While on the Hawaiian island of Oahu, Pfc. Joseph Nelles was preparing the altar for Mass on Dec. 7, 1941, at a makeshift chapel at Hickam Field, near the Pearl Harbor naval base.
Unaware of his fate, Nelles, a Woodstock resident with dreams of becoming a priest, never finished the preparations, as Japanese bombers flew in under the radar and destroyed the chapel during their attack on Pearl Harbor.
Nelles is the first World War II casualty from McHenry County. The assistant chaplain was found near the base of the altar, historical archives show.
But his memory has lived on through material items passed down by family members.
Nearly 71 years after his death, Nelles’ great-nephew, Mike Henrick of Crystal Lake, still has the sailor’s belongings that were found on him, including a tarnished watch that shows unmovable hands.
“The pocket watch shows 10 to eight,” Henrick said. “It’s almost like the event was frozen in time.”
Japan’s surprise attack started about 8 a.m., although there is no exact way of knowing when the Rising Sun bombers destroyed the chapel. The Japanese offensive on Pearl Harbor did simultaneously start with attacks on nearby American airfields, including Hickam, to prevent American fighter pilots from launching.
Decades later, Henrick said that Nelles’ belongings bring him emotionally closer to a historic moment in U.S. history. People across the nation this weekend have participated in parades, barbecues and ceremonies to honor Memorial Day and remember the many Americans who died in war.
After Nelles’ death, his belongings were passed through the family and landed in the hands of Henrick, who received them after his aunt died. Henrick is the grandson of Nelles’ sister.
Nelles’ watch still remains largely intact, Henrick said. The collection also includes charred coins, bus fare from Honolulu, dog tags, keys and a rosary.
Henrick never heard much about his great-uncle while growing up, but the community in the 1940s paid close attention to the county’s first WWII casualty.
McHenry County Historical Society archives capture a number of newspaper articles that tell the story of Nelles first rumored to be missing and then later confirmed dead while setting the altar for Mass.
The coverage culminated with Nelles’ funeral, which included a eulogy from a local priest who said Nelles was determined to join the priesthood while stationed in Hawaii.
The Pearl Harbor attack is best remembered for its destruction of U.S. Navy ships after bombers ultimately sank or destroyed 21 vessels, including the USS Arizona, where fellow Woodstock resident Thomas Lounsbury also died.
Nearly 2,400 Americans died in the attack. The damage to Hickam left about 140 Americans dead and more than 300 wounded.
Nelles is buried at Diamond Head Memorial Cemetery in Honolulu. In 1995, the federal government named the current Hickam Air Force Base chapel after Nelles.
As for Nelles’ belongings, Henrick said he was recently contacted by a Honolulu group that is trying to develop a museum and wanted the material for display. But Henrick admitted he won’t be making any rash decisions about the historic items.
“It’s family history,” Henrick said, adding, “It’s a personal connection to my great-uncle who I never met or knew. It has personal feelings.”