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Swedish immigrant was determined to serve his new country in WWI

George "Gus" Nelson holds a framed tribute to his father, World War I veteran Eric George Nelson. The elder Nelson received a Silver Star for single-handedly capturing a group of German soldiers and a Purple Heart for being wounded by machine gun fire and poison gas.

Eric G. Nelson is remembered as a true patriot by his son, George "Gus" Nelson of Hudson.

Eric was born in Uppsala, Sweden, in 1898 and came to the United States at the age of 5 with his mother, Dorothea, and four siblings.

His father, Peter B. Nelson, had come to America a few years earlier, settling in Hudson, where he worked (most likely in the lumber business) and saved money to bring his wife and children to join him.

When World War I came, Eric Nelson, then 19, went to enlist in the Army to serve his new country. The enlistment office turned him down because he wasn't born in the United States and didn't have citizenship papers.

Undeterred, Nelson returned to the Hudson office a few weeks later, this time saying he was born in White Pine, Minn. There is no White Pine, Minn., but the ruse worked and Nelson joined the Army on March 28, 1917.

"He loved the new country," his son George explains, his voice momentarily choking with emotion as he tells his father's story. "He goes over to France and gets machine-gunned over there. He wouldn't have had to do that, but he was a true patriot."

At the time of his enlistment, Nelson was described as a laborer by occupation - 5 feet, 6 inches tall, with blue eyes, light brown hair and a ruddy complexion.

He went to Camp MacArthur at Waco, Texas, for his basic training, and then directly to the front lines in France, serving with Company C of the 128th Infantry, 32nd Division.

Corporal Nelson's discharge papers list six trench warfare offensives that he participated in along the Western Front between France and Germany.

Nelson was wounded in action on July 18, 1918, during Aisne-Marne Offensive.

The fire from a German machinegun raked across Nelson's left shoulder and upper chest as he advanced toward the enemy line after climbing out of a trench.

Nelson didn't talk about his war experiences much, according to his son.

"About the only thing I can remember him talking about is that when he got shot, he laid there for about a day before they came and got him," George Nelson says. "He said he thought he was going to die."

His discharge papers say Nelson also inhaled poison gas in battle.

Nelson was awarded a Silver Star, the third-highest military decoration for valor, for his action in another offensive.

George had to learn about the gallantry from some of his father's war buddies, because Nelson didn't talk about it.

Nelson's friends said he received the medal for single-handedly capturing a group of German soldiers. The number of Germans he was reported to have captured varied from five to 25.

"He told the Germans they were surrounded by enemies and they surrendered. I don't know if it was five or 25 or what, but that's why he got the Silver Star," George says.

Following Germany's surrender on Nov. 11, 1918, Nelson served with the army of occupation until the following April.

He became a naturalized U.S. citizen in 1921, two years after returning from the war.

George Nelson says his father never fully recovered from his war wounds.

After the war, he opened Eric's Hamburger Shop in a small building that used to be located where the Williams parking lot on Second Street is now.

"Then his health went to heck. He ended up with severe arthritis and his lungs were bad from being gassed. And besides that, he was a heavy smoker. He died when he was only 50," George says.

He doesn't remember his father having a steady job after the hamburger shop closed. But Nelson was ahead of his time in doing much of the housework for the family.

Eric Nelson met Helen Dupay of northeast Minneapolis at a railroad company picnic in Hudson's Lakefront Park. Her father, a Russian immigrant, worked for the railroad.

Eric and Helen married in 1925. When his health deteriorated, she became the chief breadwinner, doing factory work at Andersen Windows in Bayport, Minn., and then taking a job with Brown & Bigelow Co. in St. Paul.

"Because he couldn't work, Dad did a lot of the cooking, primarily breakfasts and lunches," says a Nelson family history titled "I'm Proud to be an American."

"He also did a lot of the cleaning -- very little of this was done by men in those days. He was religious about keeping things neat and orderly," the booklet says.

The Nelsons had five children. George was the middle child and the older of the two boys. He remembers walking home from Hudson High School at lunch time with friends John Ferguson and Dorothy Petersen (his future wife), and looking up to see his father outside waiting for him.

"As soon as he would see us he would race into the kitchen to put the finishing touches on our lunch. It was a daily ritual and he always had our lunch ready," George says in the family history. "We were so lucky to be so loved; with so little he gave us so much."

The family was poor, George says. The Nelsons didn't own a house or a car. George earned his own money to buy a bicycle.

The rented house where George spent most of his adolescent years is still there. It's the second one south of the Dairy Queen on the east side of Second Street.

George lettered in four sports (baseball, football, basketball and boxing) at Hudson High. When he graduated in 1948, he was offered a scholarship to play baseball for what was then River Falls State Teachers College.

He didn't accept it.

"I was the oldest boy," he says. "I had to get out and get a job" to help support the family.

He was working the night shift at H.B. Tyrell Co. in Hudson on Aug. 6, 1948, when word came that his father had died. The family was told that Nelson's his lungs collapsed.

"I think my dad always felt a little bit like he was not very successful, because he just couldn't do anything in life because of his bad health," George says. "But he was a good dad."

"It was amazing that he was able to adapt to the struggles that life threw his way to make our lives better," the family history say of Eric. "His willingness to take on the cooking and the cleaning at that time in history showed us that we all must do what we can to keep our families going."

George achieved the American dream that eluded his father. He went to work on the production floor of Andersen Windows as a young man, and over a career of more than 40 years with the company rose to the position of director of purchasing. He served on the company's board of directors for 10 years.

Randy Hanson

Randy Hanson has reported for the Star-Observer since 1997. He came to Hudson after 11 years with the Inter-County Leader at Frederic, and eight years of teaching social studies. He’s a graduate of UW-Eau Claire.

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