By Polly Keary, Editor
This week, it has been 72 years since the day President Roosevelt would later call “a day that will live in infamy.”
But David Nelson can still remember in vivid detail the morning of Dec. 7, 1941.
Nelson, 91, of Monroe, was just 18 the morning his post on a battleship tender went from a pleasant peacetime station in Hawaii’s Pearl Harbor to the epicenter of the worst attack on American soil that had ever occurred.
He remembers how it felt to kick hot shell casings with bare feet; what the faces of Japanese fighter pilots looked like as they flew within yards of where he was manning a gun on the USS Whitney.
For decades, according to Nelson’s daughters, the veteran didn’t often speak of his experiences that day.
But as the anniversary of the event approached this year, he decided to share his memories of that day, along with his memories of a long and eventful life that has spanned nearly a century.
Childhood in the Sky Valley
Nelson was just a couple months old in 1922, when his family left Redmond, Ore. in a covered wagon to farm 1,000 acres at Lake Cochran, five miles up Woods Creek from Monroe.
“When Dad had all that acreage, he had horses, but mostly beef,” said Nelson, a trim and affable man with a ready laugh. “I remember going out in the pasture, and there’d be 15-20 horses out there.”
Nelson started school in a tiny school house.
“We were in the valley up there, and up above it was a road. It was down one hill and up another, and on the left was a grade school,” said Nelson, who throughout his reminiscences had strikingly clear spacial memories of the places he’d been. “My job was to chop kindling for the stove,”
When it came time to go to high school, Nelson traveled to the comparatively grand three-story brick Union High School in Monroe at Kelsey and Hill Streets.
While there, he was part of an ambitious troop of Boy Scouts lead by faculty member Mr. Schimke, and was one of eight scouts to reach the rank of Eagle Scout the year when he was 17.
“We had quite a job in scouts,” said Nelson. “We did forestry, road building, a dozen things. For Eagle Scout, we had to build a bridge. We done a lot of work for the state or the county or the city.”
But there weren’t a lot of paying jobs around Monroe in 1940, so Nelson did what a lot of young men did in those days after graduating.
At 18, he joined the military.
“There wasn’t nothing else to do,” he said. “It was time to leave and make a buck. That was Depression days, you know. And there was probably a good recruiter,” he added with a chuckle.
So one morning he and his father headed for the train station. His father set out north for work in a sawmill further up the Sky Valley, and Nelson set out south for San Diego for training in the Navy.
The eve of war
Nelson went through training in San Diego.
When he was done, he boarded the USS Whitney, and four days later, he was in Pearl Harbor.
The USS Whitney was a destroyer tender. Built in 1924, the job of the ship was to provide supplies, services and repairs for a number of destroyers for up to two months at a time under wartime conditions.
The Whitney carried reserves of oil, fuel, fresh water, food and repair tools and supplies. It also could supply electricity to ships under repair. While not a fighting ship itself, it also did have firepower, including 3 inch guns that required a crew of four to operate.
Nelson was part of one of the crews trained to operate the large guns.
When he sailed to Pearl Harbor, he and anyone else stationed in the Pacific had reason to believe that they might wind up fighting.
For the previous ten years, Japan had grown aggressive in Asia. The Japanese military invaded China in 1931, and by 1937 the two nations were at all-out war.
The United States was committed to staying out of that conflict as well the other wars engulfing Europe as Nazi Germany continued to invade its neighbors.
But Japan started to scare Americans after it was reported that Japanese soldiers slaughtered 200,000 people in the Chinese capital of Nanking, also sinking the USS Panay outside of Nanking, later claiming they didn’t know it was an American ship.
Tension between the U.S. and Japan grew as Japan tried to cut China off from outside support, and also hoped to snap up resource-rich regions of Asia. When Japan invaded French-held Vietnam to try to control supplies headed to China, the U.S. stopped selling anything but oil to Japan. Japan regarded it as a hostile act.
It started to look like Japan might have designs on more parts of the Far East, and Japan was looking more alarming all the time. So Roosevelt ordered the Pacific Fleet to move from San Diego to Hawaii to discourage Japan from invading more countries.
