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Gordon W. Nelson Letters, 1911-1916: Finding Aid

Published in November 2019

Summary Information

  • Publisher: United States Naval Academy. Special Collections & Archives.
  • Publisher Address:
    589 McNair Road
    Annapolis, Maryland 21402-5029, USA
    Phone: 410-293-6917
  • Call number: MS 543
  • Location: Special Collections & Archives Department - Manuscripts
  • Title: Gordon W. Nelson Letters
  • Dates: 1911-1916
  • Size: 1.46 linear feet
  • Container Summary: 3 manuscript boxes, 1 half-manuscript box
  • Creator: Nelson, Gordon W., 1892-1968
  • Language(s) of material: English
  • Abstract: Gordon W. Nelson was an officer in the United States Navy and a member of the United States Naval Academy Class of 1914. The Gordon W. Nelson Letters span from 1911 until 1916. The letters, written by Nelson to his mother, describe his day to day experiences as a midshipman, his summer training cruises, and his early experiences as a commissioned officer in the United States Navy.

Biography of Gordon W. Nelson

Gordon Whymper Nelson was born in London, England on January 1, 1892. After immigrating to the United States, Nelson was appointed to the United States Naval Academy from New York's 15th Congressional District and graduated as a member of the Class of 1914. Having not yet been naturalized at the time of graduation, Nelson required an act of Congress in order to receive his commission as an Ensign in the United States Navy. Following graduation, Nelson was initially assigned to the Atlantic Fleet, serving as a signal officer aboard U.S.S. Nebraska (Battleship: BB-14), followed by duty as a radio officer aboard U.S.S. Louisiana (Battleship: BB-19), U.S.S. San Francisco (Protected cruiser: C-5), and U.S.S. Rhode Island (Battleship: BB-17) during and after the American occupation of Veracruz.

In 1916, Nelson enrolled at Massachusetts Institute of Technology. His studies in naval architecture at MIT roughly coincided with his transfer to the Construction Corps, where Nelson spent most of the remainder of his career. From 1918 to 1934, he had duty largely at the New York and Philadelphia Naval Shipyards, serving as shop superintendent of the former. In 1934, he transferred to the Office of Naval Operations, and in 1937 he commenced duty as a Naval Attaché, serving in London, Paris, Rome, Berlin, and The Hague. In 1940, he returned to naval architecture as Head of the Design Division at the Bureau of Ships' Research Branch. In 1942, he began service with the Board of Inspections and Survey, serving as senior member until 1945. In 1946, Nelson served as a member of the board which determined the feasibility of preserving U.S.S. Constellation (Sloop-of-war).

On January 1, 1947, Nelson retired from the United States Navy with the rank of Captain and accepted a position as a consultant with the Standard Oil Company of New Jersey (Exxon), serving in that capacity until 1954. Gordon Whymper Nelson died on September 10, 1968 at Glen Ridge, New Jersey.

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Description of Contents

The Gordon W. Nelson Letters, comprising 1.46 linear feet of documentation, span from 1911 until 1916. The letters, written by Nelson to his mother, describe his day to day experiences as a midshipman, his summer training cruises, and his early experiences as a commissioned officer in the United States Navy.

Included with the letters are several enclosures, including a broadside, invoice, a newspaper clippings, and an act of Congress.

The Nelson Letters are arranged chronologically by date of authorship (as opposed to postmark), with several enclosures filed after the correspondence. From its opening in May 1911 until the close of Nelson's final academic term as a midshipman in May 1914, the collection consists of Nelson's handwritten letters to his mother, which offer a nearly daily accounting of his life as a midshipman. Nelson's letters, which are typically brief, make frequent references to his grades, monthly and annual examinations, performance at recitations, his participation in several sports (namely basketball and lacrosse), various drills, his roommate Albert Gleaves Berry, and dances and hops (including dragging dates and noting which partners were undesirable "bricks"), as well as other social calls, namely lunches and dinners with Annapolis society. Another frequent topic of the letters is Nelson's citizenship and efforts to secure legislation to allow him to graduate, since he was born in England and not naturalized prior to admission to the Naval Academy. Most of Nelson's letters also include comments on the weather, as well as frequent references to his mother's daily routine in New York City, including her trips to the opera and troubles with servants. Letters written by Nelson during the summer months are the product of his summer practice cruises aboard U.S.S. Iowa (Battleship: BB-4), U.S.S. New Jersey (Battleship: BB-16), and U.S.S. North Dakota (Battleship: BB-29).

