Unbeknownst to his neighbors, Lee Nelson is probably Iola’s most decorated veteran of World War II. Nearing 90 years of age, he is the village’s oldest surviving veteran of that war.
Nelson has been a familiar face in Iola all of his life. Except for a year away at college, his time in the service during World War II and a short time working for the Green Bay and Western Railroad shortly after the war, Nelson has lived in the same house on East State Street since his birth in 1921.
For more than 35 years, Nelson was the face of the telephone company in Iola. A lineman, installer, repairman and technician, first with the Scandinavia Telephone Co. in the days of party lines in the village, then with TDS Telecom, Nelson was the lanky blond with the big grin that provided and maintained Iola homes and businesses with telephonic connections with neighbors and the world from the late 1940s through the mid-1980s.
In his off-work hours, Nelson was seen frequently walking the streets of the village, pursuing an exercise regimen following a 1966 heart attack. After his retirement, Iola residents would occasionally find Nelson set up at craft shows around north-central Wisconsin displaying and selling his woodcarvings.
One of his best-known woodcarvings is a large model of a B-17 bomber that went on display recently at the Iola Historical Society. Even longtime Iola residents are surprised to see displayed alongside the wooden aircraft a well-worn leather bomber’s jacket with a Death’s Head Squadron patch and a cluster of medals that includes a Distinguished Flying Cross, one of the highest honors that a wartime flyer could earn.
Drafted into the U.S. Army Infantry in World War II, a chance opportunity to take a pilot’s examination led to his transfer to the Army Air Corps and an incredible 31 combat missions as co-pilot and pilot of a B-17 Flying Fortress bomber over France and Germany in the summer of 1944.
On D-Day, Nelson crossed the English Channel as one of an awesome display of allied air power, 3,500 planes flying wingtip to wingtip in a single formation stretching from horizon to horizon to pound the coastal defenses of Nazi-occupied France in preparation for the ground troops landing at Normandy and other beachheads.
Over the course of his 31 bombing runs, Nelson beat incredible odds in the face of swarming Luftwaffe fighters and ruinous anti-aircraft groundfire to complete his missions. Sometimes the B-17 under his command limped back to England bullet-riddled or perforated with flak holes, some big enough to poke a head through, but he never lost a plane or a crewman.
Nelson’s story, largely unfamiliar to friends, neighbors and even relatives is now the subject of a book Iola’s Humble Hero: Lee Nelson, WWII B-17 Pilot, written by local historian Lyle Mork and published by the Iola Historical Society.
The book was unveiled at a gathering in Nelson’s honor on May 4 at the historical society’s museum. Besides the guest of honor, those in attendance included more than 30 relatives, friends, village officials and Iola-area veterans.
At the reception, the guest of honor entertained the crowd with several stories of his combat missions over Europe.
Iola’s Humble Hero: Lee Nelson, WWII B-17 Pilot is a 160-page softbound book, heavily illustrated. Copies are available for $19.95, postpaid, sent to: Iola Historical Society, P.O. Box 412, Iola, WI 54945.