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Sergeant Nelson’s Last Stand in North Africa

Nelson portrait against heavy fighting photo

Sergeant William Lloyd Nelson found himself on April 24, 1943 at the center of a crucial American advance into the German-controlled city of Bizerte in the rugged landscape near Tunis, Tunisia. Nelson and his regiment, the Sixtieth Infantry, that day transformed the typically unremarkable North African hill, Djebel Dardyss, into a critical stronghold to halt a German counterattack. The Middletown native would display such valor during this mission that he would earn the Medal of Honor. 

Early Years and Induction

The Army inducted Nelson at Fort Dix, NJ, on January 9, 1941. He was among America’s “first million” called to arms before the attack on Pearl Harbor. The new recruit tackled bootcamp at Ft. Bragg and advanced to the rank of corporal. His training intensified after Pearl Harbor.  

Nelson hoped to transfer to the Ordnance Corps and even entertained dreams of attending Officers’ Candidate School. But those ambitions were deferred when his division, the Ninth, received orders to ship out to Africa in the fall of 1942. Nelson was part of the invasion force landing in North Africa (Operation Torch) on November 8, 1942 along with British forces. 

The Sixtieth Infantry’s first major action was at Port Lyautey on the Atlantic coast of French Morocco. Although the unit saw limited use of their heavy mortars, the experience hardened them for the grueling Tunisian campaign they would soon face. 

The Sixtieth secured the Port Lyautey landing area and then pressed on to Oran. At Station de Sened, they caught an Italian battalion off guard. Nelson, now a sergeant, helped lay down such an effective mortar barrage, the entire battalion surrendered. 

Following a winter of additional training, Nelson’s regiment achieved top-notch form, ready for any new assaults. President Roosevelt even reviewed them during an appearance in Casablanca. In April, they prepared for a decisive push toward Bizerte. 

The regiment, stationed in the town of Sedjenane, got its orders on the night of the 22nd. Their objective: capture the German-held ridge of Djebel Dardyss, a mountain that dominated the local landscape. The Americans felt that to rid the area of Germans that mountain would have to be taken and fortified to help ensure success.  

The 60th Infantry marches toward Bizerte

The Sixtieth advanced under a barrage of their own artillery. The Americans inched their way up the mountain, with the 2nd Battalion leading the way. Thick undergrowth slowed progress. By nightfall, they reached only halfway up the slope.  

Nelson knew the next day would be significant. “If your number’s up, you’ll get it,” he had once told his worried wife Rebecca, “no matter what you do. If it isn’t up, you’ll pull through.”  

The German troops, meantime, realized what the Americans had done in gaining a foothold on Djebel Dardyss and regrouped to stop their advance. During the dawn hours, the Germans began a thunderous counteroffensive raining down shells on the Allied troops.  

Nelson, serving as the observer for his mortar section, led the artillery to an advanced position. He crawled forward from there to better observe the enemy below. 

Nelson’s Fateful Decision

Nelson saw an opportunity: a large concentration of German troops moving into position. He relayed the firing instructions: “Such and such a range, one round.” Corrections followed, “Left fifteen,” or “Right five.”  

When the coordinates were precise, Nelson ordered rapid fire. His mortars broke the enemy lines, disrupting the impending attack. According to his citation, “He directed the laying of a concentrated mortar barrage which successfully halted an initial enemy counterattack.” 

Even in the face of intense German fire from all sides, Nelson remained at his post, shifting positions to better direct the mortar fire.  

But then he was struck by a grenade and lay wounded and numb on the ground. Rather than seek medical treatment, Nelson pressed on. 

60th infantry battalion 1 artillery unit

According to his Medal of Honor citation, “With his duty clearly completed, Sergeant Nelson crawled to a still more advanced observation post and continued to direct the fire of his section. Dying of hand-grenade wounds and only fifty yards from the enemy, he encouraged his section to continue its fire, and by doing so it took a heavy toll of enemy lives.” 

Nelson’s efforts at Djebel Dardyss, along with those of other brave Americans, provided a great tactical advantage to the American forces. Three weeks later 275,000 German and Italian soldiers surrendered, thus ending Hitler’s North African campaign. 

Legacy of Courage

William Lloyd Nelson, the farm boy from Middletown, Delaware, lost his life that day on Djebel Dardyss. Of the fourteen Delawareans awarded the Congressional Medal of Honor, only Nelson died in attaining it.  

William L. Nelson’s extraordinary valor and commitment inspired the men of the Sixtieth. The bravery Sgt. Nelson exhibited in this battle, along with his courageous and selfless dedication to his duties, culminated in a heroic act that cost him his life. His Medal of Honor citation stated that his actions illuminated ‘a priceless inspiration to our Armed Forces and were in keeping with the highest traditions of the U.S. Army.’ 

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