army release confirmed.
Nelson shot back.
“I fired one shot, and he disappeared,” Nelson told Sharma with a laugh. “Maybe I got him, or I scared him to death.”
Below: An extensive interview from 2019 with Harold Nelson discussing his time with the 3rd ID in WWII, and his life. From Remember WWII with Rishi Sharma YouTube Channel.
The engagement, Nelson said, still haunts him. When he returned to the US, he said, he had “war nightmares,” and July Fourth celebrations bothered him for several years, though that ended.
“You know, it bothered me then and it bothered me to this day that I had to kill that many humans. They were no different than our army. They were real people, and to just have to come and kill them is terrible, terrible," Nelson said. "My mother was born in Berlin. She had relatives in Berlin. Maybe I shot some of my own relatives.
“I dream about it quite often," Nelson said. "It’s bad."
Matt White is a former senior editor for Coffee or Die Magazine. He was a pararescueman in the Air Force and the Alaska Air National Guard for eight years and has more than a decade of experience in daily and magazine journalism.
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