Ladsonveteran carries vivid memories of war

ByChris Dixon

Tuesday,June6, 2006

Edition:FINAL, Section: NATION, Page A1


IfSam Nelson of Ladson ever needs a reminder of the invasion ofNormandy during World War II, he need only look at his right arm.From hand to forearm runs a long scar a surgeon left after anartillery shell blew up alongside him and a radio operator as theyadvanced toward Paris following the invasion.

The explosion putthen-Lt. Nelson back onto a Normandy beach, where he underwentsurgery alongside thousands of other American soldiers.

"I've still gotshrapnel in my arm," he said. "And the one that hit me in the headwent through my helmet, the liner, through my scalp and back out."

The explosionmarked the end of Nelson's combat in France. But as the 62ndanniversary of the June 6 D-Day invasion approached, Nelson couldremember the fierce fighting like it was yesterday.

A New Yorknative, Nelson was drafted into the Army in June 1941. He began hisduty as a cook at Camp Croft near Spartanburg and was made a messsergeant shortly after the bombing of Pearl Harbor. A captain thoughthe might make a good candidate for officer's school and ordered theyoung soldier to Fort Benning in August 1942.

"I told him,'Captain, I'm happy where I am,' " Nelson said. "He said, 'You don'tget to do what you want to do, you do what I tell you.' "

At Fort Dix,N.J., Nelson and his soldiers and officers were reassigned to the 4thInfantry Division and were trained for amphibious combat. They soonboarded a refitted luxury liner and sailed for Plymouth, England."All the first class rooms were for officers," he recalled. "We evenhad a salt water bath. Then the butler would come in with a pan offresh water to throw on you."

Nelson and hisuntested troops made three practice combat landings on an Englishbeach called Slapton Sands while the Normandy invasion was planned.He recalled the mission as being so secret that when a civiliantelephone repairman accidentally saw a wall map of the invasion, hewas jailed.

Early in themorning of June 6, Nelson and his troops boarded landing craft forUtah Beach.

"The place was soloaded with boats," he said. "You can't imagine it."

Soldiers goingashore at Utah Beach did not encounter the same level of deadlyGerman artillery and machine gun fire that turned nearby Omaha Beachinto a killing ground. It wasn't until they moved inland that theybegan fighting Germans from hedgerow to hedgerow.

"You could hearthem the next row over," he said, noting that many of the Germansoldiers were reluctant foreign conscripts.

Before leavingfor England, Nelson had allowed a young enlisted man to travel hometo visit his wife, whom he feared might die in childbirth. "He wasthe first man I had killed in combat," Nelson said. "I walked up theline and he had been hit by an artillery shell."

Nelson recalledlarge shells fired from the battleship Nevada as being "louder than atrain" as they flew through the air, obliterating a German pillboxand 200 men. Ensuing days saw harrowing battles that included thetaking of a French chateau. Roughly a third of the soldiers inNelson's division were killed.

Nelson said thatmarginally wounded soldiers were often returned to the battlefront.But his head injury meant that he couldn't wear a helmet. So he wassent to help 138 other soldiers manage a camp of 100,000 German POWs.

"We had to feedthem three meals a day," he said, "I had a French liaison, and wewere walking through the town," he said, "I asked him 'What the hellare all those buildings?' and he said, 'Those are three bakeries theGermans blew up.' Well, they'd only blown up one of them. I bakedthose Germans 50,000 loaves of bread a day!"

Shortly after hereturned to the United States following the war, Nelson married andreturned to his former life as a pharmaceutical salesman. He saidthat he didn't think the war fazed him too much, but on some personalsales calls, customers occasionally asked why he seemed so nervous."And I remember my wife telling me some nights that I'd get raving inmy sleep, and I wasn't conscious of it at all," he said. "It was justa hangover you couldn't help."

Nelson went on toown a Hickory Farms store in Columbia. In 1994, he went to Africa andbecame one of the oldest Peace Corps volunteers ever. At his last jobat the True Value Hardware store in Mount Pleasant, Nelson said hewas constantly reminded of his sacrifice and his appreciation ofAmerica. "People would come in all the time and ask, 'Were you in thewar?' " he said. "And they'd just want to shake your hand."

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