Col. Warren Nelson, 185th’s last WWII veteran commander dies at 97

  • Published
  • By Senior Master Sgt. Vincent De Groot
  • 185th Air Refueling Wing

Charter Iowa Air National Guard member and former 185th Wing Commander, Col. Warren “Bud” Nelson passed away over the weekend at the age of 97.

The Jackson, Minn. native came to the Iowa National Guard shortly after World War II. When he retired in 1980, Nelson was the last World War II veteran to serve as a commander of the 185th.

Nelson served in the military for almost 40 years and called Sioux City, Iowa home for most of his life. He continued to reside in Sioux City after his retirement.

Following World War II, Nelson, who had been working as a P-51 instructor pilot, was determined to continue flying. At the age of 21, with three years under his belt, he hoped to join the newly formed 174th Fighter Squadron in Sioux City, Iowa.

The Iowa National Guard’s 174th Fighter Squadron was first organized on Dec 2nd, 1946 and seemed like a perfect fit for the veteran P-51 pilot from nearby Jackson, Minn. Nelson was initially denied entrance into the Iowa National Guard however, because he was not a resident of the state. Undeterred, Nelson saw an opportunity to continue flying fighter planes in Sioux City and soon moved to Iowa.

The Sioux City Army Airbase had been a B-24 and B-29 bomber training base during the war and was in the process of being decommissioned when Nelson arrived. The Iowa National Guard received permission to base a P-51 fighter squadron in Sioux City as aircraft were being sent back to the U.S. after the war.

Pilots of the 174th initially flew World War II era P-51 Mustangs but by 1950 the unit received its first jet powered aircraft and they began flying the F-84 Thunderjet.

During his time in the Army Air Corps and Air National Guard, Nelson went on to pilot eight different aircraft and was recalled two additional times before ending his National Guard career in 1980 as the 185th Commander.

In 1951, shortly after Nelson’s arrival in Sioux City, the 174th was part of a massive call-up because of the Korean war. Nelson volunteered to became part of the world’s first nuclear fighter bomber wing when he and a handful of other 174th pilots were assigned to the 20th Fighter Bomber Wing in Europe. The group flew regular missions along the West German border as a show of force against Soviet occupied East Germany.

At the time of the recall, almost all the 174th pilots, like Nelson were World War II Veterans. According to Nelson, at the time of the 1951 activation the 174th pilots didn't know if they were being called to a police action, or if it was the beginning of another world war. Pilots and crew were eventually parceled out to different areas in the United States and abroad.

Nelson, along with several other 174th pilots, spent their time in Europe on the front lines of the Cold War with their fingers on the nuclear trigger. Nearly two years after vacating the base at Sioux City, some of the 174th unit members began to return home. Some Iowa ANG pilots chose to stay on active duty, but Nelson returned to Sioux City in 1952 where he remained an active pilot in the Iowa Air Guard.

The 174th eventually grew into the 185th Tactical Fighter Group which was assigned the F-100 Super Saber in the early 1960's. During Nelson’s time with the unit, the unit was activated again in 1968 for the war in Vietnam.

The 185th Tactical Fighter Group was one of only four Air Guard units activated for Vietnam when they deployed with their parent unit, the 140th Tactical Fighter Wing of the Colorado ANG. After the group’s return to Iowa in 1969, Nelson would stick with his fighter unit until eventually becoming the Wing Commander in 1976.  As the wing commander, Nelson went through his final air-frame change when the unit transitioned to the A-7 Corsair in 1977.

Nelson often commented that the A-7 was one of his favorite airplanes to fly, 2nd only to the P-51. Nelson said in a 2016 interview that he remained in the Air Guard for so long because he liked flying.

"They let me fly for 37 years, I figure that was a pretty good career," Nelson recalled.

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