Vet reminded he ‘was lucky one’

Brittney Lohmiller/The Herald
Stanley Nelson of Otwell served in the U.S. Army from 1948 to1952 and was injured during the Battle of Chipyong-Ni in modern day South Korea. 


OTWELL — Stanley Nelson of Otwell considers himself “the lucky one.”

Nearly 70 years ago, he left conflict in Korea and returned home to Winslow. He was injured. He was scarred, physically and emotionally. He was tired.

But, he returned home when many of his fellow soldiers didn’t.

“I heard my comrades die,” the 86-year-old says. “I heard them say, ‘I’m sorry, Mother. Please forgive me. I love you.’ That was their last words.”

Now, Stanley shares his war story to give a voice to those soldiers who didn’t make it home.

“If I don’t tell my story, the people who died can’t tell theirs,” he said.

Stanley’s story begins on Dec. 4, 1931, when he was born to parents Paul and Leona Nelson.

His family — he was one of seven kids — lived primitively in the Winslow area with no electricity or running water. Stanley attended school in a one-room schoolhouse, and dropped out of school after the seventh grade.

His father and uncles were carpenters, so that’s what Stanley planned to be. And, he was, until at 17, he decided he could better support his family by joining the Army.

He enlisted on Nov. 15, 1949, and trained at Fort Knox in Kentucky. He was then shipped out to Japan for a while before being sent to Korea in July 1950.

“I thought it was a great adventure and wanted to see the world,” Stanley says of joining the Army.

But, after landing in Korea, he soon learned the “adventure” wasn’t what he had anticipated.

“I really thought that [the enemy would] take one look at me with that big rifle and they’d run,” says Stanley, who is just shy of 6-foot-4. “But, they shot back.

“They knew more about warfare than we did,” he adds. “And they were very good about camouflaging.”

Stanley was part of the 8th Engineer Combat Battalion, 1st Cavalry, and was tasked with building things, like bridges, and laying land mines.

He says it was dangerous work, because when building bridges, the enemy is out there in front of you. His battalion lost several men because of that.

His battalion was also committed as infantry.

“The North Koreans had just overrun our positions, and even our cooks had to pick up a rifle and go to the front line to defend the perimeter,” Stanley says. “We weren’t engineers anymore, we were infantrymen.”

Many incidents from the Korean War stand out in Stanley’s mind, but there’s one in particular that changed him forever — the Battle of Chipyong-ni in modern-day South Korea.

It was Feb. 14, 1951, and a U.S. regiment and a French brigade had been trapped by the Chinese. Stanley was part of the rescue mission.

Stanley Nelson outside a Tokyo Army hospital in April 1951

The mission included 23 tanks; Stanley was toward the front of the pack. When they met resistance on the mountain, there were a few heavy rounds of artillery fire and Stanley was knocked off his tank. He got back on, and all of a sudden, they were surrounded by hundreds of Chinese.

Stanley leapt off the tank for cover, but landed on a Chinese soldier. A fight ensued.

“I was much bigger than him,” Stanley recalls. “And I can’t tell you what I did to him.”

It’s one part of the story he can’t bring himself to relive.

Stanley was able to climb back on the tank, but was then shot in his left foot. The wounded soldiers were then instructed to climb off the tanks and wait in a rice paddy for help.

The tanks moved on without them.

Stanley says the Chinese then started shooting at the wounded soldiers, and Stanley was shot through the neck and shoulder and then the right ankle.

After the gunfire, the Chinese approached the U.S. soldiers to inspect the dead.

When they realized he wasn’t dead, Stanley says, one soldier pressed a bayonet on his chest and another beat him in the head with a shovel.

Stanley remembers falling back on his helmet and blood filling his eyes, ears and back part of his head. He was afraid to move. He recalls having an intense thirst. And, he was cold.

The Chinese stripped him of his winter clothing.

“I don’t know what kept me from freezing to death,” he says. “My left foot froze totally solid.”

This was right around the time when he heard his comrades die.

Then, he heard footsteps.

It was a group of POWs being taken away by the Chinese. They saw that Stanley was still alive, and a Chinese soldier held a pistol to his head.

“I was petrified,” Stanley says. “All I could see was that finger on the trigger.”

One of the POWs, an American officer, pleaded with the Chinese soldier, “Don’t shoot him. Honor the Geneva Convention.”

“Oddly enough, he did,” Stanley says of the Chinese soldier.

Then, there was more artillery fire, and one landed right at Stanley’s feet, hitting his left foot. He says it “took all of my calf and tibia out of my leg.”

He lay there for five or six hours in the freezing cold and, eventually, he again heard footsteps. It was a Chinese corpsman, and he didn’t have a gun.

Stanley spoke to him in what little Chinese he knew. Stanley called him “friend.” He told him he was thirsty. He was cold.

The corpsman poured Stanley some water from his canteen, and lit him a cigarette. Stanley doesn’t smoke, but he wasn’t about to tell him that.

Stanley thanked the corpsman, who then retreated back down the mountain.

About a half hour later — Stanley admits time was all an estimation at this point — the corpsman returned with something Stanley could use as a blanket.

Stanley credits the Chinese corpsman with saving his life.

After the sun rose the next morning, Stanley was rescued by a convoy coming back for the dead.

He spent almost a year recuperating in Army hospitals.

He lost the lower part of his left leg in the battle, and now has a prosthetic. Every day when he puts on his prosthetic, he’s reminded that he “was the lucky one.”

He was awarded a Silver Star and a French military honor, the croix de guerre, for his efforts in the Battle of Chipyong-ni. He has also since been awarded five Purple Hearts.

For his heroism, the U.S. Department of Defense sent Stanley an American flag that flew over the Pentagon. He was also given the Korean Ambassador for Peace Medal.

His story has been archived in the Library of Congress, and Randy K. Mills used interviews with Stanley for Mills’ book about area Korean War veterans called “Honoring Those Who Paid the Price.”

According to the book, part of the citation for Stanley’s Silver Star reads: “During the engagement of Task Force Crombex, Private Nelson courageously engaged the enemy to prevent attempts to destroy the armor and covered his tank’s blind side with his own weapon ... Private Nelson, though wounded, constantly displayed outstanding fighting qualities and an eagerness to close with the Chinese.”

The citation also says that Nelson was “aided by his courage and selfless devotion to duty.”

Stanley was medically retired from the service as a corporal in January 1952. He said it was difficult to find work with no education. Eventually, International Harvester in Evansville hired him and trained him in engineering.

Later, Stanley decided to get his GED, a business degree from Oakland City University and a master’s degree in social work from Indiana University.

Throughout his career, he worked on his own farm, and his final stint was as administrative assistant to the superintendent of Pike County Schools for 15 years. He retired from that post in 1980.

Stanley and his first wife, Carol (Shepard), had two kids before she died at age 36. Stanley says they have “many, many” grandchildren and great-grandchildren.

Stanley has been married to Ruth Ann (Boger) for four years.

He’s been a member of the Petersburg Veterans of Foreign Wars post for as long as he can remember, and has attended all military funerals with the post since 1960 (except for a few years when he was snowbirding in Florida). He speaks at schools and participates in wreath-laying ceremonies for veterans events.

“We’re teaching patriotism,” he says proudly.

Stanley enjoys fishing, and his eyes light up when he talks about dancing. He’s taken hundreds of lessons.

“It’s my favorite thing,” he says.

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