Farmington Native Edward Nelson Survives Combat in Two Wars, Dies Peacefully in his Sleep at Age 91.
After leading a long and charmed life, one of the greats of the Greatest Generation has completed his final mission. Edward was a 32-year career Air Force officer who started flying B-17s at the age of 21 and survived several of the deadliest campaigns of both WWII and Vietnam. He died peacefully in his sleep early Saturday morning, Feb. 9, from complications of pneumonia, at the age of 91.
Edward Nelson was born on May 6, 1921, in Minneapolis, Minn., to long-time Farmington residents Raymond and Alice Nelson who moved to Dakota County from Wisconsin in 1917. The Nelsons owned and operated the Westwood farm (3 miles east of Farmington) until they moved to the town proper in 1926. When they retired in 1951, Raymond and Alice built a house at 700 Main Street, which was subsequently purchased by Edward, who returned to live in it when he retired in 1974. Alice, who helped to found the Farmington Community Library while in her 70s, passed away in 1975 and Raymond followed in 1985.
"My father loved Farmington. He lived there 44 of his 91 years and wherever in the world his life took him, he always considered it as home."
-- Doug Nelson, Retired Business Executive, Edward's Oldest Son
Edward was the second son of five children: three brothers, William, Frederick and Charles; and one sister, Mary, who all served their country in the Armed Forces during WWII. After graduating from Farmington High School in 1939, Edward followed his older brother Bill to Detroit where he completed the Masters Apprenticeship Program with Ford Motor Company and graduated as a master tool and die maker, subsequently working for General Motors. His love for cars continued throughout his life.
His true calling, however, was as a pilot. After enlisting at the onset of WWII, he attended Officers Training School at Maxwell Air Force Base in Montgomery, Ala., was sent to flight school, and then joined the Army Air Corps. Lieutenant Nelson was deployed overseas with the 15th Air Force. After the war, he returned to Detroit where he met his future wife, Helen, and they were happily married in October of 1947 and for 35 years thereafter until her untimely death in 1983 at the age of 62. They had three loving children. Edward was subsequently stationed in El Paso, Texas, and then March Air Force Base in Riverside, Calif. Throughout his career, he mastered flying over 27 different aircraft, including: the B-17 Bomber, the B-24 Liberator, the B-36 Bomber, the B-52 Bomber, the KC-135 Stratotanker, the T-39 Sabreliner jet, the C-130 Hercules cargo plane, and many more. He ultimately spent over seven years of his life in airplane cockpits.
"Ed was more than a brother to me. He was a colleague, a friend, a comrade in arms, and a constant inspiration. We were close his entire life, and I'm a better person for having known him."
-- Fred Nelson, Edward's Surviving Younger Brother
In the European Theater of World War II, Captain Nelson commanded a B-24 in bombing raids on the heavily defended oil refineries in Ploiesti, Romania, considered to be one of the most significant strategic targets that provided a third of all oil to the German war machine. One-third of all planes in the campaign were lost and another third were heavily damaged, with 40 percent fatalities among aircrews. Planes were forced to fly through flak fields en route to their targets and in one instance, while speaking over the radio to the captain of the plane flying in formation next to him, Captain Nelson witnessed a direct hit to that plane that vaporized it. He also survived bombing missions to military targets in Wiener-Neustadt, Austria, which were even more heavily fortified by the enemy. All told, Captain Nelson flew 51 bombing missions in WWII, earning numerous medals of distinction including the Distinguished Flying Cross. Edward often stated that one of the biggest surprises of his life after the war ended was the fact that he was still alive.
"One would never know what this man had been through during his lifetime in order to keep our country strong and free and make this world a better place to live. Today, if you look at the freedoms we all enjoy in this great country of ours, it is thanks to men like Colonel Edward Nelson that our country is and remains 'The Land of the Free and Home of the Brave.'"
-- Sergeant David Kidd, Miami Police Department, Edward's Nephew
During the Cold War, Major Nelson was stationed in Minot, N.D., where he flew 24-hour missions in B-52s carrying nuclear warheads aimed at strategic targets. He also served as the base maintenance officer for a fleet of B-52s. Lt. Colonel Nelson later served as the pilot for the commander of NATO forces in Europe where he was based with his family in Paris, France. He was called back to combat by his country and served 18 months in Vietnam, where he flew the C-130 Hercules. In one instance, he placed his aircraft on auto-pilot to go to the rear of the plane to help extinguish flames that began when the plane was hit by ground-to-air fire.
In the Battle of Khe Sanh, considered one of the longest and bloodiest battles of the Vietnam War, Lt. Colonel Nelson flew missions to deliver needed supplies to the U.S. Marine garrison that was completely cut off and under enemy siege for 77 days. When the airstrip became too damaged by enemy fire to allow for landings, he returned with food, medical supplies, and armaments which were dropped by parachute during low-approach fly-overs. The Marine outpost was subsequently rescued, and the Marines decorated Colonel Nelson for his valor in service under enemy fire. He also earned his second Distinguished Flying Cross for his service in Vietnam.
"He was the best Dad in the world. This became clearer to me as I became an adult and saw what the world was like."
-- Alice Nelson, Daughter, Therapist US Marine Corps
Colonel Nelson concluded his career in the Air Force as a squadron commander with Material Air Command (MAC) at Warner Robins, Ga. After retiring in the fall of 1974, he returned to live in his hometown of Farmington until 2000 when he moved to Air Force Village West in Riverside, Calif. Edward spent the last 12 years of his life close to family and amongst a community of friends and caregivers. He is survived by his brother Frederick; three children: Douglas (Nancy), Alice, and Robert (Jennifer); and four grandchildren: David (28), Melanie (26), Daniel (22), and Michelle (17). An avid historian, he was beloved by all that knew him and will be greatly missed.
"My Father was a good man, an exceptional man, with strong values that he lived by. He was loved by all that knew him, was quick to help others and was always there for our family when we needed him."
-- Dr. Bob Nelson, Best-Selling Author, Edward's Youngest Son
A memorial service was held on Friday, Feb. 15, at the Chapel at Air Force Village West in Riverside. The family suggests donations, in lieu of flowers, to the Wounded Warrior Project.
Comments posted on this page do not reflect opinions of Forum Communications Company. Forum Communications Company does not endorse and is not responsible for any statement, opinion, advice given or made. All replies are subject to approval and must follow Forum Communications Company guidelines concerning statements of libel, personal attacks or defamation of character. Replies in the "Talk About It" section that criticize a person by name may not be posted, unless that person is openly involved in a public issue. Comments written in all capital letters or bold print will not be considered for inclusion in the forum.