By the time Radioman 2nd/Class Vern Nelson came aboard PT-108 in the South Pacific in 1944 the torpedo boat had seen lots of action against the Japanese in World War II. As part of Motor Torpedo Boat Squadron FIVE the 80-foot plywood craft first operated out of the Panama Canal Zone starting in July starting in 1942.
In the spring of 1943 she was taken to the Solomon Islands in the Pacific where she first saw action in the war zone over there. On Aug. 1st and 2nd she took part in a night action in the Blackett Strait that resulted in the loss of her sister boat, PT-109 skippered by future President John F. Kennedy.
The next night PT-108 and several other PT boats were attacked by Japanese fighter planes, but escaped damage. A couple of weeks later, on Aug. 22, PT-108’s crew suffered serious casualties off the coast of Kolombangara Island during a daylight raid when struck several times by enemy fire.
Late in 1944, 108 was transferred to the Southwest Pacific and became part of Motor Torpedo Boat Squadron TEN. She took part in a number of actions off Leyte Island during the Battle of Leyte Gulf and the American invasion of the Philippine Islands.
PT-108, like many of the 2,000 PT boats in the Navy’ arsenal during World War II were formidable adversaries despite their size. She was armed with four torpedoes, one 37 millimeter cannon mounted on the stern, a 20 millimeter gun on the bow, twin .50 caliber machine-guns on a ring mount amidships, plus a single 40 millimeter post-mounted gun. Powered by three Packard engines that produced 3,600 hp. the boat could reach speeds of 41 knots at full throttle.
“When I first arrived aboard PT-108 at Hollandia she was patrolling along the coast of New Guinea, but then we moved on to Biak,” the 85-year-old Nelson who lives in Gardens of Gulf Cove recalled. “We were going on night cruises off Biak shooting Japanese landing barges filled with troops out of the water. Our mission was to stop the enemy from reinforcing their ground forces on Biak.
“One night we got too close to the beach with our PT boat and the Japanese turned a couple of spotlights on her. A shore battery started firing at us and eventually one of their rounds hit us,” he said. “The shell hit right at the conning tower where the skipper and exec were running the boat. They were both wounded. It would have hit me too, because that’s where the radio was aboard a PT boat, but I was below doing something.
“We were disabled and dead in the water. Another PT-boat came along side and passed us a line. They towed us back to the USS Hilo, the PT-boat tender, for repairs,” Nelson said. “The crew, all but me, went back to the States on leave. They needed radio operators badly, so I was transferred to the Hilo as part of the permanent crew.”
The USS Hilo served as the flagship off all the PT-boats operating in the Southwest Pacific at the time.
“Several times Tokyo Rose told the world kamikaze planes were going to put the Hilo out of commission on a particular day. The skipper of the tender took her up into a narrows with high banks before the appointed day of the attack,” Nelson said. “Just like Tokyo Rose predicted, two suicide planes attacked the Hilo. Because of the high banks on both side she was protected from the kamikaze attack.”
After spending some months on the Hilo, Nelson was transferred to another PT-boat tender, the USS Cyrene, a converted liberty ship.
“We left Leyte Gulf abroad the Cyrene and headed for Iwo Jima where we were on picket duty until they announced the first atomic bomb had been dropped. A few days later a second bomb was dropped and the Japanese surrendered,” he said.
In no time Nelson left the Cyrene and was sent to a receiving station in the islands before he boarded a ship for San Francisco.
“When we sailed into San Francisco Bay there was a boat load of women with a sign that read: ‘WELCOME HOME!’ That was kinda exciting,” Nelson remembered 65 years later.
He went to work for Weston Electric after he got out of the Navy initially. Then he took a job with Detroit Edison and finally went into business for himself. Nelson retired to Florida after working most of his life in electronics.
He and his wife Avis moved to a mobile home park in Punta Gorda, Fla. when he was 60 in 1985. Later they moved to Gardens of Gulf Cove where they currently live. They have two sons, Rodney ad Douglas, two grandsons, two great grandsons, and two great granddaughters who all live in Port Charlotte.
Asked about JFK and PT-109 the old salt said, “Kennedy had been in our squadron, but I never met him. He was gone and so was his PT-boat when I arrived.”
Name: Vernon E. Nelson
D.O.B: 13 Feb. 1925
Hometown: Farmington, Mich.
Current: Gardens of Gulf Cove, near Englewood, Fla.
Entered Service: 1 July 1943
Discharged: 21 March 1946
Rank: Radioman 2nd Class
Unit: PT 108
Commendations: Asiatic-Pacific Medal with two Battle Stars, Philippine Liberation Medal with one Battle Star, World War II Victory Medal, American Area Medal
Battles/Campaigns: New Guinea, Biak
This story was first printed in the Charlotte Sun newspaper, Port Charlotte, Florida on Thursday, Jan. 6, 2011 and is republished with permission.
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