One question Eugene “Gene” Nelson of Little Falls has been asked steadily is what his secret is to living a long life. After all, he just turned 100 on Nov. 9, 2019.
“I don’t know. Be with people and be happy,” he said.
Reflecting on the life he has lived, it has been a good one, despite tragedies and horrid experiences along the way, he said.
Nelson grew up on a dairy farm in Eagle Bend. With 160 acres, fields planted with oats and other grains and 10 cows to milk, there was always something that needed to be done.
Nelson and his younger brother, Donald, attended school in Eagle Bend. One way, it was about a mile’s walk, but when snowy conditions made it difficult to walk, their dad, Arthur, would hitch up their old gray mare and their mom, Stella, would drive them to school.
Since the local school only provided education until eighth grade and Nelson had no convenient means of getting to high school in Parkers Prairie, he stayed home and worked on the farm. Donald, on the other hand, later chose to stay with their grandparents in Parkers Prairie while he attended high school.
One fun memory Nelson recalled from the days of farming was the time he and his father ran over a purse filled with coins with the plow. They could tell the purse had been there for a while.
“We figured it may have belonged to a pheasant hunter,” Nelson said.
They brought the purse to the bank to find out how much money was in it. It was with the yield of $19 that Nelson was able to purchase a new suit the very same day, he said.
Besides working on his parents’ farm, he also worked at a creamery in Rose City. Although he worked hard, he enjoyed life. But that soon changed on Sunday, Dec. 7, 1941. He remembered exactly where he was when he received the news that Pearl Harbor had been attacked. It was also his father’s birthday.
“It was my day off, so I was heading into town to have a beer with the boys,” he said.
Two months later, Nelson was drafted to serve in the United States Army.
“I hated it,” he said.
Nelson was examined at Ft. Snelling in St. Paul to make sure he was fit for duty and was able to return home for a short time before he was sent to Camp Wolters in Mineral Springs, Texas, to complete basic training.
After six weeks, Nelson and many others were sent to Ventura, Calif. to guard the west coast against an invasion from Japan. It was there that Nelson was placed in Company C, 134th Infantry, 35th Division.
In April, Nelson received word from home that his brother had died in a motorcycle accident.
“My parents took his death really hard, especially my mom. I did, too,” Nelson said.
Since it left him their only surviving son, Nelson petitioned the government to release him from military duty, but his request was ignored, he said.
Before long, Nelson received orders to go to Camp Rucker, Ala. as well as to camps in Tennessee, North Carolina and New Jersey.
In May 1944, he boarded the USS General Anderson. The journey across the North Atlantic Sea to England took about two weeks and while many of the men onboard became seasick, the rolling motion didn’t faze him.
Nelson recalled one soldier in his regiment who ran into his brother on the ship. Neither had known they were on the same ship until then, but with 750 troops onboard it was no wonder, Nelson said.
Once the 35th division arrived in England, they received further training before they were sent to France. His division landed on Omaha Beach, Normandy in early July 1944.
Nelson was equipped with a Browning automatic rifle, which weighed nearly 20 pounds and could fire more than 500 rounds per minute.
The first combat Nelson saw in France was in the hedgerow country north of Saint-Lô. Before long, he became a squad leader.
“We went in with 175 men and in three hours we had 40 left,” he said.
After the division was reorganized, they helped another division take Hill 122, an even tougher battle, and then went on to Saint-Lô.
However, in Saint-Lô, the C company found itself up against a Panzer (German battle tank) crew, who shelled them throughout the night. To protect themselves, they dug fox holes right where they were at.
Nelson said it wasn’t until morning when daylight broke they realized they had dug foxholes in a cemetery.
“That was the first thing I wrote my mom about — about waking up in a cemetery,” Nelson said.
It wasn’t until later when he saw the letter that he noticed the military censors had cut out that portion of his letter.
Nelson said the battle for Saint-Lô was one of the tougher encounters he had with the Germans. At that time, the U.S. forces held off 12 counter attacks by the Germans before the finally took Saint-Lô The city, on the other hand, was reduced to a rubble, he said.
Although Nelson was injured with shrapnel in his rear end during this battle, it wasn’t bad enough to keep him from advancing forward.
Several battles later, Nelson was shot in his right hand by enemy fire and was brought to a field hospital. He was then flown to recover at a hospital in Birmingham, England.
Once his hand had healed, he was sent back to France. Although he was no longer able to handle a rifle, he was instructed to share his experience of fighting on the front lines with troops before they were sent there.
In addition, he was also instructed to disarm artillery shells on the French countryside that had landed, but had not exploded.
Eventually, he received news that he was going home. He arrived in Boston, Mass. in October 1945.
One of Nelson’s close Army friends was Arvid Larson, a lad he knew from Parkers Prairie. To this day he recalled the time Larson grabbed his hand, looked him in the eye and told him that while Nelson would go home, he would not.
Nelson later learned that Larson had been killed in France.
“He and his guys were going down a road. The Germans were lying in wait and then just mowed them down,” he said.
Although many decades have passed since Larson died, Nelson said he still misses his friend.
During the war, a local girl, June Taylor, started to write to him. He welcomed the letters and before he returned to Eagle Bend, they set up a date.
“I had no idea what she even looked like,” he said.
The two married in 1946 and moved to Little Falls where Nelson worked as a salesman for NAPA for many years.
Nelson said although he had a lot of positive things going for him when he returned home from the Army, he had a hard time adjusting. By the time he returned, many friends had already married and moved away. He also battled post traumatic stress.
“It was really hard to adjust. I almost signed up to go back into the military because that’s what I was familiar with,” he said.
Nelson received several medals for his service, including a Bronze Star and a Purple Heart.
After 44 years of marriage, June died in 1990 due to complications with diabetes.
Two years later, he met Junette Politeske of Little Falls, who became a very special significant other in his life. She died in October 2018. Nelson said he still misses her.
“It’s been a good life,” he said.