Gary Nelson of Halls doesn’t remember his father. He was just 3 years old when Harold Nelson, a U.S. Army medic with the 3rd Infantry Division, 15th Regiment, 2nd Battalion, was killed by sniper fire in the Battle of Colmar Pocket in World War II while tending to the wounds of another soldier.
Gary has lived all his life in Halls around Tell Mynatt Road. His father was also a Halls native and worked as a draftsman for TVA before he volunteered to serve in World War II. Gary was raised by his mom and step-father, and married Carolyn from Corryton. They have two kids, both raised in Halls, and Gary retired from ORNL. Gary grew up wondering about his dad and hungering for information about this war hero he never knew. This summer, he and Carolyn got the chance of a lifetime: the chance to visit the town and the battlefield where his father died.
Years of work led Gary to his destination. A 1976 fire in Kansas City took most of the records he would need to find his father’s battleground. His uncles who survived the war told him as much as they could.
“And then the Internet came along,” Gary said. “I started doing research and then correspondence. I found out his unit, found his obituary and found out where he was when he died. It was exciting. I call it filling in the gaps. It was like working a puzzle.”
He also found a book on Amazon.com that gave him more details. Eventually, he discovered the Musée Mémorial des Combats de la Poche de Colmar in the town of Turckheim in the French province of Alsace, a museum staffed entirely by volunteers and dedicated to the memory of the French and American soldiers who gave their lives protecting the town from invaders from Nazi Germany. The battle was fought from Jan. 23 to March 14, 1945, through the worst winter in 100 years. In three months, 317 Allied soldiers were killed, 1,410 were wounded, and 323 were reported missing in action.
“Their mission is to preserve for their younger generations and to teach what those brave men did there, both American and French,” said Gary. “This museum, their mission is to never forget.”
So, when Gary and Carolyn started planning a trip to Europe, Gary reached out to museum staff and started corresponding with volunteer Lionel Charluteau. Charluteau did some research and found out where Gary’s father’s unit was on the day he was killed. Gary could visit the spot.
When they arrived in Turckheim, Charluteau was there to greet them. He had taken the day off work at a local bank to drive the Nelsons around the area. They met museum curator Christian Burgert, saw the remains of a bridge the Battle of Colmar Pocket was fought to defend, and a memorial park flying both the French and American flags. The receptionist at the museum even kissed Gary on both cheeks in the traditional French greeting.
“They are so grateful in that area to America,” said Carolyn. “All the people were very kind. They were the kindest people, and they treated us like royalty.”
Then, Charluteau took the Nelsons to the place where Gary’s father had passed, a quiet country field with corn growing nearby. A local reporter came along and wrote a story (behind paywall) about Gary’s journey.
“I felt my dad’s presence. I just felt like this was the place where he went to heaven,” said Gary. “Coming full circle seems trite, but that’s what it seemed like. It was putting the last piece in the puzzle. I could have stayed there all day. It was quiet and peaceful. Anybody else would have thought, ‘Why are you standing here in the middle of a cornfield,’ but I could have stood there all day.”
Carolyn said the story of the children of those killed in World War II is often overlooked, that a generation of Americans are searching for pieces of the puzzle that Gary just completed.
“I used to tease him about watching the ‘Hitler Channel’ (the History Channel),” she said. “Then it finally dawned on me. I looked at him and said, ‘Are you looking for your daddy?’ and he said, ‘Yes, I am.'”
“It was just amazing,” she said of the trip to France. “It just meant so much to Gary.”