Edmonds resident Kim Sharpe is a Navy veteran, and also works with South County Fire as its veterans outreach coordinator. “So it was just by coincidence (and) good luck,” he said, that the woman who showed up recently at Lynnwood Fire Station 15 with a shadow box of unknown origins happened to encounter him.
Fire station employees noticed she was holding a wooden display, and Sharpe said he recognized even from across the parking lot that the triangular-shaped shadow box was likely military-related because he has a similar one for his father, who had served in the Marines during World War II. Sharpe said he’s glad to have his dad’s memorabilia and medals earned while in the military and “realized another family would want that sort of thing.”
“She said it looked rather important but didn’t know what it was,” Sharpe said. Upon taking a closer look he realized that it was larger than a normal display for a flag and had an additional bottom section for memorabilia which, “included a Pearl Harbor survival cap and you don’t see a lot of those,” he added. “And I knew right off it was pretty unique and important.”
The shadow box was quickly handed off in the rain and the woman left before staff could get her name and contact information. While it’s not entirely clear how the woman obtained the memorabilia, South County Fire Public Information Officer Leslie Hynes — who was also present at the Lynnwood fire station that day — got the impression that she worked for a storage unit company.
It is believed that the shadow box had been left in a storage unit that went into arrears for lack of payment, and the display was brought to the fire station around the time the storage space’s contents would have been sold at auction.
Later, while Sharpe was examining its contents more closely, he said he didn’t notice anything that identified whose items were displayed. However, a rattling sound led a colleague to believe there might possibly be a military dog tag behind some cardboard inside. After carefully opening it up, they found the dog tag, which provided a name — Gordon Nelson — and identification information.
From there, Sharpe went into detective mode. Almost a month’s worth of initial inquiries with different veterans organizations hadn’t yielded any results because his contacts in the Veterans Administration typically help connect people with benefits, “but they aren’t necessarily the historical database people.” Then he said it dawned on him, ‘Wait a minute, why am I trying to go through the VA when the number of Pearl Harbor survivors is pretty limited and I should be able to look him up in the Pearl Harbor survivor register.”
A quick search online found Gordon Nelson’s obituary from 2011, which listed family members who survived him at the time including his first-born child Lance and Lance’s wife Linda. After determining that Lance himself had died in 2014, Sharpe said he conducted additional research into the names provided because, “I wanted to know I had my ducks in a row before I called Linda.”
He was able to find her contact information and, after taking a moment to explain why he was calling, she exclaimed, ‘Oh you found it!’” he said. “She was very excited” to be reunited with the family heirloom, Sharpe added.
Linda Nelson, 73, said her father-in-law had been in the Navy and stationed at Bremerton, where he and wife Vivian had son Lance a year prior to the attack on Pearl Harbor. They later moved to Seattle, where they raised their family and lived for more than 50 years.
When Sharpe called and described what he had, “I was ecstatic,” Linda Nelson said. “There are no words – I just, I am so thankful to them.” She wasted no time and headed from her Everett home to the fire station that afternoon, at a time when Sharpe would be there. “I wanted to meet him because he’s the one that found me,” Nelson added. “It was really nice (of him), I mean above and beyond the call of duty.”
After Gordon Nelson’s death, son Lance had assembled his father’s military items for display in the shadow box. They include a United States flag, a Pearl Harbor survivor’s hat, his military dog tag, a medal he received and pictures of him in uniform and also boxing while serving in the Navy. “It’s a nice remembrance,” Linda Nelson said.
Family members estimated it had been approximately three years since they had last known the heirloom’s location. Linda Nelson had given it to one of Gordon Nelson’s grandchildren while she was in the process of downsizing and moving to Everett after her husband Lance’s death. “I didn’t have room and I wanted someplace where it was going to be taken care of,” she said.
But unbeknownst to family members, the shadow box was among items that were later put into a storage unit while the grandson was in the process of moving. “I didn’t know if he had it or not, I didn’t know he had a storage unit,” Nelson said.
The family thought possibly the grandson’s ex-girlfriend was still in possession of the display but weren’t sure how to contact her. They also later heard that it might be among items placed in a storage unit that had reportedly later lapsed into arrears.
