Walter Nelson went into the Civilian Conservation Corps during the Depression. It was just about the same time that Hitler was going through Poland. Six buddies decided to go down to Duluth, Minnesota to enlist. Nelson was the only one accepted. He went through the Great Lakes Naval Training Station. He requested aircraft carriers because he was interested in aviation. He chose the Navy because it sounded better then the Army or the Marine Corps. Nelson had a close friend from Minnesota and they joined the Navy at the same time. They followed each other all the way through the service. After the Lexington [Annotators Note: USS Lexington, CV2] was sunk Nelson lost contact with him. Nelson located him about four years before the time of the interview and he was living in Arizona. Nelson talked him into going to a reunion. Nelson notes that the whole air group needed radiomen. Nelson requested the torpedo squadron and got it. He was in San Diego when he was assigned to the squadron. The official home port was San Pedro which was outside of Long Beach. It was about 1940 or early 1941 when Nelson was assigned. Nelson went aboard the Lexington in January 1940. Nelson was aboard her for two years before she was sunk. It was a huge ship but it was small compared to modern day carriers. They could muster close to 3,000 on the Lexington but the modern day carriers carry close to 5,000. The Lexington held the speed record from California to Pearl Harbor. The Lexington was launched in 1927 and it was already an older ship [Annotators Note: by the time Nelson reported aboard]. Nelson never had issues with maneuvers. There were big inter ship rivalries. Nelson was proud to wear his hat that said Lexington. When the Japanese attacked Pearl Harbor they were ferrying a Marine Squadron to Johnson Island which was about 400 miles from Pearl Harbor. Nelson had to help ferry the aircraft onto land. A message came over the PA that said this is no drill this is no drill. The Japanese are attacking Pearl Harbor. They attempted to load torpedoes but were not successful in doing so. They went into Pearl Harbor about three days later and the Arizona [Annotators Note: USS Arizona, BB39] was still smoking. They loaded up and went to sea for about 50 days. It was a long time to be at sea and they even had to go down to short rations at one point.
Walter Nelson had a different pilot for his first raid. The pilot’s name was Lieutenant Womper [Annotators Note: unsure of spelling]. Nelson's original pilot had to fly as a replacement for someone who was sick. Nelson had to fly through the mountains on New Guinea and there was some question as to whether or not the torpedo bombers could get above the mountains. The harbor they were attacking was incredibly shallow. Nelson had to change the depth setting on the torpedo. There was a key that Nelson had around his wrist and he could go down and change the depth setting on the torpedo. Nelson's plane did get a hit on either a destroyer or a small cruiser. They did not lose any planes there. It was shortly after that when 18 Japanese Betty's came out in groups of nine and Butch O'Hare shot down five of them. [Annotators Note: Butch O'Hare is the famous naval aviator who Chicago's O'Hare airport is named after.] He was credited with five kills but the guys swear he shot down six. They also had to go on anti submarine patrols. They accidentally dropped depth charges on one of their own submarines one day. They had elementary radar at this point. They picked up the Bettys coming in and were able to scramble. Butch landed and rearmed and was able to go up again. Fighting Squadron 3 from the USS Saratoga was aboard the Lexington. It may have been the first kamikaze of the war but a Japanese plane came roaring overhead and nearly hit the Lexington before crashing into the sea. The guys on deck were all cheering every time O’Hare shot down a Japanese plane. The first time Nelson ever flew in an airplane was in a TBD. Flying was not something Nelson particularly wanted to do but he learned to appreciate it. Nelson liked seeing the guy’s names on the side of the aircraft. He realized that taking the radio operator route might be good. In the torpedo squadron they used to have competitions or tests to test the skills of the radio operators. The first formation flight was off of North Island near San Diego. They had to qualify and they learned gunnery. They had to go up and hit targets that were towed by other aircraft. Nelson hit the target enough to qualify as a gunner. Later on they came out with gunnery schools. Nelson never did have to go to gunnery school. Combat air crewmen got three gold stars near their wings. Nelson recalls a Coral Sea reunion and a guy came up to him to ask about his wings and Nelson said he earned them. Nelson notes that CV-8 [Annotators Note: USS Hornet, CV8] lost her entire torpedo squadron during the Battle of Midway.
