Major Havelock David Nelson was born in March 27, 1898, to Horatio H. Nelson & Nora B. Brewer-Nelson in Canton, Ohio. With his two sisters and two brothers, he grew up in Canton and Springfield, Ohio. He attended Wittenberg College and the University of Cincinnati for his masters degree. While there, he played football. He was known as “Harvey” to his family and friends.
Nelson joined the U. S. Marine Corps, as an enlisted man, on June 16, 1917, in Cincinnati, Ohio, and was sent to France where he was a member of 97th Company, 3rd Battalion, 6th Marine Regiment. He took part in battles from May 1918, until Germany surrendered on November 11, 1918. He returned to the United States and was discharged on August 13, 1919.
On December 1, 1925, Nelson joined the Ohio National Guard. He also married to Kathleen Bouchette-Jones on May 25, 1927, and they became the parents of two children; Kate and Leslie. To support his family, he worked as an investment analyst at Fifth/Third Union Trust Bank.
In the National Guard, Nelson rose through the ranks from private to first sergeant and resigned as an enlisted man on February 29, 1928, and commissioned a second lieutenant on March 1, 1928. While in the National Guard, he was a member of Third Squadron, 107th Cavalry which was a mechanized cavalry unit. He was promoted to first lieutenant on April 4, 1929, and made captain on October 20, 1939. At that time, he was made commanding officer of Troop B, 22nd Cavalry Division. On March 1, 1940, he was sent to Cavalry School at Fort Riley, Kansas, and instructed in the handling of horses and mechanized weapons for three months.
Nelson entered federal service in the U. S. Army on February 7, 1941, and was assigned to HQ Company, 192nd Tank Battalion, as the company’s commanding officer.
In late March 1941, the 192nd was moved to new barracks at Wilson Road and Seventh Avenue at Ft. Knox. The barracks had bathing and washing facilities in them and a day room. The new kitchens had larger gas ranges, automatic gas heaters, large pantries, and mess halls. One reason for this move was the men from selective service were permanently joining the battalion.
A typical day for the soldiers started at 6:15 with reveille, but most of the soldiers were up before this since they wanted to wash and dress. Breakfast was from 7:00 to 8:00 A.M., followed by calisthenics from 8:00 to 8:30. Afterward, the tankers went to various schools within the company. The classes consisted of .30 and .50 caliber machine guns, pistol, map reading, care of personal equipment, military courtesy, and training in tactics.
At 11:30 the soldiers stopped what they were doing and cleaned up for mess which was from noon to 1:00 P.M. Afterward, they attended the various schools which they had been assigned to on January 13, such as mechanics, tank driving, radio operating. At 4:30, the soldiers called it a day and returned to their barracks and put on dress uniforms and at five held retreat and followed by dinner at 5:30. After dinner, they were off duty and lights were out at 9:00 P.M., but they did not have to turn in until 10:00 when Taps was played.
On June 14th and 16th, the battalion was divided into four detachments composed of men from different companies. Available information shows that C and D Companies, part of Hq Company and part of the Medical Detachment left on June 14th, while A and B Companies, and the other halves of Hq Company and the Medical Detachment left the fort on June 16th. These were tactical maneuvers – under the command of the commanders of each of the letter companies. The three-day tactical road marches were to Harrodsburg, Kentucky, and back. The purpose of the maneuvers was to give the men practice at loading, unloading, and setting up administrative camps to prepare them for the Louisiana maneuvers.
Each tank company traveled with 20 tanks, 20 motorcycles, 7 armored scout cars, 5 jeeps, 12 peeps (later called jeeps), 20 large 2½ ton trucks (these carried the battalion’s garages for vehicle repair), 5, 1½ ton trucks (which included the companies’ kitchens), and 1 ambulance. The detachments traveled through Bardstown and Springfield before arriving at Harrodsburg at 2:30 P.M. where they set up their bivouac at the fairgrounds. The next morning, they moved to Herrington Lake east of Danville, where the men swam, boated and fished. The battalion returned to Ft. Knox through Lebanon, New Haven and Hodgenville, Kentucky. At Hodgenville, the men were allowed to visit the birthplace of Abraham Lincoln.
