Richard Crawford Nelson – Lieutenant Commander, United States Navy


From a contemporary press report: 11 August 1994

Just a shadow away from the Tomb of the Unknown Soldier, the flag-draped coffin of Navy pilot Richard Crawford Nelson was lifted from a horse-drawn caisson and, almost on cue, a gentle rain dampened Arlington National Cemetery. Crawford Nelson and his wife, Ruth, their arms intertwined, watched with silent grief as their son was carried by a stiff-backed military honor guard to his burial.

Yesterday, in an hour of chapel and graveside ceremonies, the Delaware County youth who grew up to be a Navy pilot received the military honors his family thought would never come. Until a month ago, Nelson was one of 2,489 American servicemen listed as missing in action in Vietnam.

Then came the word from the Vietnamese government that his parents had fought for but feared. Their son was one of eight American servicemen whose remains would be returned to the U.S. government. The anguish of waiting had ended, only to be replaced by the final grief.

Lieutenant Commander Nelson, who grew up in Drexel Hill, was 27 when his A-6 attack bomber was shot down on March 6, 1968, during a nighttime bombing raid over Haiphong, the North Vietnamese harbor city.

“Our hearts still cling to this body,” said Navy Commander Paul J. Moore, a
chaplain who conducted the funeral, “but it is really only the worn-out garment that has been tossed aside.” Moore said he avoided the politics of the Vietnam war and the missing-in-action issue during his non-denominational services, sticking instead to Scripture and poetry.

Nelson's body arrived in a black hearse at the Fort Meyer Chapel, just outside the gates of Arlington Cemetery, a few minutes after 1 pm. The eerie roll of a Navy drummer stopped all conversation among spectators standing outside the red brick building as the casket draped only with the flag was carried slowly through the oversized oak doors of the chapel. Inside the stark-white chamber, the Nelsons, joined by about 70 friends, relatives, and the parents of at least one other serviceman missing in action, sat quietly during a 15-minute eulogy.

“Give courage and faith to those bereaved,” Moore said in a final prayer.

Walking arm in arm, the Nelsons no longer held their tears as they followed their son out of the church and into a day whose greyness matched the coffin's hue. A wooden caisson, draped in black and pulled by six Army horses, slowly carried Nelson's body a half-mile to his burial site just down a grassy knoll from the  Tomb of the Unknown Soldier. A Navy spokesman said the family chose the hillside site after Arlington officials offered them the preferred location.

At the conclusion of the graveside ceremony, members of the Navy guard sounded a 21-gun salute, seven riflemen firing simultaneously three times. The rain, which had stopped during services, poured. The mourners, listing to the soulful wail of a Navy bugler's Taps, turned to each other for comfort. The waiting was over.

Richard Crawford Nelson was born on July 12, 1941 and joined the Armed Forces while in Drexel Hill, Pennsylvania.

He served as am aviator in the United States Navy and in 14 years of service, he attained the rank of Commander.

On March 6, 1968, at the age of 26, Richard Crawford Nelson perished in the service of our country in North Vietnam.

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