Walter Nelson loved the airplane he flew in [Annotators Note: TBF and TBM Avenger torpedo bombers]. It was slow but pretty. They always had a good pilot. In those days the pilots were almost all Academy men [Annotators Note: graduates of the US Naval Academy in Annapolis, Maryland]. Nelson was supremely confident in his aircraft. They got hit on their second pass when they sunk a carrier. A shell unexploded underneath them and it lifted the airplane up further in the air. They had a homing device called a ZB and it worked with the radar. The antenna had been knocked out on that bomb run but fortunately they were able to follow another plane back. The shell that exploded underneath them put a fairly significant hole in the bottom of the airplane. The mechanics were able to fix the aircraft once it landed. In the Navy, the mechanics worked on the planes until they were flyable. The USS Yorktown was out when Pearl Harbor occurred. When Pearl Harbor occurred both carriers were out at sea. Nelson often wonders how that happened. The USS Utah was a battleship that they had stripped and used for target practice. They broke out the chow and it was good. They had food 24 hours a day. They did not spend much time in Pearl Harbor after the attack. Before Coral Sea they did not know what they would be facing. Nelson notes that they were just out there. In early May 1942 they were flying anti submarine patrols. They always had scouts out during the daytime. They had a single .30 caliber machine gun in the front. The scouts had gone out and they located some Japanese ships. They did not locate the fleet immediately. By the next day everyone had been up for 24 hours. The scouts went out on that day and found two of the big Japanese carriers. They launched their attacks. They reached the point of no return when it came to fuel. The air group commander broke silence and said to come back but at that instant they spotted the carriers. They went into a dive with their torpedo bombers. As they were going down they were jumped by Japanese fighters. Nelson strafed one of the carriers with his single .30 caliber. He could hear the Japanese antiaircraft guns firing at him. They were able to damage both carriers but they did not sink them. They were by themselves on the way home. They encountered a Japanese flying boat and Nelson had 100 rounds left and fired them all at the flying boat. One fighter made a pass and blew up the Japanese flying boat. In those days they had IFF and the ship could challenge who was flying. [Annotators Note: IFF stands for identify friend or foe.] When they came in to land, the fleet fired upon them. They came out of the sky above the USS Phelps. Nelson was sending Morse code signals to tell the fleet they were friendly. They were not able to shoot any of the planes down. One plane went down because it ran out of gas. Before they landed on the Lexington, 15 Japanese planes returning to their carriers opened up on them. They were able to shoot two of the Japanese planes down.
Walter Nelson recognized that they were close enough that they could have bailed over Australia if they needed to. From the flight deck, Nelson remembers explosions everywhere. No one was really shaken up or scared. Some guys were eating ice cream. They crawled down a rope and got in a boat when the ship was sinking. It was hard to paddle away from the ship because of the current created by its sinking. They sent in the cruisers USS Minneapolis and USS Chicago. They deployed their whale boats to pick up survivors from the Lexington. Nelson had two brand new .45 caliber pistols that he made sure he had when he abandoned ship. One part of his lifeboat collapsed and it caused him to drop the two .45 caliber pistols. The USS Phelps sank the Lexington that night with about five torpedoes. They finally had to send one underneath the Lexington to break the keel. It was burning from stem to stern. Nelson was having some coffee and chatted with a sailor who had some shell casings from the ammunition they accidentally fired at Nelsons flight earlier in the day. Nelson brought the casings home when he was home on survivors leave but he thinks his mom threw them away. It was tough watching the Lexington sink. Once you got into combat you did not think about fear much. Nelson had a bullet go behind his head in the plane. There were some bullet slugs in his parachute. For the first attack, they made their torpedo run on the port side. They were able to drop their torpedo on the second run. Nelson watched the torpedo hit near the bow. The bow of the ship disappeared in a massive explosion. Nelson saw it as they banked away. Nelson figured that there were no survivors. It was a huge deal to knock that ship down. Everybody felt great about it. Nelson heard the phrase scratch one flat top over the radio. The phrase scratch one flat top is famous in Navy lexicon. It was chaos. Nelson was shooting at fighters and the pilot was doing what he had to do to evade them. They were able to get away. When they came in on the first Japanese carrier the antiaircraft fire was substantial. It had to be at least a 37 millimeter because it was big stuff. When they got close enough to the Japanese ships they could hear the guns going off.
