Memories of Tim Nelson
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I wrote this short story after locating and gathering info from the reunion association of my Dad's II Corp unit, the 19th Combat Engineer Regt. This is a true story.
Los Gatos, California
December 7th, 1941. The living room radio delivered news of a deliberate three-hour attack on the American Pacific naval fleet. This repulsive bludgeoning infuriated America, and would forever change the world. My dad, Clay Nelson, enlisted in the United States Army the next day.
Induction centers were flooded with spirited young men. Fort Leonard Wood, Missouri, was boot camp for my Dad, like many men from the "Iron Range" of Minnesota. This is where he became friends with a soldier who enlisted from Chisholm, a short drive from his parent’s home in Hibbing. Earnest Decobellis was a nice kid from a big family of Italian immigrants who sent two sons off to war.
The combat engineering unit they were members of became the first group of Americans to sail to England for the eventual invasion of North Africa. The agonizing boat ride was followed by more training in England, Ireland and Scotland. Earnest and my Dad, fraternal brothers of Minnesota, found their home in the anti-tank gun crew of the third platoon, Company B, 19th Combat Engineers Regiment.
North African soil offered them targets of battle hardened German troops, the Afrikakorps. Together, they often performed numerous reconnaissance missions behind enemy lines. On one occasion, Earnest and my Dad were decorated with a Bronze Star medal with "V" device for destruction and capture of several enemy armored vehicles, capturing 20 and killing an unknown number of Italian and German soldiers in a protracted three-day skirmish deep inside enemy territory in southern Tunisia. One of their prisoners was an Italian Major. Col. William O. Darby, of "Darby’s Rangers" movie fame, overlooked the skirmishes and accepted the prisoners.
The hostilities of North Africa and the invasion of Sicily hardened the American soldiers for perhaps the most agonizing ground campaign of the entire Second World War. Italy. After many months stalemated in the Liri Valley under the watchful eye of the Monte Casino monastery, the British and Americans rushed to capture Rome before Eisenhower's Normandy invasion of D-Day. The Germans were skilled at fighting a planned defensive retreat, making the allies pay in blood for each step of ground.
This was, as Fifth Army General Mark Clark said, the "engineers' war". (Most American soldiers, by the way, has a great dislike for Clark, seeing him as arrogant, aloof, and uninformed) The combat engineer is perhaps the most resourceful man on the battlefield. His task was to act as regular infantry, but also spearhead river assaults, disarm and plant booby traps while subjected to unpleasant sniper, mortar and artillery fire. When the infantry or armor is stalled, call the combat engineers. When a bridge must be destroyed to stop the enemy advance, call the combat engineers. In fact, I spoke to one former 19th combat engineer who claimed he volunteered for an Airborne Infantry assault unit just to escape the misery and discomfort of the tasks assigned to this engineering unit.
Earnest and my father were the only men in the weapons squad from Minnesota's Iron Range, and among the first men in the state to be twice decorated for heroism. They both won the Silver Star on an April morning in 1944. The commendation, written personally by Maj. General Willis Crittenburger, commander of the VI Army Corps, reads:
"For gallantry in action on night of 28-29 April 1944 in the vicinity of Minturno, Italy. These men were responsible for maintaining the vital pontoon bridge over which supplies to our forward elements were being transported. Between 0100 and 530 hours the bridge was hit directly and seriously damaged by enemy artillery fire on three separate occasions. During this time one man was killed and two others were wounded. It was required that all men work constantly while completely exposed to the accurate and continuous enemy fire. During this time the destroyed pontoons were replaced, damaged pontoons were repaired and pumps were kept running in order to keep punctured pontoons afloat. The fearlessness and skill with which these men accomplished this task resulted in keeping this vital bridge in continuous operation and the complete saving of valuable equipment. Their heroic devotion to duty reflects great credit on themselves and the traditions of the Armed Forces of the United States."
My dad, now deceased, almost never talked about that day. That was the day in April of 1944, where his efforts earned him a Silver Star, and his best buddy, Earnest Decobellis died in his arms at the edge of the Garigliano River.
After dodging incoming heavy artillery for hours, finally a direct hit from a 88mm was scored on the bridge, landing between Earnest and my father. They were within an arms length from each other. The swirling curtain of shrapnel lifted Earnest from the bridge, and threw his mortally wounded body into the icy river. The agonizing and redundant screams of this wounded man echoed through the dark Italian Valley.
Earnest was pulled from the river and carried off the bridge by my Dad. A witness told me that Earnest was screaming my dads' name, his final words, as enemy artillery shells continued to pounded the bridge. He expired in my dads' bloodied arms.
This savage dance with death still brings tears to the eyes of those who men witnessed it. Soldiers who watched this incident from the protection of foxholes received Bronze Star medals, to illustrate it's resonating ferocity.
The bridge remained floating through the attack, and the engineers were relieved by replacements at daybreak, just as the artillery assault had stopped, and the mission was accomplished. The men quietly returned to their bivouac, or sleeping area, to lick their wounds. The men of "B" company were still quite shaken by loss Earnest when a young man from Headquarters company arrived with an urgent letter for the dead soldier that morning. Grieving friends read the dispatch that ordered Earnest Decobellis to pack his belongings and return home immediately for the funeral of his brother, Fred, who was very recently killed in the South Pacific.
The bodies of the Decobellis brothers were flown home. They were buried the same day in the Chisholm, Minnesota, cemetery. The small mining town shut down at noon that day. Residents could not to forget the contributions of the Decobellis family. The men of "B" Company, 19th Combat Engineers, some fifty years later, would not forget the likable kid named Earnie.
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