So when the USS Whitney pulled into Pearl Harbor in 1941 with Nelson aboard, Nelson no doubt was aware that America and Japan were treading the thin edge of war.
But it was a great time to be in Hawaii, and he enjoyed himself all the same.
“It was peacetime,” he said. “You’d get liberty, boy; you’d get a six-pack and drink it under the palm trees.”
When the sailors were allowed to go to shore, they had to head back to the ship at night, but they made the most of the warm, sunny days.
“They had a swimming pool on the one side and the beach was on the right,” said Nelson. “We never went to the pool. We went to the beach.”
Although Nelson and the rest of the country knew that the U.S. and Japan were likely to wind up at war—52% of people polled in 1941 said they expected it—no one expected the U.S. to be attacked at home.
Most people, especially U.S. officials, thought that if a first strike came, it would happen in the Philippines.
The two governments kept talking all through 1941, trying to avoid war.
But Japan knew that America was in the way of their plans.
The U.S. had finally stopped selling oil to Japan, which didn’t have any other real source of oil. In order to get oil, Japan could invade some oil-rich British colonies, but Japanese leaders figured if they did that, the U.S. would deploy the massive Pacific Fleet out of Hawaii and retaliate.
Japan also eventually wanted to invade the Philippines, but that seemed likely to draw the fire of the Pacific Fleet, too.
So in early 1941 Japan decided the best thing to do might be to take out the Pacific Fleet first.
All that year, while the countries were talking about how to avoid war, the Japanese military was secretly preparing to attack Pearl Harbor.
At the end of November, Japan moved a fighting force nearly the size of that of the entire Pacific Fleet toward Hawaii.
At 7:48 a.m. Dec. 7, they opened fire. Within five minutes, the seamen of the USS Whitney were shooting back.
“I remember I was in my bunk, in the middle rack,” said Nelson. “They rolled me out of my bunk. I heard we was being attacked or some damn thing.”
He ran to his battle station, a 3” antiaircraft gun midship, a gun that required four people to operate.
“I didn’t have time to put my boots on,” he said “I remember kicking shells with my bare feet. I was up on deck, kicking hot shells out. They’d break the breech and hot shells would come out and we’d be kicking them out of the way. There was a lieutenant next to me, and I was shouting right up next to his ear, and he couldn’t hear me. He went stone deaf right there. We had nothing for our ears and he was just standing there trying to direct everything, and he couldn’t hear.”
Small Japanese planes were screaming past and Nelson could see what they were doing to the fighting ships around them.
“The Arizona wasn’t that far from us,” he said. “We had five tin cans (destroyers) next to us. They’d fly down and level off and drop a fish (a torpedo) and it would go along and hit the ships next to us.”
It was hard to fight back.
“They got smart real quick-like,” said Nelson. “They’d get down to 40-50 feet. I could have stood there and hit them if I’d had a pistol or a slingshot. But the guns we had, they couldn’t bear down that low. We’d be shooting at our own.”
Nonetheless, Nelson slung bandoliers of shells over both his shoulders and climbed over a ladder again and again, handing shells to the gunners.
“The guy on the breech, he’d swing it up and back and he had a belt on it with the primers in it, and a couple other guys had to slide in the projectile and a guy would ram it tight, and the guy with the powder, he’d shove it in and the breech guy would slap it closed,” said Nelson. “And then we’d stand by, stand by, and we were rolling and rolling, and you and to wait until the right time and fire.”
As he helped wage war on deck, others on the ship got busy passing ammunition to the five destroyers that had been tethered to the Whitney while undergoing repairs. Power from the Whitney failed to the Case, and the men scrambled to fix it, getting it back online soon.
All around them, the devastation was brutal. The Arizona was blown up when a shell hit its magazine, killing 1,177 people. The Oklahoma capsized. The crew of the California abandoned ship as a lake of burning oil swept toward them. The West Virginia was riddled by torpedoes. The cruiser Helena was torpedoed and the blast capsized the nearly Oglala. Two dry-docked destroyers were bombed and burned. The Vestal and the Nevada were beached, the latter as it got underway for open water.
By 10 a.m., 19 U.S. ships and 374 planes were damaged or destroyed, 2042 U.S. military personnel were killed and another 1,247 were injured.