In the late summer of 1941, the tank battalion was sent to Camp Polk, Louisiana, to take part in maneuvers from September 1 through 30. The entire battalion was loaded onto trucks and sent in a convoy to Louisiana while the tanks and wheeled vehicles were sent by train.
During the maneuvers that tanks held defensive positions and usually were held in reserve by the higher headquarters. For the first time, the tanks were used to counter-attack and in support of infantry. Many of the men felt that the tanks were finally being used like they should be used and not as “mobile pillboxes.”
It was after the maneuvers that the battalion was ordered to Camp Polk, Louisiana, instead of returning to Ft. Knox. None of the soldiers had any idea why they were remaining at the base. On the side of a hill, the battalion was informed that their time in the Army had been extended from one to five years. They also learned they were being sent overseas as part of Operation PLUM. Within hours, most had figured out that PLUM stood for the Philippines, Luzon, Manila. Men 29 years old or older were given the opportunity to resign from military service. Replacements for these men came from the 753rd Tank Battalion and the 192nd also received the 753rd’s M3 “Stuart” Tanks.
The reason the battalion was being sent overseas was because of an event that happened during the summer of 1941. A squadron of American fighters was flying over Lingayen Gulf when one of the pilots noticed something odd. He took his plane down and identified a buoy in the water. He came upon more buoys that lined up, in a straight line, in the direction of a Japanese occupied island. The squadron continued its flight plan to Mariveles and back to Clark Field. When the planes landed he reported what he had seen, but it was too late in the day to do anything.
The next morning another squadron was sent to the area and found the buoys had been picked up by a fishing boat that was seen making its way to shore. Since communication between the Air Corps and Navy was poor, no ship was in the area to intercept the boat. It was at that time the decision was made to build up the American military presence in the Philippines.
Traveling west over different train routes, the battalion arrived in San Francisco, California, where they were ferried, on the U.S.A.T General Frank M. Coxe, to Angel Island and given physicals and inoculations. The members of the medical detachment administered the physicals to the soldiers of the tank companies. Men with minor medical conditions were held on the island and scheduled to rejoin the battalion at a later date. Other men were simply replaced.
The 192nd was boarded onto the U.S.A.T. Hugh L. Scott and sailed on Monday, October 27. During this part of the trip, many tankers had seasickness, but once they recovered they spent much of the time training in breaking down machine guns, cleaning weapons, and doing KP. The ship arrived at Honolulu, Hawaii, on Sunday, November 2nd and had a two-day layover, so the soldiers were given shore leave so they could see the island.
On Wednesday, November 5th, the ship sailed for Guam but took a southerly route away from the main shipping lanes. It was at this time it was joined by, the heavy cruiser, the U.S.S. Louisville and, another transport, the S.S. President Calvin Coolidge. Sunday night, November 9, the soldiers went to bed and when they awoke the next morning, it was Tuesday, November 11th. During the night, while they slept, the ships had crossed the International Dateline. It was also at this time the convoy stopped at Wake Island so the B-17 ground crews could disembark.
On Saturday, November 15, smoke from an unknown ship was seen on the horizon. The Louisville revved up its engines, its bow came out of the water, and it shot off in the direction of the smoke. It turned out the smoke was from a ship that belonged to a friendly country, but two other ships intercepted by the Louisville were Japanese freighters that were hauling scrap metal to Japan.
When they arrived at Guam on Sunday, November 16, the ships took on water, bananas, coconuts, and vegetables before sailing for Manila the next day. At one point, the ships passed an island at night and did so in total blackout. This for many of the soldiers was a sign that they were being sent into harm’s way. The ships entered Manila Bay, at 8:00 A.M., on Thursday, November 20, and docked at Pier 7 later that morning. At 3:00 P.M., most of the soldiers were taken by bus to Ft. Stotsenburg. Those who drove trucks drove them to the fort, while the maintenance section remained behind at the pier to unload the tanks.
