As a member of the 1st Cavalry Band, Bob Nelsen played for many dignitaries in Japan, both at the end and following World War II.
However, the Yankton man was himself treated this week as the dignitary. The U.S. Air Force’s “Heartland of America Band” honored the 94-year-old veteran at the start of Monday’s sold-out concert, which drew an audience of more than 500 at Dakota Theater in downtown Yankton.
“The (USAF) Band agreed to honor him for being a member of the 1st Cavalry Band,” said Yankton historian Dave Hosmer.
Hosmer introduced Nelsen, who was born in 1926, and read the veteran’s life history, in which music played an important role in Nelsen’s life from an early age.
“As a teenager, he played clarinet in a band around Omaha. He bought (a) sax from his music teacher, too, and eventually played solo chair,” Hosmer said. “He was paid $6-8 for a Friday night job when a paper route paid $3 a week. Bands had to hire kids to help because most young men were gone.”
Like many young men of that era, Nelsen served during World War II. However, he wasn’t initially in the band.
“In 1945, Bob was assigned to a weapons unit in the 1st Cavalry which was sent to the Philippines as part of the mop-up. It was nasty business,” Hosmer said.
“Near the end, he was asked — and then ordered — to participate in the 1st Cavalry Band. At first, when handed an instrument and asked to read a sheet of music, ‘Much to my dismay, I couldn’t remember how to play!’ War stress had overridden parts of his brain.”
A NEW WORLD
Nelsen soon found his musical performances — and life in general — would change dramatically during his service in the Pacific theater.
One historic moment came with the entrance of the American military into Tokyo and the official Japanese surrender.
“Nelsen landed at Yokohama, Japan, on September 2, 1945. His 1st Cavalry Division was the first division to enter Tokyo. They marched to the American Embassy where they waited for dignitaries to raise the American flag,” Hosmer said.
“It was special. That flag had been flying over the Capitol in Washington, D.C. on December 7, 1941, and again on the USS Missouri during the signature ceremony (for Japan’s formal surrender).”
Nelsen’s membership in the 1st Cavalry Band allowed him to pursue his passion for music. However, it also carried with it a packed schedule and solemn responsibilities.
“Bob’s days were filled. They had 6 a.m. daily reveille and band rehearsal thereafter. There was typically somewhere to go in the afternoon, but every night they were usually back at Camp Drake,” Hosmer said.
“When dignitaries arrived, such as Eisenhower and Halsey, there were full-dress military parades. At night, the dance band frequently played until midnight. ‘We earned our keep, but what a fantastic opportunity to develop your musical skills!’ (Nelsen said). Bob played until he was 93!”
STARTING A CAREER
After Monday’s concert, Nelsen spoke with the Press & Dakotan about his pre-war and wartime experiences.
Nelsen, who grew up in Council Bluffs, Iowa, got an early start on his musical career as a teenager playing engagements in neighboring Omaha.
World War II even affected that aspect of his life.
“I played saxophone, but I started with a clarinet,” he said. “I started playing a lot more in 1942, shortly after the United States entered the war. They had to get musicians somewhere, and I stood in while the other players were gone to war.”
As for his military career, Nelsen didn’t begin with the 1st Cavalry Band. He served in the Pacific Theater, part of the force that marched to Manila and “cleaned up” the liberated Philippines.
The Pacific Theater operations changed gears with Japan’s surrender. Nelsen remained in the Land of the Rising Sun, performing for military functions during the occupation.
What was it like to play in Japan under those circumstances?
“Weird,” Nelsen said, with an emphasis in his voice. “They still had divisions in Japan (who hadn’t heard of the surrender and were) waiting for an invasion. Their government told them to turn in their (wartime) equipment, but how long can you trust them?”
The 90-member military 1st Cavalry Band played, stood and marched with precision wherever they performed, Nelsen said.
He has kept his musical passion throughout his entire life, playing until last year. After Monday’s concert, he thanked the visiting USAF Band for their Yankton appearance and for representing the military so well.
Senior Airman Aliyah Richling, a soprano vocalist with the band, expressed admiration for Nelsen and other veterans.
“We don’t get that many World War II veterans along the way (at our concerts),” she said. “The energy from (tonight’s) crowd was irreplaceable. It really was, as far as we could tell, an older crowd, which made it so special because so many of them had served in the military or had family who had served in the military.
“When we placed the official song for each branch of the military, you saw veterans, their families and multiple generations of service members who stood up for their branch’s song.”
The Air Force band members were pleased to recognize Nelsen as part of the concert, Richling said.
“It’s just a wonderful legacy (Nelsen) carries with him,” she said. “I think, because we don’t meet that many people from that era, we can’t fully understand what it was like to live during World War II, so their stories are very important.”
Monday’s concert became even more meaningful with the presence of Nelsen and so many other veterans and their families, SSG Daniel Thrower said.
“It was really touching. I know it’s a sacrifice for some of these guys to even get out for a concert,” he said. “We go to veterans (nursing) homes every Veterans Day or for some other patriotic holiday. They love and respect that,” he said.
“We’re playing the service songs for the veterans. It’s one of my favorite parts of the concert, and we do it all the time. For (the veterans), it’s a fresh experience because they’re hearing it for the first time.”
The band members said Nelsen’s recognition tied in with their tribute to the World War II era and the “Greatest Generation” — a term used by renowned NBC News journalist and Yankton native Tom Brokaw.
In the post-concert interview, Hosmer pointed out a local statistic to the Air Force band members.
“Yankton County has only 25,000 residents. How many World War II veterans do you think we have in this county?” he asked.
Richling guessed seven.
“Thirty-seven!” Hosmer said, drawing surprise from the band members. “That’s how many we have from World War II, and that includes (those who served during) the occupation.”
Hosmer knew the importance of capturing the veterans’ stories and urged them to write down their memories. He also interviewed as many as possible.
For Nelsen and others, they were just doing their duty and trying to return home safely, Hosmer said.
“All of them were like Bob — very happy they survived,” he said.
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