Fresh out of high school and sailing around the world aboard the USS California, life for 19-year-old Marlyn Wayne Nelson of Sequim held a lot of promise in 1941.
A young man intent on making his parents proud, his letters to family sent from Hawaii that autumn speak of a son and brother planning for the future, taking care of his family as best he could from thousands of miles away and eager to return to “dear old Sequim.” Then came Pearl Harbor.
Nelson, who was aboard his ship on Dec. 7, 1941, was severely wounded in the surprise attack and died of his injuries four days later. The first eastern Clallam County casualty of World War II, he was posthumously awarded the Purple Heart.
The medal, along with Marlyn Nelson’s photographs and letters, are among the military memorabilia featured in a new Museum & Arts Center in the Sequim-Dungeness Valley history exhibit opening Saturday, May 21, at the MAC Exhibit Center, 175 W. Cedar St. in Sequim.
Veterans past and present from all branches of military service are encouraged to attend the exhibit opening, which begins with a flag ceremony at 1 p.m., as honored guests.
In keeping with the MAC’s mission of serving as the steward of Sequim’s cultural heritage, the exhibit will focus on military history in relation to the people of the Sequim-Dungeness Valley. Items on display will include historical photographs, recruitment posters, letters to and from military personnel, as well as military uniforms, equipment and regalia representing different United States military service branches over the past 100 years.
For Nelson’s grand-nephew Norm Dawley, who loaned the Purple Heart and other Nelson family items to the MAC for the exhibit, sharing this piece of his family’s history not only honors Nelson, but also provides a unique educational opportunity.
“I don’t know that if young people especially know that even a small little town like Sequim has some pretty tragic stories in its past. I just happen to have a sort of complete picture of what Marlyn did, with his picture and his letters, and it really brings it home, at least to me,” said Dawley, whose grandmother Fern was Marlyn’s older sister. “He was only 19, just a kid, and if you read the letters, you sense the tragicness of his situation. He was just hoping to come home.”
Among the photographs loaned by Dawley is one of the entire USS California crew taken aboard the ship while docked at Bremerton in October 1940. The image, now poignant, shows the proud faces of numerous servicemen who would not survive the war.
“These were young men who didn’t know they were going to war at the time and they didn’t have a whole lot of say whether they lived or died. They just did the best they could,” said Dawley, who is a teacher in Port Angeles. “If people reading his letters and seeing his Purple Heart educates them about the time, about the sacrifice, I think that sort of education benefits everybody, especially now.”
The MAC Exhibit Center is operating on its expanded summer hours of 10 a.m.-4 p.m. Tuesday-Sunday except the last Sunday of each month. For more information, call the center at 683-8110 or visit the MAC website at www.macsequim.org.