At the fort, they were greeted by Colonel Edward P. King, who apologized they had to live in tents along the main road between the fort and Clark Airfield. He made sure that they had what they needed and received Thanksgiving Dinner – a stew thrown into their mess kits – before he went to have his own dinner. Ironically, November 20 was the date that the National Guard members of the battalion had expected to be released from federal service.
The members of the battalion pitched the ragged World War I tents in an open field halfway between the Clark Field Administration Building and Fort Stotsenburg. They were set up in two rows and five men were assigned to each tent. There were two supply tents and meals were provided by food trucks stationed at the end of the rows of tents.
The area was near the end of a runway used by B-17s for takeoffs. The planes flew over the tents at about 100 feet blowing dirt everywhere and the noise was unbelievable. At night, they heard the sounds of planes flying over the airfield which turned out to be Japanese reconnaissance planes. In addition, the khaki uniforms they had been issued also turned out to be a heavy material which made them uncomfortable to wear in the tropical heat.
During the trip to the Philippines, Nelson was made the battalion’s executive officer. He was also promoted to major on November 1, 1941, and gave up his command of HQ Company.
It is known that on November 28, Nelson was with Capt Alvin Poweleit and Lt. William Mosiman, were at the Officers’ club on the base and ran into an Army Air Corps captain who they became friends with during the trip to the Philippines. During the meeting, the three men got into a discussion about the Japanese. The captain told them that he believed that the Japanese were a greater threat than most Americans believed. Nelson did not agree with him but Poweleit did. As the three officers left the club, the night sky was lit up by searchlights.
On December 1, 1941, Nelson, Captain Arthur Burholt, Capt. Donald Hanes, and Capt. Alvin Poweleit were sent north to Lingayen Gulf to do reconnaissance on the area. Everyone knew that war was coming, they just did not know when it would come. The four men noted that the defenses from the gulf to Damortis were excellent, but from there on, the defenses were none existent. The men believed if the Japanese landed in the area, that they could make their way around the defenses and attack from behind. None of this information was taken seriously higher up in the military organization.
Maj. Nelson lived through the bombing of Clark Airfield on December 8, 1941. At first, the Americans believed that the planes were coming to reinforce them. It was when the bombs began exploding that the soldiers knew the planes were Japanese. Pvt. Cecil Vandiver, a cook with D Company, wanted to see what was going on, so he stood up. As he stood there watching, the trees around him began exploding and showering him with redwood. Nelson, seeing Vandiver, ordered him to take cover. Vandiver later said that Nelson most likely saved his life.
Gen. Edward King facing the reality that only about 25% of his troops were healthy enough to fight and most likely would last one more day. It was at this time that he decided to send his staff officers to negotiate terms of surrender since he wanted to avoid the slaughter of 6,000 wounded and sick troops and 40,000 civilians. At 10:30, these orders were given: “You will make plans, to be communicated to company commanders only, and be prepared to destroy within one hour after receipt by radio, or other means, of the word ‘CRASH’, all tanks and combat vehicles, arms, ammunition, gas, and radios: reserving sufficient trucks to close to rear echelons as soon as accomplished.”
When Bataan was surrendered, Maj. Nelson became a Prisoner Of War and took part in the death march. Grover Brummett stated that during the march, Nelson constantly encouraged the other members of the 192nd to keep going. According to Brummett, Nelson made his way among the men and talked to them to keep their spirits up. He told them that he knew that they could make it. At some point on the march, Nelson was weak enough to require help from other members of the 192nd. One of the members of the battalion to help him was Joe Lajzer of B Company. According to Lt. Leroy Scoville, A Company, in a roster of the 192nd that he kept as a POW, Nelson was so weak that he thought that he had died on the march.
Nelson and the other POWs were held at Mariveles for one day before being loaded onto small wooden boxcars. The cars had room for forty men or eight horses. The Japanese crammed 100 men into each car and closed the doors. As the prisoners disembarked the cars at Capas, those who had died in the cars fell to the floors. At Capas, Japanese soldiers were offering the POWs Japanese money so the POWs could buy food. By this time, the POWs knew this was a trick and that Americans caught with the money would be killed.
