Pfc. Nelles remembered 76 years later

U.S. Navy Capt. John Shimotsu, U.S. Pacific Command chaplain, holds a Catholic Mass at the Courtyard of Heroes during a remembrance ceremony for U.S. Army Air Corps Pfc. Joseph Nelles, Joint Base Pearl Harbor-Hickam, Dec. 10.

Story and photos by Tech. Sgt. Heather Redman

15th Wing Public Affairs

When the Japanese attacked Hickam Field on Sunday, Dec. 7, 1941, more than 189 people lost their lives.

One in particular was a young chaplain’s assistant who was setting up for the morning service. Now, 76 years later, a small group gathered in the Courtyard of Heroes for a remembrance service and Catholic Mass in honor of U.S. Army Air Corps Pfc. Joseph Nelles Dec. 10.

A display features mementos of Airmen who died during the 1941 attack on Hickam Field at the Courtyard of Heroes in the Pacific Air Forces headquarters building, Joint Base Pearl Harbor-Hickam, Dec. 10.

“This is a sacred place today—not just because we gather to pray and worship; it’s also sacred because we gather to remember,” said Lt. Col. David Dersch, Pacific Air Forces staff chaplain. “Whatever our faith background, we share a common legacy of faith and courage. Today, we are ohana—brought together by an amazing heritage.”

Nelles was a Catholic chaplain’s assistant stationed at Hickam Field in 1941.

He was preparing the altar for Mass at the base theater that Sunday when a bomb hit. The theater was completely destroyed and Nelles’ body was found at the altar.

U.S. Air Force Senior Airman Summer Pech of Pacific Air Forces passes a flame to Airman 1st Class Racheli Velez of Pacific Air Forces during the remembrance ceremony for U.S. Army Air Corps Pfc. Joseph Nelles.

In a letter to Nelles’ parents, Col. Edmund C. Sliney, the base chaplain, wrote about their son’s dedication to both God and country.

“I myself found his body, and from its position, I firmly believe that he had reached the altar and was probably kneeling before it,” Sliney said. “Joe was a splendid boy who did much for the Holy Mother church while here, being untiring in his efforts to lead his fellow soldiers to God.”

The ceremony was held at the at the Courtyard of Heroes in the Pacific Air Force headquarters building, which still bears the marks from the attack.

“If these walls could speak, they would tell us of the courage, faith, and sacrifice of the heroes of Hickam Field who gave their all to defend our great land,” Dersch said. “This sacred heritage is now passed on to every service member who defends our nation and the freedom we cherish.”

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Category: News