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Medal of Honor Monday: Navy Petty Officer 1st Class Oscar Nelson

When a boiler exploded on Navy Petty Officer 1st Class Oscar Frederick Nelson's gunboat in 1905, he didn't hesitate to act. He pulled three men from the inferno and kept the crisis from potentially endangering people onshore. His courage earned him the Medal of Honor.

A man in a dress uniform and cap poses for a photo that’s framed in an oval.
Oscar Nelson
Navy Petty Officer 1st Class Oscar Nelson, Medal of Honor recipient.
Photo By: St. Louis County Historical Society
VIRIN: 230710-O-D0439-083

Nelson was born on Nov. 5, 1881, in Denmark to parents Peter and Eliza Nielson. He had two siblings who were also born in Denmark. At some point in the 1890s, the family dropped the "i" in their last name and emigrated to the suburbs of Minneapolis.

According to the Brainerd Daily Dispatch out of Brainerd, Minnesota, Nelson worked in Northern Pacific railway shops in the town before enlisting in the U.S. Navy in 1899.

On July 21, 1905, Nelson was serving as a machinist's mate 1st class on the USS Bennington, a gunboat that had arrived in San Diego harbor from Honolulu. While the ship was docked, a boiler exploded. Nelson explained in a 1917 Quad City Times article that out of 22 men in the ship's engine room, he was the only one to survive.

"I was blown back over the steering engines and found myself lying with three men on top of me," Nelson said in the newspaper, which is based out of Davenport, Iowa. "Boiling water was escaping from the steam pipes. The bulkheads were caved in, and I could feel the boat sinking. I was forced to grope my way about [because] the engine room was so full of steam."

A man in a uniform and cap poses for a photo.
Oscar Nelson
Navy Petty Officer 1st Class Oscar Nelson was a machinist’s mate on the USS Bennington in July 1905 when a boiler exploded, killing dozens of his shipmates. Nelson dragged three sailors from the engine room and kept the explosion from causing more damage. He earned the Medal of Honor.
Photo By: St. Louis County Historical Society
VIRIN: 230710-O-D0439-082

After Nelson escaped, he regrouped, then rushed back into the inferno that was the engine room to drag three men out of it. Unfortunately, they didn't survive.

Since the ship was only about 300 feet from shore, Nelson said it was also imperative that he flooded the powder magazines.

"In the magazines were 13 tons of smokeless powder and 10,000 rounds of 6-inch shells of the armor-piercing kind," Nelson said in a 1914 Brainerd Daily Dispatch article. "Had the contents of the magazine exploded, a great portion of the waterfront of San Diego would have been blown up."

According to the Quad City Times, when Nelson delivered the third man he'd tried to rescue to the upper deck, he was grabbed by attendants from various steamers that came to help. They rushed him to a hospital.

A small boat is docked beside a larger boat that’s partially sunk.
USS Bennington
Crews work to remove the dead from the USS Bennington after a boiler explosion off the coast of San Diego, July 21, 1905.
Photo By: Naval History and Heritage Command
VIRIN: 230710-N-D0439-064

The Bennington sank shortly after that. It was hauled to shore by tugboats for repairs; however, later that year, it was decommissioned and sold for scrap, according to the Naval History and Heritage Command.

The explosion killed 67 of the ship's men and injured 49 others, reports showed.

For his bravery that day, Nelson received the Medal of Honor. It was presented to him on Jan. 6, 1906, by Nicholas Longworth, the son-in-law of President Teddy Roosevelt.

Nelson remained in the service afterward, serving on the torpedo boat destroyer USS Paul Jones, according to the Minneapolis Star Tribune. He was honorably discharged a few years later.

According to Minnesota's St. Louis County Historical Society, Nelson eventually moved to Duluth, Minnesota, and worked for more than two decades for the Army Corps of Engineers. He retired in 1950.

A man is seated in a chair; a woman sits on the arm rest with her left arm around the man.
Family Photo
Former Navy Petty Officer 1st Class Oscar Nelson, a Medal of Honor recipient, poses for a photo with his wife, Anna.
Photo By: St. Louis County Historical Society
VIRIN: 230710-O-D0439-084

At some point he married Anna Dahl, and they had a daughter, Beatrice.

Nelson died Sept. 26, 1951, at 69 years of age. He is buried in Fort Snelling National Cemetery in Minneapolis.

Nelson's Medal of Honor can be found in the Depot of the Veterans' Memorial Hall Gallery in Duluth.  

This article is part of a weekly series called "Medal of Honor Monday," in which we highlight one of the more than 3,500 Medal of Honor recipients who have earned the U.S. military's highest medal for valor.

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