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National Museum of Nuclear Science & History

Richard “Dick” H. Nelson

VHF Radio Operator on the Enola GayLos Alamos, NM

Hiroshima MissionTinian IslandWendover, UT
509th Composite GroupHiroshima MissionManhattan Project VeteranMilitary Veteran
Head out of the Enola Gay

Richard “Dick” H. Nelson served as a private first class in the 509th Composite Group. He was the radio operator on the Enola Gay during its mission to Hiroshima. 

Richard Hadine Nelson was born on August 26, 1925, in Moscow, Idaho. He moved with his family to Los Angeles, CA in 1929. Nelson was inspired by his older brother, who was in the Air Foce, to become a pilot. 

After attending one semester of university in Moscow, Idaho, Nelson enlisted in the Air Force. In August of 1943, he trained at boot camp in San Antonio, TX before moving on to cadet school in Santa Ana. According to his wife Nancy, Nelson was unable to continue in the Air Force’s service because he had “strained his eyes, and in those days, you had to have perfect vision to get in the service.”

In hopes of keeping his dream of flying in planes alive, Nelson agreed to go to radio school in Cedar Falls, South Dakota. After graduating from radio school, he and his classmates were sent to Clovis, NM, the location of the largest B-29 base in the United States at the time.

His intital time there was rather confusing, though. While everyone else was assigned to a flight crew and plane, Nelson remained without an assignment for about five weeks. In her interview with the Voices of the Manhattan Project, Nancy recalled that Dick finally received “orders, ASAP, to go to Wendover, Utah” and join the 509th Composite Group. 

Upon arriving in Wendover, Nelson was told that he would be sent overseas as the colonel’s radio man. For two weeks, he trained with pratically every plane taking off from Wendover. 

On June 25, 1945, he traveled to Tinian with Paul Tibbetts, Dutch Van Kirk and Tom Ferebee. Although they completed practice runs before the Hiroshima missions, Tibbetts, Van Kirk, Ferebee and Nelson only ran one actual mission together, the Hiroshima mission. After dropping the atomic bomb on Hiroshima, Nelson sent a series of codded messages back to Tinian reporting the Enola Gay‘s success. 

Following World War II, Nelson met his wife, Nancy. They married shortly before Nelson took a new job in Boston, MA. Later in the 1970s, the couple and their children moved to California. 

Richard H. Nelson died on February 1, 2003 at 3:00 a.m., which was three hours before the astronauts on the Space Shuttle Columbia were killed on reentry to the Earth’s atmosphere. In her interview, Nancy remembered that at Dick’s memorial service, Forrest Haggerty, a friend and author of the book on 43 Seconds to Hiroshima, said that the astronauts “wanted some very nice man to greet them at the Pearly Gates, and that was Dick Nelson.”

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