The Manhattan Project

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Nancy K. Nelson's Interview (2018)

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Nancy K. Nelson's Interview (2018)

Nancy Nelson is the widow of Richard H. Nelson, who served as the radio operator on the Enola Gay on the Hiroshima atomic bombing mission. In this interview, she reminisces about her life with Dick, their involvement with the 509th Reunions, and her recent experiences speaking with veterans' groups.
Manhattan Project Location(s): 
Date of Interview: 
September 13, 2018
Location of the Interview: 
Virginia
Transcript: 

Alexandra Levy: I’m Alexandra Levy with the Atomic Heritage Foundation. It is September 13, 2018, and I’m here in Chantilly, Virginia with Nancy Nelson. My first question is to please say your name and spell it.

Nancy Nelson: Nancy, N-a-n-c-y Nelson, N-e-l-s-o-n. I live in Riverside, California. My husband was Richard H. Nelson, the radio operator on the Enola Gay, August 6, 1945. 

I met him in 1951. I had had one year of college, and I wanted a summer job. The man across the street got me a summer job at the Imperial Brass Manufacturing Company, which is where he worked. Dick had finished his four years of college, had gotten a job with Imperial Brass, and was given a job for Arizona in selling fittings and refrigeration. They wanted him back in Chicago at the home plant. That’s where I met him.

This plant was an old rickety building in Chicago. You had to take a train in to Chicago, and then take the L [Chicago elevated transit system] out to this industrial area. The plant was so rickety and so old, it had to have been built in the 1890s.

Anyway, he was on the executive side of the glass partition, and I was on the worker’s side in clerical. I was supposed to check orders coming in, so I’d have to go down the stairs and check with manufacturing. Dick and I passed in the way, he was coming up and I was going down, and vice versa.

In those days, you could only work till you made $600 or your folks couldn’t keep you as a deduction. In August, I had made my $600 and I had to leave. Dick said, “Call me when you get home from college.”

I kind of thought or said, “Why don’t you call me?” But Michigan State [University] was on quarters, so I had to have finals first. I quit and went back to school. Didn’t see or hear from him until I came home at Christmas, and I decided I’d call him.

He came out. Chicago’s noted for their big snowstorms, which we were having. My folks said, “He won’t come out.” He came out. He was an hour late, but that was predictable in the weather.

We went out and had a nice dinner and came back. He came back to California for three weeks’ vacation. I didn’t see him until the following summer when I went back, and then we started dating. I would stay in town on Friday nights, and we would go out and date.

The people of Imperial Brass took him under their wing because he had no family there. He would go to dinner with the Vice President and the Secretary or the Treasurer, and he was having a good time. But then I started going along with him. These people were my folks’ age, but we had a real good time.

They decided he had had all the training that he needed and they gave him a territory, which was New England. He was shipped off to New England, and he said, “When do you want to get married?”

He was even going to send a ring in the mail. The Secretary for the President said, “You’re not going to do that. I have a friend on Michigan Avenue that has a jewelry store.” We went down there and picked out the ring.

He went off to New England, and my folks were not too happy about it. Before he went to New England, we decided to get married October 10, which was my folks’ twenty-fifth wedding anniversary. I thought maybe it might pacify them a bit.

We got married and we went to New England. Getting married, I met his folks and sister three days before the wedding because they flew in from California. We went to the airport. In those days they had the Midnight Flyer. The plane arrived at—not O’Hare [International Airport], but the other old airport in Chicago—at 6:00 a.m. We were at the airport at 6:00 a.m. to pick them up and to meet them. That was a Wednesday.

Thursday morning, we were back at the airport to pick up the best man and his gal at 6:00 a.m. Friday, the two ushers came by car. Friday night was the rehearsal dinner, Saturday was the wedding, and then we were spending Saturday night down in Chicago at the Blackstone Hotel.

We were walking down the sidewalk, and his friends from California said, “Hi Rick!” They were across the street at the Blackstone Hotel, and he thought, “Uh-oh, we’re in big trouble.” But we weren’t. They left us alone, we didn’t see them the next day. We went out to my folks’ house, packed up the car with wedding presents and my clothes, spent the night with my folks, and then started for New England.

Got to New England. A customer of his knew somebody in furniture. Dick had gone and kind of picked out all of this furniture, but he didn’t buy it. I had to approve it first. He had also rented an apartment. I liked all the furniture, still have it. We went on our honeymoon up into New Hampshire and Vermont. We came back after a week to the apartment. The furniture was delivered.

