WWI Profile: Erastus I. Nelson 1893-1918

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Source: Randolph County Public Library
120th Infantry at Camp Sevier, SC
March 16, 1918

Erastus I. Nelson
Leland, Brunswick County, NC
US Army
Private First Class

September 19, 1917 – August 22, 1918
May 12, 1918 – August 22, 1918
Killed in Action: August 22, 1918

Erastus Nelson was born and raised in Brunswick County. A partial family tree is located in FamilySearch. The 1910 Census and his WWI Draft Registration shows he was working on his father’s farm.

Erastus had a brother who also served, Walter Decator Nelson. See below for additional information about his brother’s service.

On September 19, 1917, Erastus was ordered to report for duty [Source: ancestry.com].

The 120th Infantry was formed with the 119th Infantry, as part of the 30th “Old Hickory” Division as described in previous posts. The roster contains quite a few Brunswick County men. All of the rosters can be found on the World War I Army/Marine Division Rosters webpage

30th Division, 120th Infantry (from Brunswick County)

Name Co.
Pfc Kinnie Benton H
Pvt William C Hewett C Died of Wounds 10/25/1918
Pvt Hanson H Leonard I Wounded 09/19/1918
Pvt Jesse J Leonard D Wounded 10/09/1918
Pvt Claudie H McCall Sup Died of Disease 04/13/1919
Wag George M Milliken Sup
Pvt Edward A Mills M Severely Wounded 09/01/1918
Pfc Erastus I Nelson C KIA 08/22/1918
Pvt Harry L Piggott M KIA 09/29/1918
Pvt Andrew J Robbins F
Pvt Byron Stanley I
Pvt Martin R Willis A

The 120th Infantry trained at Camp Sevier, SC, along with the other units of the 30th Division. They soon began training with French and British instructors covering the use of bayonets, bombs, scouting, trench-warfare and open-warfare. The middle of December 1917 brought an unusually frigid winter that interfered with training and caused hardships, but the men were able to resume training in January.

The trip to NYC to prepare for embarkation began in May 1918. All men had an opportunity to visit the city, which was a great experience for “most of the men.” (no further explanation was given)

Transport from Boston to London was provided by an Australian transport service. The food, therefore, was Australian and not appreciated by the men. The boats were crowded but the weather was good and all submarine attacks were unsuccessful.

The trip to France was completed on June 5, 1918, when all men were given a copy of an autographed letter from His Majesty, George V.

At first, the men were anxious to join the battle.

…for a long time the constant query was “When do we go South?” but in course of time it was changed to “We don’t want to go South.” At Calias the distant thunder of guns could be heard, and the nightly air raids with the accompaniment of bombs, taking their nightly toll of women and children, gave the first touch of war, and opened the eyes of many to the kind of enemy they were to fight.

They were the first troops to enter Belgium. It was July 4th and the village had Belgium and French flags flying from the houses in honor of the American holiday.

In early August, the men were thrilled to have an inspection by King George. It was over in a few minutes but enjoyed by all.

Training was finished and the Division prepared to relieve British troops at the Canal Sector at Ypres.

The entire sector is a ghastly monument to the tenacity and courage of the British soldiers. For four long years they held it against bitter attacks by a determined enemy; to-day it is consecrated ground made sacred by the bodies of hundreds of thousands of Britain’s finest sons; and the few Americans who lie “where poppies bloom”

On the night of August 17-18, the 120th and 119th Infantry relieved the British troops. At this time, Pvt Luther Benton of the 119th Infantry was wounded, as shared in his WWI Profile.

The ground was very low, easily flooded, and the water so near the surface that each shell hole became a little pool. All of the high ground, Observatory Ridge, Passchendaele Ridge, and the famous Mont Kimmel, was held by the enemy. These points of observation enabled the enemy to detect any movement within the sector, and, as a result, daylight movement was of necessity reduced to a minimum, for even small parties would provoke instant and heavy shelling. The Salient was so deep and so narrow it was subjected to shell-fire from front, flanks, and rear. Oftentimes the men in the forward systems believed they were being shelled by their own artillery, when as a matter of fact the shells were from enemy guns on our right and rear.