Following his graduation from the Naval Academy in June 1914, Nelson's handwritten, and occasionally typewritten letters resume in July 1914 while attached to U.S.S. Nebraska (Battleship: BB-14), homeported at Boston. Letters during this time period continue to discuss questions regarding Nelson's citizenship, while also focusing on Nelson's social life in and around Boston, his shipboard duties as a signal officer, target practice duty, and occasional updates on the early progress of World War I.

Nelson's correspondence from 1915 and 1916 exist only as excerpted compilations prepared by Nelson's son, Kennard G. Nelson between 1996 and 1999. Letters from this time period are the product of Nelson's service teaching at the Portsmouth Navy Yard, followed by his service as a radio officer aboard U.S.S. Louisiana (Battleship: BB-19), U.S.S. San Francisco (Protected cruiser: C-5), and U.S.S. Rhode Island (Battleship: BB-17). The excerpts focus more on Nelson's service rather than social life, with discussions of his participation in war games, operations surrounding the American occupation of Veracruz, the San Francisco's running aground, and his ultimate enrollment at the Massachusetts Institute of Technology.

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The Gordon W. Nelson Letters are arranged chronologically.

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Access and Use


Access is unrestricted.

Copyright and Permission

The Gordon W. Nelson Letters are the physical property of Nimitz Library. Copyright belongs to the authors or creators of the works, or their legal representatives. For further information, consult the Head, Special Collections & Archives.

It is the responsibility of the researcher to secure written permission to publish, reprint, or reproduce material from Special Collections & Archives. The researcher assumes responsibility for infringement of copyright or literary or publication rights. Please contact the Head, Special Collections & Archives for permission to publish and for further information.

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Acquisition and Appraisal

Provenance and Acquisition

Gift of Kennard G. Nelson in September 1999. Accession No. 99-75.

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Related Materials

Related Archival Material

Additional material in this repository pertaining to Gordon W. Nelson can be found in his Midshipman Personnel Jacket and Alumni Jacket.

Materials Cataloged Separately

No materials have been removed from this collection and cataloged separately.

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Processing and Other Information

Preferred Citation

Gordon W. Nelson Letters, MS 543

Special Collections & Archives Department

Nimitz Library

United States Naval Academy

Selected Bibliography

The following sources were consulted during preparation of the biographical note:

Nelson, Gordon Whymper Alumni Jacket, RG 405, Special Collections & Archives, Nimitz Library.

Processing Information

This collection was processed by David D'Onofrio in November 2019. Finding aid written by David D'Onofrio in November 2019.

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Subject Headings

Name and Subject Terms

  • Iowa (Battleship : BB-4)
  • Louisiana (Battleship : BB-19)
  • Midshipmen -- United States -- Conduct of life
  • Naval education -- United States
  • Nebraska (Battleship : BB-14)
  • Nelson, Gordon W., 1892-1968
  • Nelson, Theresa M.
  • New Jersey (Battleship : BB-16)
  • North Dakota (Battleship : BB-29)
  • Rhode Island (Battleship : BB-17)
  • San Francisco (Cruiser : C-5)
  • United States Naval Academy -- Curricula
  • United States Naval Academy -- Examinations
  • United States Naval Academy -- Midshipmen -- Cruises
  • United States Naval Academy -- Social life and customs
  • United States Naval Academy -- Sports
  • United States Naval Academy -- Students -- Correspondence
  • United States. Navy -- Officers -- Correspondence
  • Veracruz (Veracruz-Llave, Mexico) -- History -- American occupation, 1914

Genre Terms

  • Correspondence
  • Manuscripts

Additional Creator/Author

  • Nelson, Kennard G.
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Contents List

Box 1 Folder 1

Correspondence, 1911 May-July

Summer cruise aboard U.S.S. Iowa: rampant seasickness, arrival at and sightseeing in Queenstown, visit to Killarney, and arrival at Kiel.

Box 1 Folder 2

Correspondence, 1911 August

conclusion of the lacrosse season, preparations for annual exams, rumors about banning smoking on the summer cruise, makeup monthly exams, and request for a copy of How to Play the Jane Naval War Game.

