Luther Nelson was a native of Lanesboro, Minnesota, and the son of Minnesota State Senator S. A. Nelson. After graduating from St. Olaf College in June 1916 at the age of 22, Nelson joined the American Ambulance Hospital in Neuilly-sur-Seine, France as an ambulance driver. He worked there for several months, evacuating wounded soldiers from the train stations to the various military hospitals in and around Paris. However, Nelson wanted to work closer to the front lines—particularly near Verdun—and decided to enlist for a six-month term as an ambulance driver with the Norton-Harjes Ambulance Corps on September 1, 1916. Nelson saw some of the war’s most severe fighting in Verdun with his unit before returning home to the United States in September 1917.