Navy pilot Nick Charles faced grave danger as he circled over Guadalcanal, looking to land after a successful bombing raid on the Japanese in 1943.
He was miles off course, with almost no fuel left. The identification had been shot off his plane, so gunners on the ground couldn’t tell him from the enemy. Worse, his radio was on the fritz.
While Lt. Charles wondered if he’d survive World War II to see his relatives back home in Pennsylvania, Lady Luck smiled and a split-second recognition tipped the hand of fate. “That’s one of our planes,” a ground crew member called out. “Hear the engine.”
For his coolness in combat, guiding the Avenger safely to a stop, the young lieutenant was awarded the Distinguished Flying Cross. The personal decoration was among a dozen he received during a 25-year military career.
Nelson R. Charles, 100, formerly of Ambler, a Navy captain who later became commanding officer of the Willow Grove Naval Air Station and then Horsham Township manager, died Wednesday, Aug. 12, of heart disease at Brittany Pointe Estates in Lansdale.
Born in Millerstown, Perry County, Pa., he was the son of Jacob Otis and Helen Rounsley Charles. After his mother died, he was raised in Duncannon, Pa., by his paternal grandparents. He graduated from Duncannon High School.
He met Cynthia Preston while attending Temple University. They married in 1945.
With World War II looming, he left Temple after his junior year to fly for the Navy and became a career officer, serving until 1967, when he was honorably discharged.
He was in flight school in 1941 when the Japanese attacked Pearl Harbor. For the next four years, he was almost constantly at war. By the time he circled over Guadalcanal in 1943, he had already survived 27 bombing missions. Many other pilots did not fare so well.
“Of his flight school class of 26, only two came back,” said daughter Nancy Charles-Columbia.
The Navy awarded him the Silver Star Medal for gallantry as pilot of a torpedo bomber during the battle off Samar against the Japanese fleet on Oct. 25, 1944. The conflict took place in the South Pacific.
“He led his division of bombers through intense anti-aircraft fire to strike against heavy units of the enemy fleet, then boldly pressed home his attack and scored direct hits on the foredeck of a cruiser, damaging it so severely that subsequent assaults by our forces sank her,” wrote Navy Secretary James Forrestal in the medal citation.
Among his military awards were a Navy Unit Commendation with four stars, the Asiatic-Pacific Campaign Medal with seven stars, and the Philippine Liberation Medal with two stars, according to his discharge paper.
He was the commanding officer of a carrier-based flight squadron during the Korean War and, later, a test pilot. He was the squadron and air group commander of the Navy’s Atlantic fleet aboard the Randolph.
“He loved what he did,” his daughter said. “He loved engaging the enemy. At home, he was unassuming and not aggressive at all. He didn’t talk about his exploits.”
In 1964, he assumed his final military post as commanding officer of the Willow Grove Naval Air Station. After retiring from the Navy in 1967, he became Horsham Township manager.
Later, he was vice president of marketing for an environmental engineering firm in the suburbs.
Capt. Charles was a founding member and president of the Horsham Rotary Club. He also served as Rotary district governor for Southeastern Pennsylvania. He was a member of the Military Officers Association of America and the Navy League of the United States.
He and his wife had three children. The couple were members of the Old York Road Country Club. Capt. Charles served on the club’s board of governors for 12 years, five as president. He enjoyed world travel with family.
In addition to his daughter, he is survived by a son, James P.; five grandchildren; and two great-grandchildren. His wife died in 2017. A daughter, Cynthia Anne, died in 1968.