By: Lt Colonel Denny Weddle USAF (Ret)
In January 1942 Leonard rejoined the USS Pensacola a heavy cruiser (CA-24). Their first action was on February 20, 1942 when the Pensacola helped fend off 18 Japanese planes later they were joined by the carrier Yorktown and escorted the taskforce on offensive patrols until April of that year. On May 28, 1942 they accompanied a task force heading towards Midway Island to join Task Force 17. During the battle of Midway the Pensacola was dispatched to provide anti-aircraft support for the Yorktown carrier task force and her crew had to watch the carrier suffer mortal wounds. Nielsen says “when the order came to abandon the Yorktown we stopped long enough to lower motor lifeboats and began pulling dead and wounded from the water” He and fellow seamen were able to pick up 2,280 of her crew in less than 2 hours, an incredible feat of teamwork and intensity. “During that battle was the first time I saw one of our carriers severely wounded in battle and wouldn’t be the last”. In August after a refit in Hawaii the Pensacola sailed for the South Pacific and in November joined in the battle of Santa Cruz Islands. During the battle the aircraft carrier USS Hornet was lost and the Pensacola managed to save 188 of her crew members. Early in November the cruiser guarded ships unloading troops and material on Guadalcanal. During the first battle of Tassafarongo on November 30 amid heavy gunfire she received 2 torpedo hits that flooded her engine rooms and ripped open oil tanks, but she still managed to fire her guns and made it back to port in Tulagi still burning. Neilson says “during this battle I saw many of my shipmates and friends killed or wounded that was tough and very disheartening”. (The Pensacola lost 125 killed and 68 injured). From Tulagi the Pensacola went to Hawaii for further repairs. Nielsen’s job as a ship-fitter was to repair the hull and keep the ship afloat. “We spent many hours in the water especially after we were torpedoed”. According to after action reports the ships her Captain Frank Lowe stated, “the diving parties played a huge role in saving the ship”. (Leonard Nielsen was a part of that party of seamen).
The Pensacola’s next assignment was in November 1943 at Tawara Atoll here she fired over 600 rounds at Betio to soften up the defenses for the Marines. In January and February 1944 she bombarded the Japanese in the Marshall Islands. In July and August the Pensacola patrolled off Alaska then returned to the Central Pacific bombarding Wake and Marcus Islands before heading for the Philippines and her direct involvement in the landing at Luzon October 20, 1944. On successive months in late 1944 and early 1945 she bombarded defenses at Iwo Jima and Chichi Jima preparing for the landing in February 1945. During the pre-landing bombardments February 16, 1945 she received 6 hits from shore batteries which killed 17 men and wounded 119 others. “One of the shells exploded close by and shrapnel whizzed by me, by the grace of god they all missed”. Her final assignment was the landing at Okinawa after which she returned to Mare Island for overhaul. The refitting was completed in August 1945 but by then the war was almost over. The Pensacola anchored in the port of Ominato, Japan in September as part of the occupation force and preformed duties as the “Magic Carpet” transport to bring home American servicemen. The USS Pensacola earned 8 battle stars and was awarded 3-unit commendations all with Leonard Nielsen aboard, she was decommissioned in February 1946.
Leonard Nielsen was a firsthand witness to all the Pensacola went through and managed to escape the war with nothing more than an appendectomy scar, some hearing loss and a few bumps and bruises. The problems he had with his hearing was because of all of the time he spent in the water. But he says, “I have a lot of memories I rather forget”. Leonard Nielsen has PTSD and still dreams about those events during WWII. According to his daughter Lisa Dupere she has to keep a close eye on him while he’s talking about his experiences. During our interview Leonard was asked “How did your experiences in the war help you after you were discharged”? His daughter piped up and said “Speaking as his daughter, I would say that his experiences added to his kindness, his wanting to help people and he had more patience, it made him a kinder person”. He looked at his daughter and smiled then nodded slightly “that pretty well sums it up” he said. After the war Leonard first went to dental school and didn’t find that very fulfilling so to help put his sisters through college, he went into the insurance business finally ending up as the General Manger of Skyline Memorial Gardens Cemetery in Portland, Oregon. Leonard Nielsen, a brave and true American, representative of the greatest generation and patriot extraordinaire……I salute him for his service.