We lived there. I got pregnant and we had our oldest daughter—who is here—in a one-bedroom apartment. That didn’t work out too good. Then we moved to a two-bedroom apartment. Then, we decided, “Well, we’re going to build a house. Enough apartment living.”

We went to Wellesley Hills, Massachusetts and met a builder whose dad was very prominent in building in Wellesley. We built our house and moved in in August, and Susan came along in October. I loved our house. We lived not very far from the builder’s son. Met a lot of nice people in Wellesley.

I thought that was going to be it for the rest of my life. No. He got tired of shoveling snow and driving in it. He said, “I want to go back to California.” 

I thought, “Oh, golly.” I liked it where I was.

But we sold the house, he quit his job, packed up the kids, and went to Chicago for a week with my folks. Went to California. We passed the moving van—Mayflower, the numbers on the side of the truck were the same ones I had written down. We honked and waved at them.

Got to L.A. [Los Angeles], lived with his folks while Dick drove me around looking at different areas. I had not been to California. It’s like it is now, very crowded. House, sidewalk, driveway, fence, house, and everything close together. We had a half acre.

He took me to Palos Verdes on the last trip, and I said, “This is better.” Got a house in Palos Verdes. Got the kids in school two weeks before Christmas vacation so they could meet some friends. I liked it there. We had an ocean view. It was cool, except Christmas Day it was 72 [degrees]. I said, “Dick, this is not Christmas.”

Then we moved to a bigger house. It had a pool, because the kids wanted a pool. So did Dick—being at the ocean, he liked swimming. We were there and the kids started middle school. They didn’t want the pool anymore, they wanted the ocean. Guess who ended up cleaning the pool? I was not too keen about the whole thing.

When Laurie went off to college, Susan was still in high school and Dick said, “I’d like some land.”

I thought, “Oh, boy.”

Susan went off to college. He had a customer in San Bernardino, and he went to see Ace. He asked Ace if he knew of any land in Riverside. “No, but my wife’s in real estate in Riverside.”

Big mistake. He started looking around with her and he found where I am now, 20 acres with 2,300 orange trees, and a house that was run down, but it had a workshop. We remodeled both houses that we lived in, in Palos Verdes, but he had to clean up the garage every night to get the car in. This had a workshop. He didn’t have to clean up. That was one of the reasons. That and the land is what made him make the choice to go to Riverside.

Levy: Let’s skip ahead to talk a little bit about Dick and your involvement with the 509th [Composite Group] reunions.

Nelson: Okay. We had heard about the reunions, and Dick never wanted to go. He always said, “You won’t have a good time.”

Finally, they had one in Wendover. I didn’t ask, I said, “We’re going, I want to see where you trained.” This is on the other tape too. We went and had a wonderful time, and went to every one after that until, let’s see, he got ill. He had COPD [Chronic Obstructive Pulmonary Disease], and the last reunion we went to was in ’01.

The fellow that wrote Dick’s book [43 Seconds to Hiroshima: The First Atomic Mission by Forrest S. Haggerty], drove us. A widow from Bockscar went with us, too. It was good seeing all these people again. He passed away 2/01/03. I did not go to that reunion, but I’ve been to every one since then.

I’m sorry Bob [Krauss] was talking about it being the last “gathering.” But time will tell. I think we still might go ahead and have some. He might not be in charge, somebody will take over. It’s fun seeing these people once a year.

Most of the reunion attendees now are children of the 509th. Because Dick would be ninety-three. My daughter is sixty-three. Yeah, sixty-three and sixty-one, and they’ve got kids now too. It’s like I said, it’s fun seeing these people and going to these reunions. We kind of just pick up where we left off the year before. We’re losing some, but that’s age too.  

Tomorrow, we’re going to the Air and Space Museum, which I have been to before. But that’s such a big place, I know I’ll see things I didn’t see before.

Before they [the Smithsonian] put the Enola Gay together, we went to Suitland [Maryland] and went in there. We saw the fuselage and boxes of books from the floor to the ceiling, all named with the parts that it belonged to. That was just fascinating, to see that. They had the fuselage there. Dick did climb up and sat in the cockpit, and I got a picture of him in the same pose that Paul [Tibbets] had.

So then, they put it together. I think in ’06 we had a reunion there, because that was the first time I saw it. This will be the second time I see it. That’s fun, too.

