By: Denny Weddle Photos by: Lawrence Oravetz and Denny Weddle
As we remember Pearl Harbor, the words of Franklin D. Roosevelt reverberated over the airwaves providing America with his classic and stirring speech –
“Yesterday, December 7, 1941 a date that will live in infamy – the United States of America was suddenly and deliberately attacked by the air forces of the Empire of Japan….
Many people in the United States had an inkling we would be going to war shortly in 1940 and Lenoard O. Nielsen decided to run to the colors and be ready when it came. Such was the story of 20-year-old Saline, Utah, who joined the Navy and off he went to boot camp at San Diego. Upon completion of boot camp, he was assigned to the USS Arizona and sailed with her headed for Hawaii. Once in Pearl Harbor, Lenoard was transferred to the Heavy Cruiser USS Pensacola as a ship-fitter (these sailors repaired the ship’s hull and underwater apparatus which means they spent a lot of time in the water). Four days prior to the attack he had an emergency appendectomy and was aboard the hospital ship USS Solace. The Pensacola had left Pearl Harbor November 29, 1941 to transport Marines to Midway Island; however, he had been too ill and stayed at Pearl Harbor on the Solace after having his appendix removed.
Needless to say, when the attack started he had grand stand view from the fantail of the Solace of the horrific events unfolding in front of him. “The wave after wave of Japanese planes never seemed to stop” he said. “What startled me most was seeing a Jap plane fly by so close I could clearly see the pilots face”. His face now becoming very dark, “..soon after that the most traumatic thing and something I can still see vividly today was my old ship the Arizona blowup and then shortly afterward the Oklahoma roll over with a loud whoosh“. Now talking animatedly, “Once we realized what was happening and began seeing the carnage unfolding a group of patients and I went into action and with several other ship personnel used a longboat from the Solace to begin searching through the fire and smoke, the oil slicks and blood looking for survivors”. He added stoically “A scene I’ll never forget is the dead or dying and my badly burnt and wounded shipmates”. Then he added “We did the best we could but sometimes that was not good enough, all we could think about was saving as many as we could”. After the attack Lenoard and his crew worked tirelessly on 12 hour shifts for days searching through the debris for survivors. Of the 2403 killed during the attack 1,177 were lost when the Arizona blew up. In a poignant comment Lenoard said “later I realized with a shock that I could have been one of those onboard the Arizona and I thanked God for sparing me”. Finally, he added, “Then I became angry, disgusted and wanted to show the Japs they’d made a serious mistake”. It’s taken a lot of years for Lenoard Nielsen to cope with Pearl Harbor and he still has problems to this day. Here was a 20-year-old youngster who had never even seen a dead body before and all of a sudden, he is in the middle of a war. He was to raise through the ranks and be commissioned an Ensign near the end of the war. Next – On with the war where Nielsen is aboard a ship earning 8 battle stars.