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Shawn Vestal: Daughter brings father’s war diaries alive

Duane “Swede” Nelson’s diary entry for April 1, 1945, was unusually long and detailed. You can understand why.

He writes about the invasion of Okinawa and his surprise at the initial lack of resistance he and his fellow Marines encountered, compared to the fierce fighting he’d seen elsewhere. He describes the sight of a Japanese plane being shot down – and a bit about the countryside and agricultural fields. He mentions the “swell steak” he had for dinner the night before, and the pig they butchered for dinner on the island. He mentions his buddies Zito, Raven, Ski, Ronzino, and Stinnette – who shot a Japanese soldier with his Tommy gun.

He concludes with this: “The mosquitoes are really bad and Blasco Molle had his eyes swollen shut the next morning from them. What a sight he was.”

Nelson’s three tiny diaries are dense with vivid, spellbinding life, bristling against the casual presence of death. In the direst moments, they are straightforward and without despair. The journals followed him during his service as a Marine in the South Pacific from 1943 to 1946. Now, thanks to a lot of hard work and online sleuthing by his daughter, Becky Clark, his diaries are being shared with his few surviving “Marine brothers” or their family members.

In fact, Blasco Molle himself, now living in New Jersey, has been reading these journals this month, some 66 years after his eyes swelled shut. So has Stinette’s grandson. And Raven’s daughter. And Ronzino’s sons and grandson. And Ski’s nephew.

Nelson, whose 86th birthday is Aug. 6, has been in hospice care since April. In recent months, Clark has typed up her dad’s journals and is attempting to get copies to every survivor or family member from Swede’s unit with the 2nd Platoon, 7th Battalion of the 1st Marine Division. The journal, which includes Swede’s many photos, has been sent to some 42 people, mostly family members of Marines who have died. For them, the diary is a vivid window into a world their fathers and grandfathers mostly kept to themselves.

“Wow,” reads one typical response from the son of a Marine. “I just finished reading the book. Now I realize why dad never told any war stories other than stories about goofing off and causing trouble. … What these men saw and had to endure explains why it was not readily shared.”

Clark has tracked down 15 of Nelson’s fellow Marines and helped arrange conversations between them and her dad. She’s still trying to contact a few dozen more families of Marines who have died.

“I just keep hunting,” Clark said. “I told him I wouldn’t quit until I found every single family.”

Nelson’s fingerprints are all over Spokane. A longtime owner of Nelson’s Landscape Service, he landscaped Riverfront Park, several golf courses and campuses. He and his late wife, Donna, had three kids, eight grandchildren, and three great-grandchildren; a few years ago, he donated the family’s land for the new Y building on Newport Highway.

A tall, lean man who was a two-sport college athlete after the war, Nelson’s health began failing in recent years. In April, suffering from congestive heart failure and liver failure, he entered hospice care at Royal Park Care Center. Clark, who had heard her father talk about his diaries, raised the idea of typing them up to share with his buddies, and quickly went to work – tackling the job at nights and on weekends.

She’d constantly confer with her dad about details and slang terms. The project gave him a focus and a purpose, and a way to continue focusing on life.

Nelson is now white-haired and very thin, and his soft voice sometimes drops into a bare whisper. But you can still see Swede – the big, broad-shouldered, smiling young Marine – in his proud manner, his smile, his tendency to tease.

Nelson, who fired big mortars in an artillery unit, fought in two bloody campaigns. At Peleliu, he and other Marines piled off the landing ships and into the waist-high sea, mortar flying all around them. A months-long battle ensued, the deadliest of the Pacific theater. He later fought on Okinawa, the largest amphibious assault in the Pacific theater.

Reading the diaries, you can see how brutally difficult it must have been, but you have to read between the lines. Nelson never complains about death or injury – only the food, bugs, rain and officers. Nelson credits his Marine Corps training with helping him stay strong.

“You don’t let it screw you up – ‘Oh no, that took off a piece of my ear,’ or ‘I lost my hand,’ ” he said this week, doing his best impression of a complainer. “You just kept going.”

One thing Clark has discovered in recent months is how popular her father was with his buddies. One of them named his son after Duane and his daughter after Donna. Swede later became the driving force behind organizing annual reunions.

“It’s the little things in this menagerie we go on that bring out the best in men,” he said this week. “It was fun being in the Marine Corps, and I had a lot of wonderful friends who will back you to the hilt, whatever the obstacle.”

Asked about his most frightening memory, he recounted a battle on Okinawa in which his unit came up over a rise and onto a big flat field the size of six football fields.

“All of a sudden, their machine guns opened up, and all I could do was crawl,” he said.

Bullets popped in the earth all around him. “I crawled all the way across that big old field,” he said.

A lot of his fellow Marines did not survive that day.

“Oh yeah,” he said softly. “Lots of ’em.”

Shawn Vestal can be reached at (509) 459-5431 and Follow him on Twitter at @vestal13.