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On the front line

Montana Standard, Butte MT

Jay Nelson sits at the kitchen table of his longtime Jackson (MT) home surrounded by hand-crafted walnut cabinets and a panoramic photograph of the Big Hole Valley.

The 86-year-old grew up on his family’s ranch just outside town and says he never strayed too far from the community, population 134, for any extended period of time.

“I’ve ventured out a time or two,” he says.

He remembers the summer he spent building homes in northern British Columbia, but it’s his experiences away from the valley during World War II that bring back his most vivid memories.

Nelson served in the U.S. Army 99th Infantry Division from June 1942 to November 1945, including time on the front lines during the Battle of the Bulge before marching across the Cologne Plain.

He was trained as an anti-aircraft gunner in Texas, but went into the infantry when the need for ground troops increased.

He received his marching orders in September 1944 when his unit was shipped by boat to Plymouth, England.

“It took 13 days to paddle across that pond,” he said. “You can only go as fast as the slowest ship in the convoy.” After a few weeks in England, he went to Le Havre, France, which had been heavily bombed, and unloaded from a landing craft onto the beach.

“We climbed over the wreckage, and it was still burning, a lot of it,” Nelson said.

Trucks hauled the soldiers more than 200 miles across France to Belgium to the front line at Hofen, Germany.

Nelson remembers arriving in the dark on Nov. 1, 1944, with about six inches of snow on the ground. That same night he and another nervous soldier dug into a hole and were told to defend an area of the new and unfamiliar territory.

“You didn’t even know which way to watch,” he remembers. “You never so much as blinked at night. You learned fast. Fortunately, nothing happened. We sat there all night and froze our butts off.”

Border guards

The next morning Nelson was relieved of his post and his weapons platoon moved into a large stone home. From November to March they manned three outposts watching the German-Belgian border two hours on and four hours off.

The soldiers could see German activity along the Ruhr River about a mile away and witnessed the troop buildup in the weeks before the Bulge.

“We could look across and see all the activity: We knew what was going to happen,” Nelson said. “We tried to tell (superiors) but, hell, nobody listened to a private.” The Bulge started in mid-December, and Nelson’s battalion had detached from the rest of the division several miles to the north on the northern front of the battle.

“We were the only ones in the whole division that never retreated,” he said. “We had no place to go, you had to stay there. Our main problem there: We were surrounded really – the same as those guys at the Bastogne, only we didn’t have a general with us.” Nelson estimates the Germans outnumbered his unit nine to one, but says heavy artillery shot over their heads by allied forces kept the enemy somewhat at bay.

“Fortunately we had a lot of artillery behind us,” he said. “They put a curtain of steel down there. It was a little noisy.” The heavy artillery fire continued for several days and his division killed or captured the Germans who made it past the bombing.

Nelson said his division ran out of food and gave the rest of its ammunition to riflemen. At night they ventured into the battlefield to pick up machine guns from dead German soldiers.

“They didn’t need them anymore,” he said.

Until the Bulge, Nelson said there hadn’t been much action on the front aside from being shot at during night patrols.

Winter clothing and food were rare for the troops during the Bulge, other than items they could salvage from inside the abandoned homes at Hofen – a town Nelson said was about as big as Wisdom (MT).

Most of the men who died in his division suffered from pneumonia, trench foot or other illnesses. They ate any canned food they could find – mostly fruits and vegetables – but occasionally found smoked meats.

From Dec. 1 to March 13, Nelson said he had one shower, the only time he removed his clothing during the fighting.

Pursuit of food

Nelson’s platoon cared for a Holstein milk cow at one point during the fighting, with hopes of butchering the animal. The cow eventually had twin calves; however, the three were stolen one night while the men were on patrol. The troops were convinced fellow soldiers farther down the line had rustled the animals and went to investigate when they left for patrol one night.

They were unable to find their cows, but instead found a large pig, Nelson said.

“We chased that stupid pig home in the middle of the night and proceeded to butcher,” he said.

If only it were that easy.

Two soldiers in the group had experience butchering, but their only tools were dull bayonets. By the time they were finished cutting the pork in the snow, they had bacon strips as long as a kitchen table and about a quarter-inch thick.

“If it weren’t for bacon, we would have starved to death,” Nelson said. “We lived on pork for a while. That was just before the Bulge, then things went to hell.” Most of Nelson’s platoon survived the Bulge, and replacements arrived in January 1945.

Nelson assumed he might finally get a break from the action, only to be assigned to march through the Bulge battlegrounds for a field assessment through deep snow and rows of German tanks that had run out of gas.

After that assignment, Nelson got a three-day break and a much-anticipated shower in Thimister, Belgium.

Nelson said it was difficult adjusting to crowds after spending time on the front lines of the war, so he went into a theater hoping to calm his nerves and watch a movie.

