107-year-old World War II veteran receives Silver Star
The Gazette October 5, 2022
After decades spent fighting to receive the Silver Star Medal he earned for gallantry during combat in World War II, 107-year-old Harold Nelson — believed to be Colorado's oldest WWII veteran — can finally close the chapter on the longest battle of his life.
The Denver resident received the medal Tuesday at a ceremony at Fort Carson, surrounded by family, friends and fans, including Maj. Gen. Charles D. Costanza, commanding general of the 3rd Infantry Division at Fort Stewart in Georgia.
"I'm honored and honestly humbled to have the privilege to present the Silver Star to a fellow Dogface Soldier," said Costanza, referencing the affectionate nickname that came to be especially associated with members of the Army's 3rd Infantry Division after the war.
Before presenting the long-belated medal, among the Army's top awards for valor, Costanza gave the audience a thumbnail of Nelson's bio, wartime exploits and acts of heroism.
"Starting his time in combat during WWII, First Sgt. Nelson was shot three times, survived artillery bombardments, grenade explosions, German tank fire and exploding landmines," said Costanza.
The 3rd Infantry Division served for 635 straight days in combat, and took over 35,000 casualties during WWII, he said.
"A division in WWII only had 15,000 soldiers. So think about that," Costanza said, calling Nelson "an example for all of us, of leadership, courage, determination and selfless service that we expect from all our soldiers today."
Nelson was among the oldest of his fellows when he entered service in 1941, at age 26, said his daughter, Carolee Soden, of Grand Junction.
A two-time recipient of the Purple Heart, Nelson was among just seven members of his company to make it home from the war, said Soden, whose father survived six beach landings in Africa and Europe — and, beyond that, everyday conditions that would break even the heartiest of souls.
"He served four years in the infantry division and he was in the war zone for two years, living in a foxhole ... with no roof over him," Soden said, in a February interview with The Gazette, ahead of her father's 107th birthday celebration. "What he survived even when he wasn't fighting for his life ... it's difficult to even try to imagine."
Nelson learned he'd been recommended for a Silver Star in a May 1944 letter his commanding officer sent to his mother, who passed it on to him.
"He just kind of put it away, because for a long time after he got back from the war he didn't want to talk about any part of it," said Soden. "Even as children, we never heard any of his war stories."
It would be years — no, generations — before those stories fully came out, but when they did they flowed like a river. Among the history to bubble up was the long-ago Silver Star letter.
Nelson's fight to receive the medal he was due hit a wall after a 1973 fire at the National Personnel Records Center in St. Louis destroyed 16 to 18 million files dating back to 1912.
"Every so often dad would say, 'What do you think about my Silver Star?'" Soden said. "I talked to him one day, and said, 'You know your family knows that you should have this, and that's the important part. You don't have to have the Star.' He said, 'Well, I'd really like to have the Star.'"
After years of pleading with the military — of countless calls and letters — she and her dad eventually gave up hope.
"We had tried every route we knew and didn't know where else to turn," Soden said.
Connections they'd made with the Forgotten Heroes Campaign — a nonprofit that champions the causes of veterans who were awarded medals they never received — kept at it, though.
"Daddy called me one day (in June) and said, 'Well, I guess the Army finally decided to give me my Silver Star," said Soden. She counseled her father not to get too excited about the packet he got in the mail, because "it's probably a prank."
"I have been trying for many, many years to find a way to get this for him, and with the help of many others" it's finally happened, said Soden, who spent part of Tuesday's ceremony dabbing at happy tears as she sat beside her father. "I am having trouble realizing it is really happening."
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