Brothers in arms share 75th celebration
Side-by-side, together again, Bob Watts and Willard "Bill" Nelson shared a corner of a banquet table at the Pickwick Tuesday. With steaming oysters and celebratory sheet cakes laid out before them and the lake sparkling through a picture window b...
Side-by-side, together again, Bob Watts and Willard "Bill" Nelson shared a corner of a banquet table at the Pickwick Tuesday.
With steaming oysters and celebratory sheet cakes laid out before them and the lake sparkling through a picture window behind their backs, it was a far cry from the muddy grounds of Louisiana's Camp Claiborne that first brought the Northlanders close together.
"Seventy-five years ago he and I were in the same tent," said Watts, 93, of Canyon.
The 101-year-old Nelson, of Lutsen, smiled along.
"He's the oldest living male on the North Shore," said Nelson's son, Dick Nelson, 72, speaking for his father. "My dad used to call Bob, 'the kid.'"
The two men were among 600 members of the 125th Field Artillery Battalion of the Minnesota National Guard inducted into federal service 75 years ago Wednesday as the country neared its fateful entry into World War II, 10 months later. A month after their induction, the members of the 125th marched in Duluth from the armory on London Road to the train depot on Michigan Street on their way to Louisiana. The 125th later became part of the 34th Red Bull Division, renowned for its 17 months of endurance combat, winding from North Africa into Italy.
In all, 125 soldiers from the unit were killed in service during the war, including 34 Duluthians. Circumstance left Nelson to serve his time stateside, training young soldiers on the finer points of tanks and other assignments.
"He did not go overseas," Dick Nelson said, "and he felt bad."
Amid more than 40 honorary members of the 125th Field Artillery Association, those feelings had long melted away.
"We're deeply indebted to the 125th and your generation," said John Marshall, of the Northland Veteran Services Committee, addressing the two men. "You truly did change the course of history."
The association has been meeting monthly since 1947, its servicemembers dwindling as years passed. Only 17 of the original 600 remain living, all but Watts and Nelson scattered across the country in places outside the Northland. For the past 15 years, Watts has fueled the group - keeping everyone in touch through the years by sending out roughly 20,000 of his monthly newsletters that are dense with Watts' charming scrapbook journalism.
"He holds it together," said Dale Erickson, a Marine veteran who fought in the Korean War. "He has so many friends and he's such an active guy - golfing and curling."
In its earlier days, the veterans' wives were sequestered in another room as the men reminisced. But times and rules changed. Watts began bestowing honorary membership on relatives and friends and younger veterans to keep the 125th vital and top-of-mind as "we were running out of guys," he said.
The elbow-to-elbow crowd at the Pickwick spoke volumes about Watts' success.
"When we grew up they didn't really talk about the war a lot," said 47-year-old Michelle Lyons of Proctor, one of Watts' seven children. "But the stories needed to get out, otherwise we forget."
Before diving into lunch, Watts and Nelson shared bawdy tales of young soldiers and young girls.
"He stole my girlfriend," Watts said.
"She was a nice girl," Nelson said.
They laughed together, and the others along with them - their tent grown twentyfold.