Just less than two months after D-Day, June 6, 1944, the coast of Normandy, France, was supposed to be safe.
On July 30 of that year, U.S. Navy Yard Mine Sweeper 304 exploded while on patrol. Sixtythree seconds later, the ship slipped beneath the waves with all hands; eight men died and 30 were injured. According to evidence, it was the fastest sinking of any ship during World War II.
Chills run through Frank Nester’s 88-year-old body each time he watches a DVD of a History Channel program, “Deep Sea Detectives,” which examines the event. The Scottsdale resident was a crew member of YMS 380, which was supposed to lead a host of minesweepers that day.
“We should have been there,” said Nester as he watched footage of YMS 304 being blown up. “I’m blessed. I’m lucky I’m alive today.”
Nester’s recollection of that July day is as clear as if it just happened. His face turns from a smile while watching a film of his ship and others on patrol, to a look of consternation and near tears when the 304 explodes. Investigators for the History Channel program believe the blast was caused by a Nazi secret pressure mine that sweepers couldn’t detect, a device unknown to the Allies.
“A cable fouled up on our ship, so the 304 took our place,” Nester said. “I was 18 years old and the whole thing changed me to be a better man and continue to believe that this is a wonderful country. When I reached American soil again and anytime I returned home after going abroad, I kissed the ground when I arrived.”
Nester, who spent 10 years in the Navy, was a machinist and firefighter. His first brush with death came in 1939 when a shell from an enemy battleship hit the ship he was on.
“It hit the water and barreled into our engine room,” Nester said. “I got a ‘full-speed ahead’ call from the captain. I turned to get the call after it hit. Four men got killed. If we hadn’t gotten that call and just stayed put, that ship would have gone down or we might have been blown to bits.”
These days, Nester is content to look at photos of his ship and the 304, reminiscing with his fiancée, Alice Thornton, whom he met seven years ago at a Scottsdale senior center dance. His wife of 51 years, Alice, died in 1998.
“I may be the only one left from that ship,” Nester said. “We used to get together to meet, but the last time I heard from anyone was around six years ago.
“Like I said, I’m happy to be here. I had a great career in the Navy and am blessed to have had a good life,” Nester added with a broad smile. “I’ll never forget that day of the ship that took our place. We were all so lucky.”