For many survivors of the U.S.S. Arizona, the hell of war had just begun
Grady Lee Nelson Jr. survived the attack on the U.S.S. Arizona at Pearl Harbor. His uncle, Lawrence, and cousins Harl, Henry, and Richard did not. All five Nelsons were on the ship on Dec. 7, 1941.
But that was only the beginning of the hell that the 19-year-old survivor was to endure.
He was next assigned to the destroyer U.S.S. Strong, which was hit by a torpedo in the Solomon Islands in July 1943. According to the Destroyer History Foundation, another destroyer, the Chevalier, deliberately rammed the wounded Strong because it was within firing range of Japanese shore batteries. The Strong sank in seven minutes, but 249 of its 295 men were rescued by the Chevalier. Nelson was among them.
The Texan next deployed to another destroyer, the U.S.S. Grant. A commendation letter from the President describes the actions of the men on the Grant:
“For outstanding heroism in action against enemy Japanese forces during the Battle for Leyte Gulf, October 24 to 27, 1944. Conducting a determined torpedo attack against a Japanese task force in Surigao Strait on the night of October 24, the U.S.S. ALBERT W. GRANT closed range to fire her first half salvo of torpedoes and succeeded in scoring hits on a Japanese battleship. Although severely damaged when heavy enemy guns opened fire as she turned to retire, she remained in the battle area and successfully launched her five remaining torpedoes, scoring hits on other enemy units. With all power gone, fires raging, compartments rapidly flooding and over one hundred casualties to care for, she fought throughout the night to remain afloat. Finally, assisted by a tug from Leyte, she effected the repair of her crudely patched holes and the pumping out of excess water and oil, resolutely continuing damage control measures until she could be taken in tow to an anchorage in Leyte Gulf. Crippled but undaunted, the ALBERT W. GRANT, superbly handled by gallant officers and men, rendered distinctive service and upheld the finest traditions of the United States Naval Service.”
The Grant stayed afloat even though it was hit 22 times. Thirty-eight men died and 104 were injured. Nelson survived once again. He served in many other capacities in the Navy in a career that lasted 30 years. He retired in 1971 and died in 1993. Later that year, his ashes were interred on the Arizona.
Nelson's harrowing story was shared by other survivors of the Arizona.
Wallace Frank Quillin, whose remains were also interred on the ship after he died in 2006, wasn't on the Arizona on Dec. 7, 1941 because he was on shore leave to attend church. Imagine the grief the teenager must have felt at losing 1,177 of his shipmates.
But exactly five months later, on the U.S.S. Neosho, a fleet oiler, Quillin was again to witness and survive horror. The ship suffered seven hits and one suicide dive-bomb attack during the Battle of the Coral Sea. Accounts vary, but about 420 men died and about 125 survived -- Quillin among them.
Vernon J. Olsen was also among the Arizona survivors who lived to face even more hell. He was on the U.S.S. Lexington, an aircraft carrier, when it sank at Coral Sea. He again survived. He also was part of the atomic testing at Bikini Atoll in 1946. Olsen died at age 91 in 2011 and his ashes were later interred on the Arizona.
After his death, his widow, Jo Ann, told the Associated Press: "He had nine lives. He was really lucky."
Those are just three stories of men who survived the attack at Pearl Harbor, only to witness more tragedy. I understand what Mrs. Olson meant about luck, but the fact that so many of the Arizona survivors chose to be interred on the ship makes clear how they viewed the war and their first ship.
All this week TrueTucson.com is blogging about some of the men who died 75 years ago on the Arizona. A public ceremony at 3 p.m. Sunday will dedicate a new memorial on the University of Arizona mall. The memorial includes 3-inch brass medallions for each of the 1,177 men and an outline of the deck of the ship in full scale.