Levy:  How do you think Dick would feel about seeing it put back together? It sounds like he never—

Nelson: He never got to see—he would have been very proud of it, because it was shiny bright. It was shinier than when he saw the fuselage at Suitland. Oh no, he would be very pleased if he could see it again. My daughter’s going to see it tomorrow. Susan saw it when we were here in ’06, so I’m going to see the difference between ’06 and now.

I know it will always be there. Right now, the Enola Gay’s on the left and as far as I know, the SR-71 is still on the right at the entrance. More people have talked about it and gone to see it now that it’s put together, because on the Mall [at the National Air and Space Museum], there just wasn’t any room. It just had the fuselage and part of the tail and a wing, that was all.

Connecticut made a sixteen-minute movie. What was the name of that company? I can’t remember. Anyway, it had Dutch [Theodore Van Kirk], Tom [Ferebee], Paul [Tibbets], Bob Caron, and Dick. It was sixteen minutes. The line was so long—more people went to see that exhibit on the Mall than any other exhibit they’d ever had up to that point.

They showed this sixteen-minute film while everybody stood in line. Then when they went through the exhibit and came out the other end, they could sit down and see the film again, so it made more sense to it.

I don’t know where that film is now. I don’t think they’re even using it.

Levy: I guess my only other question is—were there any veterans that Dick was especially close to, that he stayed in touch with after the war?

Nelson: Not after the war. He came back and went to college, got a job, got married. A lot of them, in those days, they were married and raising kids and raising families. It wasn’t until 1990 and I insisted we go to Wendover that we got going with the 509th members again.

Dutch lived in San Francisco. Dutch and Jean [Mary Jane Young] would come down. We had kind of a reunion with Dutch and Jean. Mary—no, Mary Ann [Ferebee] didn’t come, Paul didn’t come. George Marquardt, he was the third plane [Necessary Evil] with the Enola Gay. Corona was the town next over, where the Van Pelts lived. He [James] was navigator on Bockscar [on the Nagasaki mission]. They came to this party, and Dutch and Jean and Marquardts. We had a great time.

We were invited to go to Iwo Jima Survivors [Association] of Texas for five years. Dutch would come down, and we would caravan over. We did a lot with them over there, except that it was the same thing over and over again. Their reunion did not vary all that much. After five years, that was like ’95 to—Dick was going down in health and Jean wasn’t that healthy either. But we had a real fun time with Dutch and Jean.

After Dick passed away, I would drive up to Dutch’s, north of San Francisco.  Tom Ferebee died in 2000, and Mary Ann would fly out to Dutch and Jean’s. Dutch liked to drive, so he drove us all around. He had his harem. Then Dutch moved to Georgia, because that’s where his daughter lived. He passed away in ’14. I’m not sure of Mary Ann’s status. No, there are no members of the 509thEnola Gay or Bockscar. They’re all gone—which happens.

I think there are a couple more wives alive, but they’re not in that good of health. So far so good for me, but I keep active with my 2,300 orange trees. I’ve got a quad, which I ride around in and irrigate my trees. I keep very active.

One thing that’s interesting: it’s been fifteen years since Dick passed away, and now people are asking me to speak. I was the guest speaker at Veterans Day at National Cemetery in Riverside. I was surprised. A friend of a friend asked me—the Master Sergeant out there at the cemetery is in charge of program. He said, “He’d like to see you.”

He picked me up and took me out and I introduced myself. He was a retired Master Sergeant of the Marines. He said, “You’ve got ten minutes. What would you like to say?” 

I started talking about Dick and his career, and he stopped me. He said, “You’ve got fifteen.”

I said, “Okay.”

This was last November, Veterans Day. They took me out there, and here’s this big semicircle with bleachers. There must have been over 300 people there. I started out, I said, “I better talk about Dick.”  I talked about Dick in the service, and then I stopped after that. I turned around to David. He nodded to me and said, “Go ahead.” Then I spoke about our life together, and that took another twenty minutes or more.

I got a standing ovation. What interested me the most was, not one man came down to ask me any questions. Wives and kids came down. I thought that was very interesting. I had a real good time.

The week after that, I was to the Distinguished Flying Cross, I talked to them. I’ve been to retirement homes, and I’ve got another retirement home coming up. Next to the retirement home is a Catholic intermediate school, and they teach history. They bring the kids over to the retirement home to talk to the veterans. I’m scheduled to tell my story there next month.