Rodney Nelson, Veterans Day Tribute

I had suggested to Rod Nelson that he write about his Uncle Orin Olson for Veterans Day, 2007.

This is the piece written by Rodney Nelson (ND Rancher, Cowboy Poet) for his biweekly column in the Farm Ranch Guide, Nov. 8th 2007.


Veteran’s Day is coming up soon.  Armistice Day, or Veteran’s Day, has been around since the end of World War I.  I knew a lot of WWI vets.  I had a great uncle in that war and lots of my old neighbors and friends of my folks were WWI vets.  I could only guess at the number of WWII vets I knew.  Most of them said very little about the war.
My old friend Ole used to tell lots of hilarious stories about his experiences in France in WWI, but they were all about mischief that got him in trouble.  If he was ever in the trenches he didn’t speak of it.
The only thing I knew about my Uncle Harold was that he served in and around India.  The only time he ever mentioned it was once when he told about some beef they ate there.  Several of the WWII vets did speak about their experiences, but I know they left out a lot of details.  My friend Bob survived the battle of Anzio and received the Silver Star for valor there.  He downplayed his heroic role there when he did speak of it.
The ranks of the WWII vets are thinning rapidly.  There still are a few around but I sure miss a lot of the old vets I have counted as friends.
One of the vets I miss the most was a man I never met.
PBS recently had a special on WWII. It not only covered the war, but the situation at home as well.  It told of the sadness and grief of the parents and families who received the dreaded telegrams from the war department.  Some families and small towns lost terrible numbers of their young boys.
I had an Uncle Orin.  He was Mom’s brother and the farmer in the family.  With a brother in the shipyards, one in the Navy, one in the Army Air Corps, and a father in his ‘70s, it was somewhat assumed that he would stay home and take care of the farm.
I really have only one image of my Uncle Orin.  He is the quiet, almost shy looking kid standing on my folk’s wedding photo.  I know he was a good guy because my Dad really thought a lot of him.  To this day, old men come up to me and tell me that he was one of their most treasured friends.  He got his draft notice, too.
He was able to join the Army Air Corps.  In his rounds around the farm driving a team or tractor he must have dreamed about flying, and had a great desire to be a pilot.  My aunts say he was worried sick about not making the grade as a pilot and dreaded washing out of training.  My guess is that he had little worry about.  He was a farm kid, he would have been intelligent, he would have been a problem solver, he would have been diligent with his duties, he would have been mechanical, and he would have done what was expected of him.
He fulfilled his dream.  He became a bomber pilot and was sent to a base near Italy where he flew a B-25.
I have read that the mortality on those low level bombers was almost 100 percent at times in the war.  It must have been hard to maintain the courage it took to leave on each mission.
I have a letter he mailed to my Mother on April 2, 1944.  He did mention that he didn’t care for the Germans shooting at him, but like most of the soldiers, he said little about that and talked about how anxious he was to get home again.  He spoke about how he loved being married and how he missed his sweetheart.  I don’t know if he knew at that time that he had an unborn daughter.
Early in the war, if a pilot survived 25 missions they were rotated back to the states.  Later, with plane losses so great they were required to fly 50 missions.  On July 26, 1944, my Uncle Orin left on a mission to hit a bridge near Verona, Italy.  Anti aircraft gun knocked out his left engine and killed several crew members in the plane.
I was able to get official reports of the event with just a little investigation and help from a friend.  I learned he turned the plane into his remaining engine like he was trained to do and ordered the survivors to bail out.  I learned three men successfully made the jump, were soon caught and spent the rest of the war in a POW camp.
I don’t know if he was able to make any attempt to save himself, but I know he was able to keep the ship under good enough control to save those three men.  He went down with the plane.  It was his 50th mission.
I was able to find a phone number of the last surviving crew member.  He was 89 last winter and was living a healthy life in California.  I called him hoping he could tell me some story about my uncle.  He was as helpful as he could be, but wasn’t able to tell me much.
“They rotated the crews every day, so I didn’t know your uncle,” he said.  “When we were hit, your uncle ordered us to bail out.  Three men were dead in the back of the plane, but three of us managed to bail out.  I saw the plane hit and explode and I came down very near it when I landed with my parachute.  We were caught within a few minutes and sent to the POW camp.”
I can more than imagine the grief my grandparents and my aunt Inez felt when they brought that telegram.  I can still feel the sadness in his surviving sisters to this day.
For more on this, see the story: FORGOTTEN NORTH DAKOTA HERO