“We just couldn’t imagine it was in a storage locker that had been abandoned,” Nelson said. “I mean that never occurred to me, because everybody cherished it and my father-in-law was a really good man.”
Nelson said she didn’t ever give up hope that they would find the memento. “It was one of those things that’s always on your mind and my daughter had just been talking to me about it like the day before,” Nelson said. “She never let it go and I didn’t either, but not everybody (in the family) knew about it.”
After regaining possession of the heirloom, Nelson went straight from the fire station to her daughter Angie Armstrong’s office in Lynnwood. “She came out to the car and I said, ‘I have a surprise for you,’” Nelson said. “And I pulled it out and I thought she was going to cry.”
“It’s priceless, it made my day” to see it again, Armstrong said. “We thought it was gone forever really, other than this (ex-) girlfriend we thought there might be a chance she had it, but the chances were slim.”
They decided on the spot that Armstrong would then take it home for safekeeping and further display.
Armstrong said the shadow box was still in great shape and only needed minor repairs to reattach its glass to the frame – and none of the mementos had been lost or damaged. “We were just so lucky,” she added. The family keepsake now sits on top of a hutch she inherited from her grandparents, along with their china dinnerware. “It means a lot to me,” Armstrong said of the display.
Gordon Nelson was stationed on the USS Pennsylvania and had just returned to Hawaii, after 30 days of leave to visit his wife and infant son, the night before Pearl Harbor was attacked. Armstrong said her grandfather had recalled wondering upon arrival what was going on that would necessitate having so many ships located in the harbor. The next morning, “he was actually on the plank (of the ship he returned on) smoking when it happened,” she said of the attack, which killed 2,390 service members and civilians. “He was very lucky to be alive.”
Over the course of several group trips, four generations of family members were able to accompany Gordon Nelson to commemorative remembrance events held at the Pearl Harbor National Memorial in Hawaii that marked 50, 55 and 60 years since the attack on Dec. 7, 1941. Linda Nelson said her father-in-law greatly appreciated that his family was interested in attending those and “we all cared about him to the moon and back.”
The visits also created special memories for those family members present.
Armstrong said her grandfather wouldn’t talk often about the attack, but that while visiting the site he would share his experience with the family. The personal narrative he was able to add to the various informational markers and maps around the memorial was especially meaningful and his words also captured the attention of visitors. “He would tell us where he was, what happened, and by the time we were done there was about 30 people around him listening to these stories,” she said. “It was just the coolest thing.”
“He loved that and didn’t even realize at first that everybody was listening, but he was a very sentimental man, and he would tear up,” Linda Nelson said. During each visit, Gordon Nelson would also take the time to stop and read all of the names of military personnel lost which are engraved on a marble wall at the USS Arizona Memorial.
Visiting the memorial, “it’s an emotional experience (anyway) and being there with my grandpa was just the best thing,” Armstrong said. “I mean it was so emotional, it was so special and hearing his stories while we were there was amazing.”
During one of those visits, a family friend was even able to arrange for Gordon Nelson to take a special tour of facilities normally restricted from public access on nearby Ford Island, which was heavily targeted during the attack. “It just meant the world to him, and seeing him light up telling us about it was just – he was a very special person,” Armstrong said.
The family is relieved to once again have the heirloom in their possession. “We are so happy and so grateful to have it back,” Linda Nelson said of the shadow box. “There are no words, I mean the extra effort that people went to, to get it back to us, is so heartfelt and we really appreciate it.”
The identity of the woman who dropped the shadow box off at the fire station is not known, but Gordon Nelson’s family and Kim Sharpe say they would like to be able to thank her. She is encouraged to contact South County Fire’s Leslie Hynes at 425-551-1243.
“It’s amazing the fact that that lady didn’t just throw away the box and that she went through everything (in the storage unit) and brought it to the fire station — that was so thoughtful,” Armstrong said. “I can’t thank them enough really.”
Sharpe said he’s “glad we were able to get that back to the family,” and added that if people come across military veterans’ memorabilia and/or personal items of unknown origins, they can contact Gary Walderman at the Hero’s Café in Lynnwood by email at firstname.lastname@example.org or reach out to the Operation Military Family organization.
— By Nathan Blackwell