Box 1 Folder 3

Correspondence, 1912 January 2-15

Quiet at the Academy after the holidays, the funeral of Robley D. Evans, a plebe fight, semi-annual exams, instruction in making castings, attempts to secure a date for dances/hops, concerns over his marks in English, and excitement over the prospect of the return of direct commissioning following graduation.

Box 1 Folder 4

Correspondence, 1912 January 16-31

"Dragging" for a Mrs. Craven, the Ensign Bill, meeting President Taft's daughter, and exams in Spanish, English, Calculus, and Physics and Chemistry.

Box 1 Folder 5

Correspondence, 1912 February 1-13

Dragging at a hop, intramural competitions, basketball against Swarthmore, and exams in Mechanical Drawing, English, and Physics and Chemistry.

Box 1 Folder 6

Correspondence, 1912 February 15-29

English recitations, upcoming lectures at the Academy, readings of Macaulay's essays, looking forward to the possibility of a summer cruise with the fleet, and exams in Mathematics, and Physics and Chemistry.

Box 1 Folder 7

Correspondence, 1912 March 2-17

Rumors about the upcoming summer cruise, studies in Mechanical Processes, passage of the Ensign Act allowing for direct commissioning, updates on grades, reflections on Frederick the Great, organization of Math classes, watch keeping duty, and the nature of recitations.

Box 1 Folder 8

Correspondence, 1912 March 18-31

Changes to drill regulations, rumored uniform changes, preparations for a visit from Nelson's mother, monthly exams, the beginning of baseball season, and orders to the Atlantic Fleet for summer cruise.

Box 1 Folder 9

Correspondence, 1912 April 2-16

Updates on grades, difficulties in Mathematics, drills, anticipation of the summer cruise, playing lacrosse, and preparations for a visit from Nelson's mother.

Box 1 Folder 10

Correspondence, 1912 April 17-30

Presidential review in Washington, reaction to the sinking of the Titanic, dragging at a dance, completion of monthly exams, updated on grades, and preparations for June Week.

Box 1 Folder 11

Correspondence, 1912 May 1-14

Updates on grades, preparations for June Week, sports results, playing lacrosse, and rumors about the summer cruise. The letter of May 5 includes a mockup of the Class Ring.

Box 1 Folder 12

Correspondence, 1912 May 15-30

Sports results, June Week preparations, the possibility of Nelson's mother moving to The Lucerne in New York, rumors about the summer cruise, and exams in Spanish, Mechanical Processes, and English.

Box 1 Folder 13

Correspondence, 1912 June 10-19

Summer cruise aboard U.S.S. New Jersey: passage to Key West and Havana to meet U.S.S. New Jersey, description of the ship's quarters, and work in radio telegraphy. Includes postcard views of Key West.

Box 1 Folder 14

Correspondence, 1912 June 20-30

Summer cruise aboard U.S.S. New Jersey: liberty in Key West, work in the dynamo room, shipboard etiquette, and anticipation of the cruise going north.

Box 1 Folder 15

Correspondence, 1912 July 1-13

Summer cruise aboard U.S.S. New Jersey: Coaling ship, refereeing a track meet in Key West, exercises off Newport, and anticipation of a port call in New York.

Box 1 Folder 16

Correspondence, 1912 July 14-31

Thoughts on watching submarines on maneuvers, desire to become a naval constructor, exercises with the First Division and torpedo boats, shore leave in Newport and the Jamestown Casino, coaling, and boiler room duty.

Box 1 Folder 17

Correspondence, 1912 August 1-14

Dances at the Jamestown Casino, proper coal shoveling technique, anticipation of September leave, disappointment in Rockport (Massachusetts), and coaling.

Box 1 Folder 18

Correspondence, 1912 August 16-28

Dining at the Parker House in Boston, a shipboard hop, notebook keeping, target practice, touring U.S.S. Texas while under construction at Newport News Shipbuilding, debate over the cause of the Navy's bad food, and preparations for September leave.

Box 1 Folder 19

Correspondence, 1912 September 30-October 16

Nelson's room layout in Bancroft (Room 335), description of the term's English class and complaints about the Professor, Nelson's class schedule, cases of ringworm, studies in Principles of Mechanism, questions regarding Nelson's citizenship, and the football team's loss to Lehigh and near loss to Johns Hopkins.