Even so, said Nelson, it could have been worse.
“I don’t think they really knew what they were going to do,” he said. “They made that one attack and then they were gone and they never did come back. If they’d had a landing force, they could have took it. It was peacetime. We weren’t expecting it. They could have taken the Hawaiian Islands, no problem.”
The men of the Whitney fared fairly well. There were no deaths on the ship, and only one injury.
And although many were terrified—Nelson remembers thinking the boat was shaking only to realize it was his legs—the men performed exceptionally well.
The Whitney’s commanding officer would later write that his men had been “calm and unexcited” throughout the morning, and that they manned battle stations efficiently and carried out orders “promptly and without confusion,” according to Navy military history. The commander gave his crew “the highest praise for their conduct.”
The Whitney stayed at anchor, sending fire hoses to the Raleigh, which was fighting for survival after being torpedoed.
Doctors from the Whitney helped the injured on the hospital ship Solace, moored nearby.
All around, rescue boats cut through the water.
“Each one had a crew, and they went through the water, picking up the damage,” said Nelson.
But the chief job of the Whitney was to assist the five ships tied to her, all of which were “cold iron,” or ships not operating under their own power but served by a tender.
They were there for repairs, some of them heavily dismantled. As the day wore on, rumors were rampant, with reports coming from all sides of attacks elsewhere, or more planes on the way. The ships that could move struggled to get out of the harbor and into open water.
All five of the ships tethered to the Whitney survived, and their crews scrambled to get them seaworthy.
“Never has a ship been put together so fast,” said one survivor from the USS Reid.
All five destroyers made it to open water.
The USS Whitney stayed in the harbor until April of the following year, providing tender services to ships, before embarking on what would be an extensive tour of the Pacific in following years.
A military career
Nelson’s memory of the rest of the war isn’t nearly as sharp as that of the attack on Pearl Harbor. He continued to serve on a tender in the Pacific, and remembers some vivid scenes, such as exploring an island riddled with tunnels.
“It was steep, you’d get up on the side, and you started crawling,” he said. “Everything was underground. There was a place you could sleep. I come out just about on top of the island, and instead of going back in and down, I went down the side.”
He doesn’t remember the name of the island or where it was; it could have been a dozen such islands in the Pacific.
He also remembers watching the surrender of a large company of Japanese soldiers, but not when or where it took place.
And he remembers spending time in Japan.
“We’d go ashore and we’d just walk around and make sure things were at peace, and we’d talk to the Japanese girls who couldn’t understand you. You’d taste that they were cooking and make a face and they’d laugh,” he said.
Other details are a bit foggy for him as well; he’s not sure what he was doing during the Korean War, but he did stay in the military for more than 20 more years.
He remembers having some fun at the expense of less experienced seamen as an older officer.
Once, for example, said his daughter, Becky LaDuke, in heavy seas, he was sitting in his office eating a rather greasy sandwich when a young crewman came in. Nelson let the messy sandwich drip down his chin as the ship swayed.
“This kid was getting sick and he was doing it on purpose,” said Stevens, looking at her unrepentant father. Nelson laughed.
“I can still see that kid choking and jumping out of the chair and running for the side,” said Nelson.
Nelson served as a storekeeper chief for years.
“In those days, chiefs didn’t do much,” he said. “All they did was walk around and look important.”
Nelson “was piped over the side,” or retired, in Seattle in the mid-‘60s. He married and had three daughters; Lana Stephens, Becky LaDuke and Julie Nelson.
He went into real estate, retiring from that in the late 1980s. He owned a mill, and got a pilot’s license. He now lives on a 10-acre farm two miles outside Monroe, and life is peaceful today.
“I feed my cat,” said Nelson. “I feed the chickens. I got three chickens. I got deer that come along.”
His wife, Ruth, died ten years ago. He’s got four grandkids and four great grandkids.
“He’s led a full life,” said Stephens. “He can remember picking lettuce in the Fryelands. He remembers when Albertson’s was a farm.”
Now Nelson is taking a well-deserved rest after a long and busy life.
“What do I do now?” he said, chuckling. “As little as I can.”