Marvin R. Nelson, USMC, Ret.
U. S. Marines
Squadron Commander, Pilot, VMA 231
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Nicknamed "Rocky," he was born in La Crosse, Wisconsin, but spent his early childhood in Hutchinson, Minnesota, along with a twin sister, Marlys, and an older brother, Kenneth. The family lived on a farm with an icebox and no indoor plumbing. They raised much of their food, including potatoes, which his mother cooked on a wood-burning stove. They always had one cow, and "raised a pig or two." The animals were slaughtered and the meat was kept in a meat locker in town. Their parents were William E. Nelson, a carpenter and contractor, and Theresa Freeze Nelson. Rocky's father was absent during much of his childhood, when he was working on the Alaskan Highway during much of World War II. Rocky recalls "playing war" as a favorite pastime of his boyhood. He ran a paper route, arising around 5 a.m. to throw the morning newspaper before going to school. He collected each Saturday, about three dollars a week, and saved his money to buy his first bicycle. The family moved to Deephaven, Minnesota, about 12 or 15 miles west of Minneapolis, on Lake Minnetonka, where he entered the 7th grade. Rocky went to Deephaven High School through his junior year when that institution was consolidated with Excelsior. He then went to Minnetonka High School, where he graduated in May of 1953. During his senior year he got a job at a Chevrolet garage as a car runner and tow-truck driver. On October 15, 1953, Rocky, along with some other friends, joined the U.S. Marine Corps. Completing boot camp in San Diego, he remarks "changed my life forever." He entered flight school as a NAVCAD (Naval Aviation Cadet) in May of 1954. After classroom studies he began flight training at fields near Pensacola, soloed on his 20th flight, completed formation training and instrument training, rockets and bombs training, became proficient in carrier landings. After a year of basic flight training, he entered advanced flight school, learning how to fly a single engine jet. He was instrument qualified, then flew the F9F-2 Panther jets in his last three months of advanced training. In all, he recalls, it took 18 months for marine pilots to earn what they called their "Navy Wings of Gold". He was 2nd lieutenant but within a year made 1st lieutenant. In Miami he learned to fly the AD-6 Skyraider, a single engine propeller plane. He was sent to Marine Corps Air Station Iwakuni, Japan where he spent "almost 17 or 18 months" in 1958 and 1959. His was a special weapons squadron trained to drop nuclear weapons. (He would later spend a second tour in Japan in 1964 and 1965 as executive officer of a headquarters squadron.) Meanwhile he had met Marcia Ford of Plain Dealing, Louisiana, through her brother. In 1958 he was part of 2nd Battalion, 6th Marines and went to the Mediterranean for "seven or eight months" during the Lebanon crisis. He was in Athens, Greece when he called Marcia and said, "Marry me!" They wed on April 2, 1959. (They would have two children and three grandchildren.) Rocky was sent to Corpus Christi as an instructor, then to Beeville as an advanced jet instructor in F9F-8 Cougars, a swept wing jet. He then went to Hawaii for three years as assistant operations officer for a marine regiment--an assistant S3 for the 4th Marine Regiment. He was promoted to major, then lieutenant colonel as the youngest lieutenant colonel in the US Marine Corps. After a year with the 4th Marine Regiment he entered the 913 Air Group, part of an air-ground brigade team with 4th Regiment. He was then transferred to VMA 214, an A4 squadron, where he flew the jet for two years. He and Marcia lived in Kailua, then in base housing. Already with one son, Marvin, their daughter Kim was born in Hawaii. The family returned to the mainland where he went to Marine Corps Air Station El Toro in California for nuclear weapons training schools. By then he was flying A4Cs. Back at Iwakuni he spent 13 months as executive of a headquarters squadron. At Cherry Point, North Carolina he was promoted to major, and served as adjutant of Marine Aircraft Group 24. He then went to VMA 3-32 squadron, flying A4s. He was promoted to major and served as operations officer of the squadron. Because of the loss of helicopters in Vietnam, Rocky was sent to New River, a helicopter base near Marine Corps Base Camp Lejeune and was transitioned into CH-46 helicopters, or the Sea Knight--an aircraft similar in appearance to a Chinook but smaller. "Then we went overseas to Vietnam as 46 drivers instead of A-4 drivers," he remarks. Aboard was a crew of five--pilot, co-pilot, two gunners and a crew chief. Rocky arrived in Vietnam in June of 1968. He was sent to Provisional Marine Aircraft Group 39 at Quang Tri, a province in the northern part of South Vietnam. "When I left the states going to Vietnam, I really didn't think I was going to come back anyway," he says. Rocky served as maintenance officer for the CH-46 that transported troop, hauled resupply, inserted and extracted recon teams, and rescued wounded as medevacs. The helicopter, with a crew of five, carried in addition "about 12 or 13 fully loaded combat marines," he remarks. He flew 1,200 combat strike flight missions, although in a single four- to five-hour flight he might complete three to five missions. Rocky says he was wounded "a couple of times" but received only one Purple Heart. "I got some "John Kerry-type" of wounds, which were not that serious," he remarks. A mortar hit him in a helicopter and "it sprayed me pretty good. They sewed up some holes in my arm and my legs and in my chest," he says. He was also shot down twice. His squadron lost 20 aircraft, and about one third of its personnel. "We were way up north. We weren't fighting the VC. We were fighting the NVA. They had good weapons and they had good tactics," he remarks. Rocky earned two Distinguished Flying Crosses, and two Single Mission Medals, and 60 Strike Flight Air Medals. He returned to the states in July of 1969 with orders to Navy War College in Newport, Rhode Island. He had only ten days of leave to visit his family. He then went to 4th Marine Aircraft Wing in Glenview, Illinois and spent three years as a plans officer and was promoted to lieutenant colonel. He flew a C-54 Skymaster, a four-engine propeller transport. He put in for Harrier training and was sent to Cherry Point, North Carolina to serve as operations officer for Marine Aircraft Group 54, but a week later was assigned as commanding officer of the Harrier squadron, designated as Marine Attack Squadron 231, which eventually contained 20 Harriers. It was his last position before retiring and returning to civilian life.