After leaving the boxcars, the POWs had to walk approximately ten miles to Camp O’Donnell. According to letters kept by Major John Morley, Nelson fell and could not get up. He was kicked in his stomach and hit in his head by a Japanese guard. When Nelson would not get up, the guard determined he was too exhausted to continue, and he was allowed to lay on the ground until he could continue the march.
Morley and Capt. Malcolm Fowler, 26th Cavalry, Philippine Scouts, carried Nelson the rest of the way to Camp O’Donnell. Arriving at the camp. the two men placed Nelson under a hut with his field bag. It was the last time John ever saw Nelson.
According to the research done by his family, there are two versions of what happened to Nelson. In the first version when the POWs arrived at Camp O’Donnell, they were ordered to form ranks and were searched once again. Any prisoner found with an item that was Japanese was ordered to go to another area and create ranks there. During the search, Nelson was found to be carrying a Japanese coin and sent to the second formation. The POWs sent to this formation were later shot and buried in the camp cemetery. At this point, there are various versions of what happened.
It should be noted that Lt. Jack Merrifield was present when Nelson reached Camp O’Donnell. According to Merrifield, the Japanese went through Nelson’s baggage and found a Japanese battle flag. This fact was confirmed by Capt. Alvin Poweleit. After finding the flag, he was separated from the other POWs – with anyone else found to have Japanese items – and held is a separate area of the camp.
The Japanese executed any American found with Japanese “war prizes.” According to Capt. Alvin Poweleit, the 192nd’s chief medical officer, Nelson, with three other men, was shot. After being shot several times, Nelson did not die. Poweleit reported that the Japanese buried him, but that he crawled out of the grave. He was helped by friendly Filipinos and turned over to guerrillas. He spent nineteen months with the guerrillas before coming down with dysentery and dying.
This story seemed to be confirmed by information from the family which states that the Americans found with anything Japanese were made to stand in front of a grave on June 15, 1942. An American colonel is said to have said, “Oh God, they can’t do this horrible thing!” As the last order, he told the men, “Men. Die like Americans!” The Japanese sprayed the group with bullets and the men fell into the grave. Nelson fell into the grave but was still alive. When he regained consciousness, he found himself pinned down by the dead. A Filipino, who also survived, worked with Nelson and the men freed themselves. The two men escaped into the jungle where they met up with guerrillas.
According to the report written by Brigadier General James Weaver, after being shot, Nelson and the bodies of the other men were taken to the camp’s cemetery and put in a grave. Since it was raining, the Japanese made the decision not to cover the bodies with dirt.
After the Japanese had left the cemetery, Nelson revived crawled from the grave and made it into the jungle where he was found by American guerrillas. The commanding officer of the guerrillas was Lt. James Hart of the 194th Tank Battalion.
In another story, Grover Brummett, HQ Company, 192nd, stated that upon reaching Camp O’Donnell, Nelson collapsed. Brummett believed Nelson had died of a heart attack and was taken to the camp cemetery where, as it turned out, he was buried alive in a slit trench. In this version, Nelson and another POW escaped and went into the mountains. During this time, he was cared for by Mr. Ocampo.
Nelson’s daughter, Kate, would travel to the Philippines after the war and meet the man who cared for her father. After almost two months of suffering, Maj. Havelock D. Nelson died from his wounds on Monday, June 15, 1942. After the war, Major Havelock Nelson was listed as a guerrilla in Zambales during the opening months of 1942.
Major Havelock D. Nelson was buried in Plot N, Row 18, Grave 176, at the American Military Cemetery outside of Manila. He was posthumously awarded the Silver Star and Legion of Merit. On June 14, 2007, an inactive American Legion post was reestablished as the Havelock D. Nelson American Legion Post in West Chester, Ohio. Although he may never have known it, he was held in high regard by his men.