Walter Nelson was only 19 years old at the time [Annotators Note: at the time of the Battle of the Coral Sea]. The USS Phelps took them to a base. There was an old ship in the harbor that was to take the guys back to the United States. This was cancelled and they were put aboard another ship. Half of the guys went to New Caledonia but Nelson was sent to the Fiji Islands and was attached to a B26 squadron. They were teaching them how to make torpedo runs. Nelson made a couple of hops in the B26 but he did not like it. They got their own tents on the island and they had an enlisted pilot with them. He was a flying boat pilot. Nelson was the radioman on this flying boat doing work for the army. One time they had to go out to a radar station on an obscure Pacific island to pick up a guy who had been burned. Nelson and this pilot flew to the island and they landed in the ocean. It created a spectacle for the natives. They tied up to a buoy and the natives paddled them ashore. A bunch of natives came up with spears and it made Nelson nervous. They picked up the soldier who had been burned. Nelson remembers flying back. He was smoking a cigarette and the burned soldier asked for one. Nelson started smelling smoke and he realized that the kid had lit the major’s parachute on fire by accident. It was about 150 miles back to the base. They got back to the base right when the engines almost gave out. The pilot was excellent and he was able to set the bird down. Nelson was in the Fiji Islands for maybe four months. They had a whole bunch of New Zealand troops on the island. Nelson ended up with the job of guarding a bunch of army radio equipment. The New Zealanders had a gun emplacement with one rifle. Nelson had a case of 30.06 ammunition and he became good friends with the New Zealanders. Eventually the New Zealanders got orders to go back to New Zealand. Nelson and his skipper decided to follow along with the New Zealanders. The New Zealanders treated them incredibly. They loved hanging out in New Zealand. They eventually went back to the states. The whole experience was first class. Nelson remembers having filet mignon and wine. They could order drinks delivered to their room. It certainly was not a typical naval experience.
Walter Nelson used to fly out into the fog near the Bay Bridge in San Francisco. Sometimes he flew underneath the Bay Bridge in an SBD. [Annotators Note: SBD was the dive bomber flown by the US Navy during World War II.] Nelson liked the plane because it had twin .30 caliber machine guns. An air group was getting ready to deploy and they needed a radioman. Nelson told them he wanted to get in and he was transferred to Fighting 17 which was on the USS Hornet, CV-12. Nelson landed on Guam after the Marines invaded Guam. On Guam they were sniped at by Japanese. After being on Guam, Nelson deployed to the USS Hornet. As a radioman in a fighting squadron he would deal with frequencies on the radio. Nelson was able to repair the radios on the fly. Sometimes Nelson would help out in repairing an aircraft after it was flying. John Roosevelt [Annotators Note: the youngest child of President Franklin D. Roosevelt] was aboard the Hornet one time. A destroyer pulled up alongside another time and another son of Roosevelt’s got off. They had lunch with Roosevelt’s brother in the warzone. His son was aboard when President Roosevelt passed away. Nelson was made chief when he was on Guam. Nelson liked the new Hornet. The boat was a heck of a lot nicer then the original Lexington. The Hornet had air conditioning. Nelson bunked near the chief musician. Towards the end of the war the Japanese dropped flares on them all night long. [Annotators Note: Nelson's wife interrupts and asks if anyone wants coffee.] The Hornet was pulled up right next to Japan and they were keeping planes over Japan all day long. The kamikazes made several passes over the Hornet. They went through a typhoon and were able to weather it. Bull Halsey was curious as to what a typhoon would do to a modern fleet. It tore up the flight deck pretty good. Jack Clark was the Admiral at that time. He went out to the flight deck with a handkerchief to check the wind. A Marine pilot had just landed but they told him to launch again to see if he could. He landed in the water immediately. The pilot got out and everybody cheered. They went into Samar in the Philippines. The band and everybody was there. Admiral Clark had gone in for a conference and when he came back he asked the band to play California Here We Come. Nelson went back to the states and was home in Minnesota when the war ended with Japan. After that, Nelson took a discharge in Houston, Texas. Nelson went into the radio business in Pine Bluff, Arkansas. Nelson went back to Minnesota after a year and a half. He ended up working in an iron ore mine as a crane operator. Along came the Korean conflict and Nelson returned to the navy. He ended up in Philadelphia and got transferred to a B24 photo squadron. They went all over the world taking pictures for various governments. Then from B24s he went to an anti submarine squadron. Nelson had naval exercises with the British Navy. They came down with the Asian flu and everyone went out of commission. Nelson was on the USS Leyte Gulf. He remembers flying one time and the pilot was not too good and they almost ran out of fuel trying to land on the Leyte Gulf. The hook caught but one of the engines tore off. It was a violent and memorable landing. Nelson was able to jump out of the plane. When Nelson thinks about the Battle of the Coral Sea he thinks about the sinking of the Lexington and the damage they were able to inflict on the Japanese fleet. Nelson remembers how important it was to know the flag signals and Morse code signals and how they could be delivered by various mediums. The Australians will tell you that Coral Sea was more important than Midway because Coral Sea saved the Australians. When Nelson was on the USS Coral Sea they used to take her into port in Australia to celebrate the battle. Nelson and the Admiral of the Coral Sea were the only survivors from the actual battle. Australia flew out a bunch of TV men and Nelson and the Admiral were interviewed. Wherever Nelson and the admiral went in Australia they were treated royally.
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