PFC Sven Elmer Roland Nelson


Insignia of VMSB-141
Insignia of VMSB-141
Sven Elmer Roland Nelson
Kingston, IL
Mother, Mrs. Agnes Nelson
January 3, 1942
October 2, 1942
(October 8, 1942)*
Guadalcanal VMSB-141 Radioman/Gunner PFC MIA
SBD-3 03311 shot down by hostile action.
Purple Heart
Manila American Cemetery and Memorial, Philippines.

*Alternate date of death suggested by unit War Diary.

Birth and Early Life:
Sven E. R. Nelson was born in Sweden around the year 1922. His parents, Oscar and Agnes, emigrated to Illinois a few years later and the younger Nelson–who shortened his elaborate name to the more American-sounding “Elmer Nelson”–grew up partly in Chicago and partly in DeKalb County. The Nelsons ran a poultry farm in Sycamore for several years; Elmer doubtless helped out with the family business while working towards his graduation from Sycamore High School.

Enlistment and Boot Camp:
Elmer Nelson was working in Chicago when he heard of the attack on Pearl Harbor. He discussed the prospect of enlisting with his best high school buddy, Pete Johnson–but Johnson, a student at Northern Illinois University, was advised to wait until the end of his current semester. (1) Nelson had no such incentive to wait, and enlisted alone on January 3, 1942.

After completing his initial training at MCRD San Diego, Private Nelson traveled across the country to Jacksonville, Florida, where he learned the dual jobs of aviation radioman and gunner. The young Marine excelled at his new job, and by the end of his training was rated a Private First Class.

Wartime Service:
Elmer Nelson was seeing a lot of the country: his next set of orders sent him back to California to join the dive-bomber squadron VMSB-141. He reported for duty on July 5, 1942, and was assigned to ride rear seat for the squadron’s assistant intelligence officer, 2nd Lieutenant E. Walton Ayres. Within a month the squadron was making preparations to deploy to the South Pacific. After a long sea journey and an anxious flight, Nelson and Ayres touched down at Henderson Field on Guadalcanal. The date was September 30, 1942.

PFC Nelson flew his first scouting mission the following day; he and Ayres were surprised to discover four Japanese destroyers 210 miles from Guadalcanal. Nelson radioed the information back to Henderson Field, and a strike quickly organized as the scouts returned to base, without making an attack of their own.

Date Of Loss:
Ayres and Nelson were assigned to another sector search on October 2, 1942; they took off in SBD-3 03311, and formed up on the Dauntless flown by Lt (jg) Herbert Perritte of VF-71. Their flight was uneventful until they reached the Russell Islands; there, a Japanese pilot (PO1c Okumura Takeo) spotted them and gave chase in his speedy Zero.

After trading fire for several minutes, the bombers disappeared into some clouds. Okumura thought he’d mortally damaged both Dauntlesses–he claimed two kills when he returned to base–but he was wrong. Ayres, Nelson, Perritte and ARM3c Irvin Newsome were still alive, hurrying back to the safety of Henderson Field.

Unfortunately for the Americans, their route took them back over Savo Island. Their blood ran cold at the sight of no less than ten Zeros of the Sixth Air Group, organizing for a post-dogfight flight back to Rabaul. The Japanese had enough fight and ammunition left to pounce on the two lumbering bombers. Ayers and Perritte bobbed and weaved while Nelson and Newson fired desperately at the attackers, but there was really no contest. Within minutes, both bombers were in flames. There were no survivors. (2)


It is very likely that Sven Nelson’s story ended that day, at the guns of a Japanese fighter pilot. However, the war diary for MAG-23 contains this note on October 8, six days after the disappearance of Ayres and Nelson.

PFC Nelson unexpectedly returns to the war diary.
PFC Nelson unexpectedly returns to the war diary.

There is a slight possibility that Nelson was rescued from his October 2 crash site, returned to duty, and then lost for good on October 8 with Lieutenant Louis R. Norman. However, this would have been an event worth noting in both the war diary and the squadron muster roll, neither of which mentions the event. As Nelson was Ayres’ regular gunner (a Sergeant Astronskas flew with Lieutenant Norman), it is almost certain that he was shot down and killed on October 2.

Belvedere Daily Republican, 18 December 1945.

Next Of Kin:
Mother, Mrs. Agnes Nelson

The Nelsons received word that their son was missing in action on December 1, 1942. On February 12, 1943, while returning from a delivery run in Chicago, Oscar Nelson was killed in an car crash that also injured Agnes. Dealt this devastating blow, Agnes clung to the hope that Elmer would turn up as a prisoner of war; in December 1945, as the rest of the nation looked forward to a holiday season without war, she finally received notice that he had been declared dead.

Status Of Remains:

Manila American Cemetery and Memorial, Philippines

(1) Anonymous, “For Those Who Served,” The Midweek News 6 November 2012. Johnson later served with the US Army in the Pacific.
(2) John Lundstrom, The First Team and the Guadalcanal Campaign (Annapolis: Naval Institute Press, 1994), 299. No Americans saw the planes go down; war diaries for VMSB-141 and VB-71 note simply that the aircraft did not return.

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