Box 1 Folder 20

Correspondence, 1912 October 17-31

Strength test to avoid "weak squad," studies in Principles of Mechanism and Theoretical Mechanics, monthly exams, attending tea parties and dances, arrangements for the Army-Navy Game, and dragging at a hop.

Box 2 Folder 1

Correspondence, 1912 November 4-16

Issues regarding Nelson's citizenship status, updates on grades, dragging at hops, and requests for Army-Navy Game tickets.

Box 2 Folder 2

Correspondence, 1912 November 18-27

House fire across from St. John's College, changes to limits on demerits, difficult Math and Mechanics exams, Army-Navy tickets, and visit to the Naval Academy Dairy. Includes a Thanksgiving dinner menu.

Box 2 Folder 3

Correspondence, 1912 December 1-10

Results of the Army-Navy Game, updates on grades, and issues over Nelson's citizenship.

Box 2 Folder 4

Correspondence, 1912 December 11-22

Punishments resulting from betting on the Army-Navy Game, citizenship paperwork, and arrangements for Christmas.

Box 2 Folder 5

Correspondence, 1913 January 1-15

Updates on grades, complaints regarding a math professor, demerits for "mutilated clothing," Chapel organ recital, and an English assignment on the topic of the return of the body of John Paul Jones.

Box 2 Folder 6

Correspondence, 1913 January 16-30

Anticipation of the arrival of the class rings, basketball against St. John's of New York, preparations for semi-annual exams, intra-class reception for Second Class midshipmen, interment of John Paul Jones in the Chapel Crypt, and exams in Electricity, Steam, and Spanish.

Box 2 Folder 7

Correspondence, 1913 February 1-14

Description of a gymkhana, arrival of the class rings, basketball against Swarthmore, updates on grades and demerits, and watch duty.

Box 2 Folder 8

Correspondence, 1913 February 15-28

Nelson's citizenship status, dinners at Carvel Hall, monthly exams, preparations for the inauguration of Woodrow Wilson, and basketball against St. John's and Georgetown.

Box 2 Folder 9

Correspondence, 1913 March 1-13

Ordnance and Gunnery exam, benefits of attending a hop without a drag, inaugural parade for Woodrow Wilson, Nelson's citizenship status, lacrosse practice, and difficulties in Navigation recitations.

Box 2 Folder 10

Correspondence, 1913 March 14-29

Arrangements for Nelson's mother to visit, the opening of lacrosse season, monthly exams, and a broken thumb sustained during lacrosse.

Box 2 Folder 11

Correspondence, 1913 April 1-15

Nelson's broken thumb, his citizenship status, and its potential effect on Nelson's graduation and commissioning.

Box 2 Folder 12

Correspondence, 1913 April 16-30

Nelson's citizenship status, and return to class and duty following his broken thumb.

Box 2 Folder 13

Correspondence, 1913 May 1-17

Conclusion of the lacrosse season, preparations for annual exams, rumors about banning smoking on the summer cruise, makeup monthly exams, and request for a copy of How to Play the Jane Naval War Game.

Box 2 Folder 14

Correspondence, 1913 May 18-28

Playing the organ at Sunday School, preparations for annual exams, description of how the Army-Navy Baseball Game is broadcast via remote scoreboard, updates on grades, Nelson's citizenship status, and the tradition of being thrown overboard when finally allowed to wear the class ring.

Box 2 Folder 15

Correspondence, 1913 June 8-15

Summer cruise aboard U.S.S. North Dakota: opinions of the ships, exercises off Block Island, duty with the ship's steamers, and Nelson's class standing.

Box 2 Folder 16

Correspondence, 1913 June 17-29

Boat duty, abandon ship drills, and dances aboard ship and at the Jamestown Casino.

Box 2 Folder 17

Correspondence, 1913 July 1-17

Operations off Maine, opinions of Eastport (Maine) and its people, Fourth of July celebrations, engagement in a tactical problem with the Fleet, receipt of How to Play the Jane Naval War Game, and a dance hosted by the Captain's daughter.

Box 2 Folder 18

Correspondence, 1913 July 18-31

Visit to the Naval War College, thoughts on tactical problems and war games, damaging a picket steamer while landing, coaling, and dancing at the Jamestown Casino.

