The Vietnam War – Norm Nelson — from Army trainee to sergeant

I interviewed Norman Nelson in August 2009 at his home near Cottonwood and mourned his passing in 2020. We’ve begun learning about Norm’s Vietnam service to help us better understand the Vietnam War’s impact on our region.

Norm was born in 1942 in Montevideo, Minnesota, but grew up on the family farm east of Cottonwood. He graduated with the Cottonwood High School class of 1960.

Norm began college as a math major at Augustana College, but after stumbling over Calculus, transferred to the University of Minnesota’s School of Agriculture in St. Paul. The local draft board reached out to him in early 1965 during a break in his college education.

He reported for his service physical in the Twin Cities in April 1965, believing a high school knee injury might disqualify him from military service. But instead of returning home that evening, Norm ended up on a passenger train headed for Army Basic Training at Fort Leonard Wood, Missouri.

After a memorable reception by drill sergeants who yelled at the new trainees while Norm kept low to avoid that kind of attention, Basic Training settled into predictable routine.

Norm recalled, “We’d get up early in the morning and they’d come through and inspect you for shaving and clothes that are clean and neat and all that kind of stuff. Some [trainees] weren’t in very good shape and they had difficulty making it through training. I guess I never had much trouble with the [physical] training part. Running the mile and that kind of thing was never too bad for me.”

Norm described the only Basic Training event he recalled with specificity.

“I remember going through the infiltration course. I know that it rained that night. We had to go through concertina wire. You had to crawl on your belly and kind of snake your way through there. When you were crawling through there they were shooting tracer ammunition [overhead]. (Norm chuckled) Yeah, I can remember that.”

The trainees emerged from the course a muddy mess.

“When we were done, our guns were just covered with mud,” Norm remembered, “we actually took them in the shower to wash them out, they were so dirty.”

After Norm completed Basic Training the Army selected him for Advanced Individual Training (AIT) in a technical area, based on his good test scores and college work.

“I went to Fort Sill, Oklahoma (The Army’s artillery training center) to survey school.”

Norm explained that artillery survey teams determined precise locations and directions of fire for artillery gun crews. He also described how his AIT experience was different than Basic Training.

“[It was] less physical and more classroom. Back then you had a theodolite (similar to a surveyor’s transit) for your direction. You’d have a chain gang so you could get distance. Then you had a piece of paper that you’d fill in and you’d do computations to get your coordinates and direction of fire. This was easy because I liked math and I had good test scores there.”

While at Fort Sill the Army selected Norman for additional training as a squad leader. The self-described “shy and kind of quiet” farm boy reflected on that experience.

“I don’t know if I would do that over again (Norm chuckled) because I didn’t enjoy that particularly. To be in charge of Survey was enough of a challenge. But at Fort Sill we’d have inspections. So, it was my job to get all organized and had to answer for anything that didn’t get done right. And I was in charge of leading the men – to march them to where we were going.”

Despite his misgivings about leadership, the farm boy from Cottonwood completed his leadership training and the Army promoted him to the rank of Sergeant.

Norm visited his family on leave before the Army sent its newest sergeant to Fort Lewis, Washington to his operational assignment with the 4th Battalion, 42nd Field Artillery — a part of the 4th Infantry Division.

Norm explained, “It was a whole new group to set up a survey team to go to Vietnam. There we would survey for the 105 [mm] howitzer gun batteries.”

The 4th Infantry Division was involved in final preparations for its Vietnam deployment. During these hectic weeks Norm found himself with an unusual extra duty after his survey team was up and running.

“I remember for some reason I was a driver for the Colonel,” he recalled, “I don’t know how I got that job, but we had some midnight notices we were going to have for alerts. I’d have to go down to the motor pool and go to his house and pick him up”

Norm and his survey crew boarded an aircraft with other members of the 4th Infantry Division advance party in July 1966 for the long flight overseas.

He recalled, “I believe it was a military plane that you sat looking back. I think it was web seats. We flew that way – not much to do. I don’t think it was much more than just our survey team.”

Norm and his survey team sat quietly; facing the rear of the aircraft; keeping their thoughts to themselves on their long flight to Vietnam where a war was waiting for them.

The Lyon County Museum is organizing an exhibit about the impact of the Vietnam War on Lyon County. If you would like to share Vietnam experiences or help with the exhibit, please contact me at prairieviewpressllc@gmail.com or call Jennifer Andries at the museum at 537-6580.


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