George Hollis Nelson was born on May 29th, 1922, to Nina and Olga Nelson of Moline, Illinois. He graduated from Moline High School in 1941, approximately half a year before the United States would enter the Second World War following the Japanese Empire’s attack on Pearl Harbor. Nelson enlisted with the United States Army on October 15th, 1943. Not long after, he would begin his training to become a tanker at Fort Knox.
Nelson would become an operator of the supremely important tanks of World War II. Tanks had entered the US Army’s arsenal in the First World War, and by the Second had become central to the ground tactics of the Army. Nelson attended the Armored Replacement Training Center at Fort Knox to become a member of the next generation of tankers:
Here Soldiers received a 17-week course which included instruction in various arms, big tank guns, tank driving and maintenance, chemical warfare and many other subjects. They were introduced to hills named ‘Misery,’ ‘Agony’ and ‘Heartbreak’ before graduating and then sent to divisions, additional schooling, or straight into the various theaters of war.
Given the names of Fort Knox’s hills, one can imagine that the training that Nelson underwent was grueling; molding the young man into a hardened tanker ready to fight the Axis powers.
Given the timing of Nelson’s enlistment, it is likely that he operated an M4 Sherman tank in the Second World War. The Sherman was the core around which the United States formed their infantry maneuvers, and thus the eye of the storm of combat:
The Sherman tank was the most commonly used American tank in World War II. More than 50,000 Shermans were produced between 1942 and 1945. They were used in all combat theaters… The Sherman tank’s primary role was infantry support, spearheading attacks as well as bolstering defensive positions. Though frequently outgunned by their German counterparts, Shermans proved easier to maintain—often fixed on the battlefield.
As a result, it is very likely that Nelson was in the thick of combat during World War II as a Sherman operator. It is thus probable that Nelson was awarded one of his Bronze Star Medals for his service on the battlefields of the Second World War.
Nelson’s service would span thirty years and two more wars after the Allies won the Second World War. Nelson was active during the Korean War, as well as Vietnam. The changing nature of warfare and the United States Army surely impacted Nelson’s experience in these latter two wars. For example, the United States had designed the new M48 Patton tank to counter Soviet tanks. In reality, the M48 was instead utilized in the jungles of Vietnam: “As with other US equipment, the Vietnamese terrain and climate impacted the role of the M48. In the often-soggy South Vietnamese terrain they provided valuable support to US forces securing contested roadways and engaging enemy troops.” Nelson, in his thirty years of military experience, would have been uniquely positioned to see the US military transform from a force meant to fight against superpowers such as the Soviet Union, into a global peacekeeping force. Despite the changing nature of the Army and its conflicts, Nelson achieved the rank of Master Sergeant before his retirement. This indicates that, despite the chaotic nature of his time of service, he rose to the challenges of service to become a leader of his fellow enlisted men.
Nelson retired from the Army on February 28th, 1974, near the end of the Vietnam War. He retired to his native Moline to enjoy the rest of his life with his wife Shirley, children Lou and Cheryl, and many grandchildren and great-grandchildren. He enjoyed spending his time helping others by doing odd jobs in their homes. He passed away on October 14th, 2004, at Trinity Medical Center in Rock Island, IL. George Hollis Nelson leaves a legacy of valor in combat, and enduring service to his country during a time of transformation for the Armed Forces.