Soldier Spotlight: Robert Nelson

Image: “D” Company Hockey team which played for the 1949-1950 team included, back row: Wilf Blais, Bill Blais, Harley Patterson, Cliff Wright, Coach Ernie Ayers, Bob Kelly, Don Swanston, Bob Neufeld, Ernie Nelson. Front row: Walter Hiekkla, Bill Bessent, Bobby Pearson, Oscar Blais, Unknown. 1949-1950 (SPRA 2010.14.07)

Robert Ernest (Ernie) Nelson was born on March 4, 1925 in Grande Prairie and had four brothers; two older and two younger. The Nelson family lived in the Forbes House, a provincial historic site in Grande Prairie, from 1936 to 1947. Ernie’s father, Isaac Nelson, co-owned the Nelson & Archibald General Store where Ernie spent some of his summers working. As a child, he attended Montrose Elementary Public School and then went on to attend the Grande Prairie High School.

Air Force Training and Postings (1942-1944)

At the age of 17, Ernie Nelson (R212423) decided to join the Air Force and trained to become a rear gunner. Once overseas, he had advanced training. He was posted to 429 (Canadian) Squadron, stationed at Leeming, Yorkshire.

Ernie’s Last Operation (Nov 21, 1944)

Just before leaving on his last operation, on November 20, 1944, Ernie received his promotion to Pilot Officer (J92597). The next day, Halifax # MZ377 left the base in Leeming, England, at 15.46 hours for a raid on Castrop-Rauxel, located in the Ruhr Valley, 5 miles north west of Dortmund, Germany. The target was the oil refinery. After climbing to 18,000 feet, they set course, went over London, crossed the channel and French coast. Two minutes from the target, at 19.30 hours, over Langenburg, Germany, they were illuminated by a single searchlight. A night fighter, directly underneath, spotted them and opened fire.

Ernie, the rear gunner, opened fire and the enemy aircraft, a JU-88, burst into flames above and to starboard. They continued on to the target. After releasing the bombs, the pilot gave the order to bail out. Ernie turned in his seat, opened the door and jumped out. The aircraft went completely out of control. The port wing dropped off at the root. The pilot, hearing no response from the crew, looked into the nose to see an opened parachute. The crew could not get out. At 400 to 500 feet, the aircraft went onto its back.

The pilot was thrown out and landed less than 50 feet from the plane, badly burned. The plane exploded over a house in Langenberg, Germany and landed in the garden. The house is still standing today, in 2005. The bomber burned fiercely upon impact, killing the remaining crew members trapped inside. Ernie broke a bone in his foot when he landed. He became a Prisoner of War (PoW no. 1254) at Stalag Luft VII (Bankau) and remained a PoW until the end of the war. Ernie returned to Grande Prairie and died in Edmonton on October 15, 2004.

Soldier Spotlight highlights veterans from the Archives’ online Soldiers’ Memorial. Each week, our volunteers select a remarkable individual to showcase in this blog series. The Soldiers’ Memorial commemorates more than 1,100 WWI veterans and 2,300 WWII veterans from our region. Three dedicated volunteers have contributed over 1,200 hours to this project by researching and writing biographies. Our goal is to have all South Peace soldiers acknowledged for their service. If you know of someone who lived in the South Peace and should be listed on the Memorial, or would like to get involved by researching a local veteran, please contact the Archives.

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