Oldest African American survivor of attack on Pearl Harbor
Story and photos by Danny L. White
There are times to this very day that if Nelson Mitchell, Sr. closes his eyes and concentrates he can still hear and feel the impact of bombs raining down on Pearl Harbor’s Naval Base on Sunday morning December 7, 1941.
Only 21 years of age at the time, Mitchell, the third of eight children, had enlisted in the U.S. Navy to help his family after the deaths of two sisters and two brothers to the dreaded tuberculosis. A third brother drowned and Mitchell felt the $21 monthly pay from the Navy would help his family.
“I kept nine dollars and sent the rest home,” recalled Mitchell, pausing briefly as to reflect. Mitchell’s brief reflection was interrupted by well-wishers to his 95th birthday party.
Attired in a grey tux, the affable and gregarious Mitchell stood holding pictures of his younger self in naval uniform welcoming family, friends, and community well-wishers to his 95 birthday celebration.
Family members and friends traveled from California, New Mexico and across the city and state to wish Nelson happy birthday.
Mitchell has become some-what of a celebrity in his latter years as he is believed to be the oldest living African American survivor of the attack on Pearl Harbor.
Assigned to the USS Jarvis only a short time before that dreadful day, Mitchell recalls he and other sailors were lounging above deck enjoying a lazy Sunday morning when they came under attack.
“Blacks were regulated to steward positions at that time. We cooked and served the officers and mates in the kitchen,” said Mitchell.
“When we realized we were really under attack, we immediately went below deck to put on our uniforms and returned top-side to assist in any way we could. Our ship was one of the first to return fire. We did not suffer the casualties or damage some of the other ships did.
“For anyone to have survived that attack was nothing short of a miracle,” said Mitchell adding, “but many did survive and we took it to Japan and Germany. Our naval fleet was badly destroyed but the moral of the men was very high.”
During the birthday celebration, members of the Buffalo Soldiers America Arizona Chapter Motorcycle Riders presented Mitchell with a crystal rising star award. “We consider Nelson an honorary member of our organization,” said BSAAMR President Chaz Jackson. Jackson shared how his group has honored Mitchell at two previous events and thanked him for his service to country, family and community.
Many of Mitchell’s former neighbors from the Okema neighborhood drove across town to the northwest resident of Mitchell’s son for the special event. Larry Sells and Bill Mosely recalled the old neighborhood and hearing stories of how their friend’s dad fought in WWII and was at Pearl Harbor the day of the attack. Good family friends, the Boones (Carol) and mother attended extending well wishes. Family from California and New Mexico came bearing gifts and well wishes for their great uncle and cousin.
“The significance of Mr. Mitchell’s service to this country grows each year,” said Mosely, the former TV 3 sports anchor.
“Growing up, dad was dad,” recalled Nelson Mitchell, III adding, “He did not talk much about his military life. He was a proud and quiet man. My brother Lynwood and I both served. We have a sister (Cynthia) and our mother unfortunately passed back in the70’s.
Mitchell met the love of his life, Fannie Lee, on a rare break from duty in 1944. Returning home to Texas, Mitchell attended a basketball game and caught the eye of the lovely Lee. A year of letter writing and courting strengthened the friendship and marriage followed.
“I requested a California assignment to be closer to home but it was denied,” recalled Mitchell adding, “I was told you do a good job and the officers like how you cook.”
Mitchell would end his military duty after eight years to be close to his growing family. Working odd jobs to make ends meet, Nelson landed a job with the civil service worked there for close to 30 years, stopping only to care for Fannie when she became ill.
“I have had a good life. It wasn’t an easy life, but it has been good. I am thankful for every day I get up and see a new day, you have to keep moving,” said Mr. Mitchell adding, “I don’t quit, never have and don’t plan to now.”