William Frederick Nelson was born 11 April 1926 at Windom, Minnesota to Mr. and Mrs. Clarence T. Nelson. He enjoyed a very close relationship with his parents, and often spoke of trips with his father to sporting events.
Bill attended public school in Windom until his final year of high school, which he completed at Kemper Military Academy, Booneville, Missouri, with graduation in 1944. He then entered the Navy V-12 Program to serve at Minot, North Dakota, until his appointment to the United States Military Academy. He entered West Point in the summer of 1945 with the Class of 1949.
Bill played on a strong plebe football team that fall. He tackled the football better than he did the academics, and ultimately was turned back to the Class of 1950. His new classmates were very glad to have him, and he, in turn, contributed a great deal to them. For the next four years “Nellie” was at the center of class and company athletic and social activities. Due in great part to his efforts, Company K-2 twice won the Bankers Trophy, symbolic of intramural supremacy. Bill also started at halfback for the Goats in the class struggle with the Engineers.
At his first plebe Christmas in 1945, Bill met Joyce Ann Barlow. A romance flourished through the cadet years which culminated in marriage at New Haven, Connecticut on 8 June 1950. Bill’s classmates Detherow, Earnhart, Griffin, and Todd were ushers. Joyce and Bill had a delightful honeymoon at Sea Island, Georgia, in company with four other Class of ’50 couples.
Bill chose Airborne Infantry, and after graduation on 6 June 1950 he was assigned to the 11th Airborne Division at Fort Campbell, Kentucky. In August he and Joyce joined many classmates and brides at Fort Benning, Georgia, where Bill had his parachute training before reporting to Fort Campbell. There he was assigned to the 188th Airborne Infantry Regiment. It was to be about a one-year assignment and saw the birth of a son, Carl. They left Fort Campbell and returned to Fort Benning, where Bill attended the Infantry Company Officer Course and then received orders to Korea. Before he departed, Bill, Joyce, and Carl spent a very enjoyable Christmas in 1951 with his parents in Minnesota.
In Korea, Bill went right to a line unit, the 65th Infantry, and became a platoon leader. He performed so well that the battalion commander gave him the company, and it was in the capacity of rifle company commander that Bill was missing in action. Bill took “B” Company to occupy Kelly Hill, a key terrain feature, on 18 September 1952. That night the Chinese assaulted the hill with an estimated 600 men. They swarmed over the position and Bill was last seen fighting in the vicinity of his CP. The fighting was severe, and only 19 of the 200 officers and men of “B” Company survived the action to retreat to friendly lines. Efforts to retake the hill failed and the Korean War ended with Kelly Hill still in enemy hands. A handful of “B” Company men were captured, including an officer who fit the description of Bill. However, this officer turned out to be the artillery forward observer who was later released. It was his belief that Bill had been killed in the attack. This belief was shared by most of the survivors, but could never be confirmed.
Joyce Nelson gave birth to their daughter on 1 September 1952. Bill talked to Joyce by telephone from Japan shortly after the birth. Seven days later he was missing.
On 28 January 1954, Bill was declared dead by the Department of the Army and was subsequently awarded the Purple Heart.
The Nelson family has received numerous letters from members of the 65th Infantry, including Bill’s battalion commanding officer, but the letter that brings to mind the Bill Nelson I will always remember is one written by a contemporary, Lieutenant St. Clair Streett, Jr., Class of’49. Extracts of that letter follow:
“Dear Mrs. Nelson,
“Bill is the epitome of fine America— besides being a personal friend, he was an example not only for his subordinates, but for his contemporaries—like myself. Bill was a fine officer—conscientious and enthusiastic in his work. I hope that I can do as well as he. I know if Bill were able to communicate with you—he would say, ‘Don’t worry.’ Of course, ‘missing in action’ is an uncertain term—the only thing we can do is keep faith and pray.
“I returned home—lucky beyond words—and believe me, I’m thankful. Nevertheless, the thought of ‘Wild Bill,’ your son, and of others who were killed in action saddened my Christmas aspects. Certainly those men had sacrificed that we might better enjoy our country and family.”
Bill Nelson was a close and loyal friend to those fortunate enough to know him well. He never forgot his parents and wrote to them almost daily. He proved himself a devoted husband and father during the short time he had with his family.
Bill loved West Point and is a true credit to the Long Gray Line.
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