Box 2 Folder 19

Correspondence, 1913 August 1-11

Tea at a Newport mansion and exercises with the forts protecting Long Island Sound.

Box 2 Folder 20

Correspondence, 1913 August 12-19

Farewell hop aboard ship, tour of the submarine D-1, thoughts on the wealthy residents of Newport, reception at a Newport mansion, and the fleet's departure from Newport.

Box 3 Folder 1

Correspondence, 1913 September 30-October 15

Description of new room in Bancroft Hall, recitations, adjustment to life as a company commander, and requests for Army-Navy tickets. Includes letters from Representatives Albert Johnson and Walter Chandler regarding Nelson's citizenship status and request for Army-Navy tickets for a constituent.

Box 3 Folder 2

Correspondence, 1913 October 16-31

Requests for Army-Navy tickets, football versus Dickinson College, subscribing to El Mundo Grafico for Spanish, football versus Maryland Agricultural College, and exams in Electricity, Torpedoes, and International Law.

Box 3 Folder 3

Correspondence, 1913 November 1-13

Disdain for formal tea parties, football versus Lehigh and Bucknell, updates on grades, horseback riding in Annapolis, readings from The Last Days of Pompeii, and travel arrangements for Nelson's mother.

Box 3 Folder 4

Correspondence, 1913 November 17-30

Updates on exams, preparations and tickets for the Army-Navy Game at the Polo Grounds, as well as the game's results. Includes a copy of Nelson's grades for October, Brigade Order No. 7 regarding the Army-Navy Game, and a letter from Representative Walter Chandler thanking Nelson for the Army-Navy tickets.

Box 3 Folder 5

Correspondence, 1913 December 1-11

Updates on grades, aftermath of the Army-Navy Game, formal teas, basketball tryouts, and Christmas leave plans.

Box 3 Folder 6

Correspondence, 1913 December 12-31

Basketball against New York University, description of a progressive dinner, exams, a circus in Smoke Hall, removal of acoustic drapery in the Chapel, and Christmas celebrations.

Box 3 Folder 7

Correspondence, 1914 January 1-14

Calling on the Governor of Maryland on New Year's Day, practical work in Navigation, basketball versus Catholic University, and attempts to avoid dragging at a hop.

Box 3 Folder 8

Correspondence, 1914 January 15-31

Disorderly conduct at the basketball table in the mess hall, complaints about dragging, Nelson's citizenship status, semi-annual exams, basketball practice, and description of a gymkhana.

Box 3 Folder 9

Correspondence, 1914 February 1-12

Demerit troubles, basketball versus St. John's of New York, receiving at a hop, complaints about life as a midshipman officer, plans for a visit from Nelson's mother, and the impact of smoking on athletics.

Box 3 Folder 10

Correspondence, 1914 February 13-28

Serving as toastmaster at after dinner speaking, monthly exams, Nelson's citizenship status, and basketball versus George Washington, Washington and Lee, and Pittsburgh.

Box 3 Folder 11

Correspondence, 1914 March 1-13

Final physical exams, Nelson's citizenship status, and his love of listening to Enrico Caruso and opera.

Box 3 Folder 12

Correspondence, 1914 March 14-31

Meeting with Representative Walter Chandler regarding citizenship status, monthly exams, and new privileges for the First Class.

Box 3 Folder 13

Correspondence, 1914 April 1-14

Ankle injury and its impact on lacrosse season, torpedo boat drills, the inter-collegiate fencing championships in New York, defeating Johns Hopkins in lacrosse, and after dinner speaking.

Box 3 Folder 14

Correspondence, 1914 April 15-30

Monthly exams, rumors regarding deployment to Mexico following graduation in response to the Mexican Revolution, ship selection, intent to request U.S.S. Florida (Battleship: BB-30), and lacrosse versus Swarthmore, Carlisle, and Harvard.

Box 3 Folder 15

Correspondence, 1914 May 1-14

Passage of a bill authorizing Nelson's commissioning pending his naturalization, recap of the lacrosse season, and sea pay rates for ensigns.

