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The Day the Music Died

Appleton musician was killed at Omaha Beach in France during WWII

By Scott Thoma

Private Kenneth W. Nelson

Before enlisting in the military, Kenneth Nelson of Appleton had developed into an accomplished musician. Nelson would play the accordion, guitar, and trumpet with his mother, Tilda, and his six siblings, while entertaining others in the old Appleton Opera House or the Appleton Armory.

But when Nelson was killed in action at Omaha Beach in France during World War II, that was the day the music died, too. The family put their instruments aside and never played together again.

“They just didn’t feel like playing together without him anymore,” said Pat Kashmark-Krebs, whose mother, Evelyn, was Kenny’s sister.

Kenny had four brothers, Donald, Bill, Russell, and Allen, and two sisters, Evelyn and Audrey.

“All of his brothers served in World War II, but Kenny was the only one to go overseas,” said Kashmark-Krebs.

Kenneth Nelson shown playing the accordion. He also played guitar and trumpet. Contributed photo

Nelson attended rural schools in Chippewa County until attending high school in Appleton, graduating in 1942.

He continued his love for music after graduation by teaching music, working in music stores, and playing in a band he formed called “Kenny Nelson, His Accordion, and his Royal American Orchestra.”

Nelson enlisted in the U.S. Army in May of 1943 and went to basic training at Fort Leonard Wood in the Missouri Ozarks. He then served at Camp Reynolds in Greenville, Pennsylvania where he was trained as medic. In October of 1943, Pvt. Nelson was stationed overseas, where his service consisted of taking care of the wounded in a medical detachment.

Even in the military, he was able to find time to entertain with his music, entertaining his unit, and even playing for British children at Christmas parties in 1943.

On June 6, 1944 (D-Day), Nelson was aboard the troop-transport landing craft with others from his 112th Engineer Combat Battalion heading for Omaha Beach in Normandy, France. Medics carried no guns as their job was only to tend to the wounded soldiers and make them as comfortable as possible. When the shooting moved further inland, allowing movement on the beach, medics would bring the wounded to collection points where they would be taken to hospital ships. Nelson and other medics also wore a white band on their arm with a Red Cross in order to be identified. If captured, medics often continued to treat both Allied and enemy soldiers.

Family members visit the grave of Private Kenneth Nelson in the Appleton Cemetery on June 6, 2019, the 75th anniversary of D-Day. Kenneth was killed at Omaha Beach in France. Contributed photo

The Normandy Invasion was the landing operations and associated airborne operations of Normandy in Operation Overlord during World War II. Often referred to as D-Day, it was the largest seaborne invasion in history. No other invading army had crossed the English Channel before that in 256 years.

As the troop-transport craft that Pvt. Nelson was aboard closed in on Omaha Beach, the tail was opened and the soldiers forged ahead in the shallow water. Unbeknownst to the U.S. troops, the Germans stood ready to defend their positions and waited until the last possible moment to open fire in order to not immediately reveal their positions. As soon as the U.S. soldiers hit the beach, a shower of shells and machine-gun bullets rained upon them.

Along with British, Canadian, and other Allied Forces, the United States spent over a year planning the assault on the beaches of Normandy. As they landed in France, the Allied forces soon realized the German defenses were much stronger than anticipated and, amidst heavy fire, the first hours presented large numbers of casualties.

When Pvt. Nelson was administering aid to a wounded soldier, he was also hit by enemy fire and seriously wounded. He died from those wounds a short time later.

Although over 9,000 Allied soldiers were either killed or wounded, over 175,000 made it ashore by midnight and began securing French villages and capturing German soldiers.

Pvt. Nelson, as were many of the fallen U.S. soldiers who died during this conflict, was buried in the U.S. Military Cemetery in St. Laurent, France. His family held a memorial service for him at the Appleton Armory on Aug. 13, 1944.

The grave of Pvt. Kenneth W. Nelson in the Appleton Cemetery. Contributed photo

Nelson’s father, Edwin, had an article published in the V.F.W. monthly publication requesting information about his son from any soldiers at Omaha Beach that day. Numerous letters were returned to him. Relatives now have a large, well-documented scrapbook on Nelson, including his music and service to his country. The letters are all included in the scrapbook, as is his Purple Heart, photos, memorial service, newspaper articles, and much more.

Details surrounding Nelson’s death were told in a pair of lengthy letters from two of the soldiers with him that fateful day. John J. Gienier of Waterville, Maine, wrote:

“Kenneth was the only medic who died on D-Day. Many men fell beside me. Our instructions were to leave the wounded there and the medics would take care of them.

“Your son made the beach, for sure. About an hour or two afterward, the beach was filled with wounded and dead men. The wounded were crying for help. This is when Kenneth went out in the open again to help a wounded man and was hit. I recognized him but there wasn’t anything any of us could do. He was doing his duty. He was a very brave soldier.”

Another medic, Eldred Erdman of Quinnesec, Michigan, was briefly with Nelson as he lay wounded on the beach. He wrote:

Bruce Nelson and Pat Kashmark-Krebs pose next to the Nelson Street sign named for their uncle, Pvt. Kenneth W. Nelson, in Appleton, Minn. Bruce’s father, Allen, and Pat’s mother, Evelyn, were Pvt. Nelson’s siblings. Photo by Scott Thoma

“I, too, was a medic of the 112th Engineers., so I knew Kenneth well. One of the men from our Engineer Battalion said one of our medics had been wounded further up the beach. I immediately tried to work my way up the beach. At the time, I didn’t know who it was that was hurt from our detachment. After some time, I located Kenneth lying very quiet, but as soon as I spoke, he recognized my voice. Some other medic had already attended to him, but I checked his bandages and it was good and tight. I found some things to cover him with to keep him warm. I don’t believe he was in any pain. Sometime later we received word through channels that he had died in the hospital, probably one that had been set up on the shores the day after we left. He was wounded on his left side above the hip. Although I wasn’t there when he died, my belief is he died of shock.”

Three years after Nelson was killed and buried in France, his family was given the opportunity to have his body exhumed and returned to the United States. The family accepted the offer and his body was reinterred in the Appleton Cemetery on Dec. 17, 1947. A memorial service was held the following day.

Today, Appleton honors its fallen soldiers at every corner in town with street signs bearing their name. Nelson Street, which also honors two other fallen soldiers with the same last name, is on the west side of Appleton.

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