There were old airplanes flying around with a passenger leaning out and shooting coyotes, which reminded Nelson of 1934 when a film crew shot a similar movie in the Big Hole Valley.

Then Nelson said he was surprised when an airplane in the movie dropped a sack of mail in Wisdom, not far from where he grew up in Jackson.

“Here’s this damn picture showing right in front of me there, it would make your hair stand up on end,” he said. “It was about half over before it really registered on me: Hell, I watched them make this picture.” After his short break, Nelson was sent back to duty in Aachen, Germany, which had been captured by allied forces.

A picture of a dead soldier lying beside a footbridge across a small canal at Aachen had appeared in Life magazine, he remembered.

“He was still there when we crossed on the footbridge,” Nelson said.

The soldiers made their way across the Cologne Plain, then east through big, flat farm country dotted with small communities that didn’t resist the advancing troops.

“You just went up and told them you were here,” Nelson said.

They continued on and captured Burkheim, a city roughly the size of Butte (MT), also with no resistance. Nelson received orders to guard one side of the town alone, without an assistant gunner.

“I was guarding the left side of Butte,” he joked.

Most residents were in bomb shelters and didn’t put up a fight, and Nelson made his way to find a lookout post atop one of the buildings.

“You never walked up and turned a door knob: It was liable to blow the door off right in your hand,” he said. “You shot the doorknob off. You learned a lot of little tricks like that if you were going to be around long.”

Search for supplies

The Germans were methodical, and Nelson said he knew where to look in abandoned homes for supplies.

“If they had any sugar they hid it in the bottom of the china closet, if they had anything to drink they hid it in the coal bin, every last one of them,” he said.

He found a bottle of booze on his patrol and went into the balcony of a building, sat down with his machine gun and kept watch.

Later that day, a fellow soldier joined Nelson on the balcony with a second bottle and the two drank together and laughed about a long sword his friend had “captured.” The short soldier tied a roller skate to the end of the sword so it wouldn’t drag on the ground behind him.

“It was longer than he was tall,” Nelson said. “We sat there and guarded the town most of the afternoon.” They left the balcony that evening and found five chickens they planned to cook for dinner, and took two prisoners who were decorated with medals while walking back to their post.

“I can still see the picture of us going down this street herding this bunch of big wheels ahead of us carrying chickens and this sergeant with his sword and a roller skate coming behind them,” he laughed.

It was spring in Germany and Nelson remembers the fields were already plowed as the troops marched through mud toward Cologne.

“I’m thoroughly convinced you can’t have a war without bud,” he said. “There was mud every place.” The Germans were working to bomb bridges over the Rhine River as Nelson’s brigade reached the outskirts of Cologne.

Enemy forces were especially determined to destroy the Ludendorff Bridge at the town of Remagen, yet the troops were instructed to cross the railroad structure.

“Things hit the fan about then,” Nelson said.

The Americans had captured the bridge that morning in early March in a bloody battle that left heavy casualties.

“Hell, there were dead guys stacked up every place around there, truckloads of them,” he said.

Just before they attempted to make a dash across the bridge, the soldiers passed around a bottle as artillery fire exploded around them.

Nelson took the last swig from the bottle, set it on a railroad tie and started running for the far shore some 200 yards away.

He remembers hearing loud explosions and says the bridge was hit three times as he crossed, twice in front of him and once behind.

Once across, they marched upriver to Linz, then into the mountains in an effort to capture and shut down traffic on the Autobahn, a major German highway artery.

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They encountered a group of elite German soldiers known as the Schutzstaffel, or SS, and Nelson was dispatched to a ridge where he encountered a tank driving up a road below him with its turret open.

“I couldn’t resist that; I cut loose shooting down into the top of that turret,” he said. “That upset him something terrible. He actually shot the end off that hill I was on.”

Hit by shrapnel

When the tank’s artillery hit that day on March 13, 1945, shrapnel went in all directions, hitting Nelson in his side and back, knocking him unconscious.

An ammunition carrier came to his aid, and Nelson stood up and joined a group of soldiers where he discovered his injuries.

He rode in a medical jeep to a collection station, then in an ambulance to a field hospital where he tried to walk up a dozen steps.

“I remember getting to the top step and that’s the last I remember,” Nelson said. “I keeled over on my nose end, and I woke up, and I was on a stretcher. Everything hurts when you finally come to. Actually your hair hurts.” Nelson went back to the United States in June 1945 on a medical ship and spent eight months in military hospitals.

He recovered from his injuries and went back to work on the family ranch after the war before going to work building homes in Idaho Falls, Dillon and throughout the Big Hole Valley.

He received the Purple Heart in the war and a list of other medals including his prized Combat Infantryman Badge.

“You earn them the hard way,” Nelson said.

Last modified Oct. 22, 2010

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