It was during these operations, on August 22, 1918, that Pfc Erastus Nelson was killed in action.

Between July 4th to September 5th, 1918, the following 120th Infantry casualties were reported.
34 KIA
216 Wounded

The Wilmington Morning Star [Wilmington, NC] 29 Sept. 1918, p.8 published this about his death.

The following is a copy of a letter from Lieut. Gross [George] McClelland, chaplain, 120th infantry, 30th division, American Expeditionary forces, to Mr. and Mrs. John C. Nelson, R.F.D. 1, Leland, notifying them of the death of their son, Erastus I. Nelson, who was killed in action August 22:

“Your son met death instantly yesterday afternoon by a direct hit. He was in the line of his duty and died like a man. I wish, as the officiating chaplain at his burial, to command you to the great Comforter of hearts in this your dark but proud hour.

“We buried your son this morning at Nine Elms cemetery with due military honors. A number of the boys from our regiment were present at the service.

“I should like to get a line from you at any time. Meantime, assuring you of my personal sympathy, and with every high personal regard.”

A friend of Private Nelson has received a letter from him, which was written August 17, five days before he paid the supreme price. The letter follows:

“There are so many laws concerning what a solider can and cannot write that I hardly know what a fellow is allowed to say and get his letter past the censor. Anyway I am well and getting plenty to eat, although it is far from being your table.

“We are not working so hard now. This much talked about ‘Sunny France’ is not what I expected to find. Its lots colder here than at home, and is at least 100 years behind the good old U.S.A. in every respect. The more I see of it the more I appreciate America.

“I am having quite a lot of fun with my French. By using my hands I can generally make myself understand. I think I am going to be able to speak French soon. I find more trouble trying to count the money than anything else.

“We are billeted in a French village, but am not allowed to give the name. At present am sleeping in a barn, which is not so bad so long as we are under a roof.

“If at any time you do not hear from me for quite a while do not worry for if anything happens you will be notified at once.”

His remains were returned to the United States in 1921 [Source: ancestry.com] and laid to rest in Nelson Cemetery in Leland, NC.

Source: findagrave

BORN OCT. 8, 1893
DIED AUG. 22, 1918


[Remaining illegible]

Pfc Erastus Iredell Nelson was the first KIA from Brunswick County.
There would be four more.

Information regarding the 120th Infantry was gathered from Official History of the 120th Infantry “3rd North Carolina” 30th Division, From August 5, 1917, to April 17, 1919. Canal Sector Ypres-Lys Offensive Somme Offensive

Additional details about his brother Walter’s service.

Walter was a Wagoner with the 117th Engineer Train, 42nd “Rainbow” Division. The 117th Engineer Train was created entirely with North Carolina men. Wagoner Walter Nelson served with Wagoner Dorman Mercer and quite a few other Brunswick County men. More information will be available when the 42nd Division is covered in later profiles. This is confirmed by his NC WWI Service Card and his US Army Transport Passenger lists [Source: ancestry.com] for both outgoing and incoming, as well as the Roster for the 42nd Division. Yet, his application for military headstone and his military flat marker show “155 Depot Brigade.” The Depot Brigades were to receive, train, equip, and forward replacements (both officers and enlisted men) to replacement divisions of the corps. Walter Nelson had enlisted in the NC National Guard in July 1917, was a member of the 117th Engineer Train in October 1917 when he was transported to France, and remained in the 117th Engineer Train through April 1919 when he returned to the United States.

With all of this evidence from multiple records and the published roster, the assumption is his military flat marker is incorrect.

If you would like to help us honor Erastus I. Nelson or another Brunswick County WWI veteran, please use the following links:

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