Destined to Fly

Captain Orvis Marcus Nelson, later to become the founder of Transocean Air Lines, was a veteran pilot flying for United Air Lines when the United States entered World War II in 1941. He had then been assigned to fly for The Air Transport Command (ATC) of the U.S. Army Air Corps under a contract held by United and was one of the civilians flying the C-54 four-engine transports in conjunction with The Purple Mission. This was the code name for the landing, set for November 1, 1945, of the first wave of occupation troops.


Okinawa, the island nearest to the Land of the Rising Sun, had been designated as the staging area for The Purple Mission No. 75. Servicemen, supplies, and what seemed to be every C-54 transport in the world had been amassed on the island in preparation for the invasion of Japan before the atom bomb had assured the U.S. of total victory in August. 

       
The ATC now began ferrying flight crews to Honolulu to reestablish communications to the states and to organize a flying schedule to transport the mail and supplies needed for the occupation. Many of these flight crews had been recruited by the ATC from the ranks of commercial airlines, private pilots, crop dusters, even barnstormers, for just such a mission
as far back as June 1942. 


Destined to Fly
Nelson, who had been born in Tamarack, Minnesota in 1907 was the son of Marcus and Mamie Nelson. His father had been born in Grimstad, a small town on the southeast coast of Norway, but was brought to the United States while still an infant, the family settling in Tamarack, Minnesota. Orvis' mother was from a family that landed at Jamestown, the first English colonial settlement in America, prior to the American Revolutionary War. Several generations later, the family moved west and settled in Franklin, Indiana, where Mamie was born. Later, as young woman, she visited her married sister who was living in Tamarack. There she met and soon married Marcus, a prosperous storekeeper.


Orvis Nelson's sturdy Norwegian-American stock and the rugged discipline of working alongside his father in the northern woods throughout his childhood would stand him in good stead for the rest of his life. Nelson spent his last winter in Minnesota-the early months of 1927-working near Gull Lake, which is near the town of Brainerd, clearing out a Nelson timber tract.


During the spring of 1927, a young man named Charles "Lucky Lindy" Lindbergh, whose family was acquainted with the Nelsons, made the first solo nonstop flight from New York to Paris flying his Ryan NYP monoplane, The Spirit of St. Louis. The lanky, soft-spoken Lindbergh landed in triumph on May 21 at le Bourget airfield near Paris after the 3,600 mile flight of more than thirty-three hours. It was then that twenty-year-old Nelson, along with the hundreds of other American boys inspired by Lindbergh's accomplishment, began to think about a future in aviation. That same year, Nelson enlisted in the U.S. Army Air Corps as a private. Nelson graduated from Chanute Field in Illinois and served in the Philippines before buying out of his enlistment to return to college. There he paid his way by doing aerial photography in rented Wacos and old Travel Airs. He later returned to the Air Corps and by the fall of 1933 had graduated from training at both Kelly Field and Randolph Field.


But Nelson eventually became discontented with the military and resigned to sign on as a copilot with United Air Lines (UAL) on July 1, 1935. By 1943, he was flying from Seattle to Alaska for the ATC under a UAL contract. The next year when Northwest Airlines assumed the ATC contract for the Alaska shuttle, Nelson and the other United pilots assigned to that operation were transferred to the United-ATC routes from San Francisco to the islands of the South Pacific.


Nelson was in flight between Guam and Kwajalein when the first atom bomb was unleashed over Japan, and between Kwajalein and Johnston Island when the news of the bomb was broadcast. By the time he arrived at Honolulu there were indications that Japan might surrender, and he was directed to return his aircraft to Okinawa.


Grounded on Okinawa in mid-August, Nelson and several other United crewmen sat around talking, killing time while waiting for back-to-back typhoons to wear themselves out. In the group were Sid Nelson, who had been active in the Air Line Pilots' Association with Orvis and who would become a director of TAL; Harry Huking, a senior United pilot; and radio operator Sherwood Nichols, destined to be secretary-treasurer and one of the original directors of the airline.


In the light of a single candle, with torrential rain and wind battering the canvas Army tent they occupied near the Yontan Airstrip, the conversation quickly turned to the usual topic-what to do after the war ended. Most of the men had had a taste of flying to exotic places in all the corners of the world, and they did not want to let go of that thrill. If at all possible, they wanted to continue flying for commercial airlines.


Nelson reasoned that it would undoubtedly be a long time before the Japanese would be permitted to have their own domestic airline, and he suggested that someone from the group propose to United Air Lines to either extend its routes across the Pacific to the Orient or organize a domestic airline in Japan. If either idea proved unacceptable to United management, Nelson felt that the next step should be to try to set up a Japanese airline themselves.


The men agreed with the plan and decided there in the tent to form an association. Each
member agreed to put up money if and when the time came to do so. The name they chose
was ONAT for Orvis Nelson Air Transport Company, and they elected Nelson their
representative to contact United.


United's "Pat" Patterson rejected the proposal to extend its service to Hawaii or to establish a domestic airline in Japan. However, he did help Nelson by providing him with a letter of introduction to General Douglas MacArthur, the Allied Supreme Commander in charge of the reconstruction of Japan and from whom permission for the venture would be required. Nelson then went to an old friend, Colonel W.E. "Dusty" Rhoades, who had been MacArthur's personal pilot throughout the war, and asked him to explore the project with the general in Tokyo. The answer was again discouraging. MacArthur rejected the proposal, saying he thought it inadvisable to set up an American carrier in Japan until a formal peace treaty was signed. Disappointed by his failure to interest either United or MacArthur in their plans, Nelson shelved the Okinawa group's idea.

Arue Szura, Folded Wings A History of Transocean Air Lines, Pictorial Histories Publishing Company