Box 3 Folder 16

Correspondence, 1914 May 15-28

Updates on Nelson's commissioning bill, banquet for the unveiling of the Lucky Bag in Smoke Hall, annual exams, graduation related expenses, and assignment to U.S.S. Nebraska (Battleship: BB-14).

Box 3 Folder 17

Correspondence, 1914 July 5-17

Attached to U.S.S. Nebraska: Arrival in Boston, stateroom aboard Nebraska, appointment as signal officer, description of Revere Beach, watch duty, delay in receipt of commission, and interest in becoming a naval constructor.

Box 3 Folder 18

Correspondence, 1914 July 9-30

Attached to U.S.S. Nebraska: Confusion of navigating the streets of Boston, teaching classes aboard ship, watch duty, and sightseeing and social life in and around Boston (including Lexington, Concord, and Swampscott).

Box 3 Folder 19

Correspondence, 1914 August 1-20

Attached to U.S.S. Nebraska: Events at the New Ocean House in Swampscott, news of deployment of several Navy vessels to evacuate Americans from Europe, life insurance policies, and viewing damage to Nebraska's hull in dry dock.

Box 3 Folder 20

Correspondence, 1914 August 21-31

Attached to U.S.S. Nebraska: Visit by the Argentine dreadnought Rivadavia, life insurance, watch duty, and court-martial duty.

Box 4 Folder 1

Correspondence, 1914 September 1-24

Attached to U.S.S. Nebraska: thoughts on the onset of World War I, life insurance, official visits from officers of the Rivadavia, and attempts to procure repairs for semaphore signal machines.

Box 4 Folder 2

Correspondence, 1914 October 4-13

Attached to U.S.S. Nebraska: A friend's witnessing the German army deploying for the front, social calls in Concord, life insurance, completion of Nebraska's repairs at Boston, and appreciation of the weather off Maine.

Box 4 Folder 3

Correspondence, 1914 October 14-30

Attached to U.S.S. Nebraska: speed trials, torpedo tests, temporary transfers to U.S.S. Delaware (Battleship: BB-24) and U.S.S. Vermont (Battleship: BB-20) to serve as a target practice umpire.

Box 4 Folder 4

Correspondence, 1914 November 2-14

Attached to U.S.S. Nebraska: target practice aboard U.S.S. Vermont, dinners at the Hotel Chamberlin in Fortress Monroe (Virginia), disparaging recommendations on how Mrs. Nelson should deal with African Americans, and fleet maneuvers off Hampton Roads. Includes a copy of Nebraska's program of evening events for November 4.

Box 4 Folder 5

Correspondence, 1914 November 15-30

Attached to U.S.S. Nebraska: news of the sinking of H.M.S. Audacious, description of the ship's firing procedures, negative views of the Russian management of Siberia, procurement of new visiting cards, and description of the range firing of U.S.S. New York, Utah, and Michigan.

Box 4 Folder 6

Correspondence, 1914 December 6, 27-28

Attached to U.S.S. Nebraska: transfer to U.S.S. Washington (Cruiser: ACR-11).

Box 4 Folder 7

Correspondence (Excerpts), 1915

Duty teaching at Portsmouth (Virginia), transfer to U.S.S. Louisiana (Battleship: BB-19) conducting war games and training exercises, the occupation of Veracruz (August and September), and requests for transfer.

Box 4 Folder 8

Correspondence (Excerpts), 1916

Transfer to U.S.S. San Francisco (Protected cruiser: C-5) as Mining Division radio officer, positive opinions of Cubans (February), negative opinions of Mexicans and Mexican revolutionaries (March), San Francisco running aground (May), transfer to U.S.S. Rhode Island (Battleship: BB-17), war games in the Chesapeake Bay, praise for Nelson's prowess in radio operations, and coursework at MIT.

Box 4 Folder 9

Enclosures - Broadside, 1913 (approximate)

Advertisement for Christmas carnival in Smoke Hall.

Box 4 Folder 10

Enclosures - House Resolution 7781, 1914

Bill allowing for Nelson's commissioning in the Navy pending his naturalization and cover letter from Representative Walter Chandler.

Box 4 Folder 11

Enclosures - Midshipmen's Store Invoice, 1914 June 9

Box 4 Folder 12

Enclosures - Newspaper Clipping, 1912 June 15

Photo spread on June Week, including the midshipmen preparing to embark upon their summer cruise.

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