The Nelsons of USS Arizona


By: Mark Loproto

The December 7, 1941 attack on Pearl Harbor was an effort by Imperial Japan to destroy—or at the very least seriously disable—the US Navy’s Pacific Fleet. Battleships serving out of Pearl Harbor were primary targets, including the USS Arizona (BB-39). The mighty vessel was hit by four bombs, the last of which ignited her forward powder magazine, causing her to explode and sink.

On that day, 1,177 crewmen of the USS Arizona lost their lives. Grady Lee Nelson, Jr. of Coleman, TX wasn’t among those unfortunate men; in fact, he went on to live to be 71 years old. The tragedy of Pearl Harbor, and the war that followed, would stay with him for the rest of his life.

Grady wasn’t the only member of the Nelson family aboard USS Arizona, however. As fate would have it on that quiet Sunday morning, Grady, who enlisted in May of 1941, was serving alongside four of his family members. While Grady lived to tell about his early life in Texas, his brief time aboard Arizona, and his wartime service aboard a second vessel, the destroyer USS Strong (DD-467), the other four Nelson men who served with Grady never made it off their battleship.

Lawrence Adolphus Nelson

Lawrence Nelson's name on the USS Arizona Memorial Wall of Remembrance

Lawrence Nelson’s name on the USS Arizona Memorial Wall of Remembrance

Grady was the youngest of Arizona’s Nelson family, and served alongside his uncle, Lawrence Adolphus Nelson. Born April 11, 1895, Lawrence was also a Texas native, having left his home town of Mount Calm to join the US Army in 1920. After two years, he switched to the Navy, in December of 1922.

Over the course of his service, Lawrence Nelson earned the rank of Chief Turret Captain, which is the position he held when the Japanese launched their attack. Before joining the crew of Arizona, Lawrence served aboard USS Nevada (BB-36), another target of the Pearl Harbor attack, USS Concord (CL-10), USS New York (BB-34). He next served for three years at the United States Naval Training Station in San Diego before joining USS Texas (BB-35).

After a very brief discharge in October 1937, Lawrence re-enlisted on December 6 of that year and was assigned to USS Arizona. Lawrence’s remains were never recovered after the attack and are still trapped within the vessel. Prior to the attack, he had been slated to be commissioned as a Warrant Officer in the beginning of 1942.

Henry Clarence Nelson

Henry Nelson, one of the five Nelsons of USS Arizona

Henry Nelson

Cousin to Grady, Henry Nelson was born November 1, 1909 in the town of Grand Meadow, MN. Henry enlisted in the Navy at the age of 24, just as hints of tension in the Pacific were starting to surface. During his eight years in the Navy, he re-enlisted twice and eventually earned the rank of Boatswain’s Mate First Class shortly before the Pearl Harbor attack.

It was at this position that he served his last days aboard USS Arizona, the ship he joined in February of 1934. Like Lawrence, Henry was trapped within the battleship when it exploded and sank.

Harl Colpin Nelson

Seven years younger than Henry, Harl joined the Navy at about the same age Henry had. He waited several years after his graduation to enlist, eventually enlisting in the Navy on November 9, 1940. Once his training in San Diego was complete, Harl was assigned to USS Arizona, joining his cousins and uncle.

Harl’s story ended with the attack on Pearl Harbor, but Arizona survivor Don Stratton remembers the young Seaman First Class. Stratton was on his way to visit Harl, who was in the sickbay, when the attack began.

Before he could deliver the oranges he was carrying, Stratton was diverted by the sounding of General Quarters. He never saw Harl—or anyone from the sickbay—again.

Harl’s remains are still within USS Arizona. His Naval career was the shortest of the Nelson family.

Richard Eugene Nelson

The Wall of Remembrance, USS Arizona Memorial

The Wall of Remembrance, USS Arizona Memorial

Richard was ahead of Grady by one year in everything. He was born on June 30, 1921 in North Dakota and enlisted a year before Grady, in October of 1940. Richard’s career lasted just over a year before being cut short by the devastation at Pearl Harbor on December 7, 1941. In that time, he attained the rank of Fireman Third Class.

Like the other three ill-fated Nelson men aboard USS Arizona, Richard’s remains were never recovered, and are still within the hull of the sunken battleship.

Legacy of the Nelson Family

While Grady went on to tell his story and recount the events of the attack and the War in the Pacific, the legacies of Lawrence, Henry, Harl, and Richard were told through the memories of those left behind.

All four were recognized for their service, like the other sailors and Marines who perished that day. Each received a Purple Heart posthumously. Their service records also carry the American Defense Service Medal w/Fleet Clasp, Asiatic-Pacific Campaign Medal w/Star, and WWII Victory medal.

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