AWOL

last (2)

Last photo of the Clabe and Leora Wilson family, taken November 1941 by
Edmonsons Photo, Perry, Iowa
Back: Danny Wilson, Darlene (Wilson) Scar, Donald Wilson, Junior Wilson (still in high school), Delbert Wilson, Doris Wilson, Dale Wilson  (Darlene’s twin). Seated: Clabe and Leora Wilson

There was a knock at Wilson’s farmhouse door near Minburn after midnight.

Clabe asked, “Who is it?”

“Don.”

“Don who?”

“Don your son!”

“Well, what are you doing home? Did you get a furlough after all?” asked his
mother, Leora. By then, because of all the racket downstairs, the four other Wilson brothers had rolled out of bed. Don introduced his friend from their ship, the USS Yorktown.

No, the Navy couldn’t give any furloughs because things were really getting serious in the Atlantic. That second week of November 1941, Europe’s war had already involved American ships.

A destroyer in an Atlantic convoy had been sunk two weeks earlier by a U-boat, with the loss of over 100 men.

Earlier in 1941 the Yorktown was still in the Pacific Ocean. Don Wilson had warned in a letter home that the Japanese were not to be trusted, and that he thought that the United States could end up with its own war with Japan in the Pacific.

But that spring, the Yorktown was given sealed orders sending the aircraft carrier into the Atlantic Ocean. After the big black “Y” on the ship’s stack was painted over, and anything else that would identify her, the ship navigated the Panama Canal in the dark.

The Navy began censoring outgoing mail as the ship was readied to join the Neutrality Patrol, protecting convoys to and from Europe.

During his ship’s first patrol in the North Atlantic in June, Don wrote home, “When things get tough, I’ll send my valuables, what few I have. No use letting Davy Jones have them.”

But Davy Jones–the deep ocean spirit of sailors’ folklore–would get them all.

On this latest patrol, the Yorktown had helped escort a convoy of six ships headed east to the mid-Atlantic, then swapped convoys and escorted eight British ships heading west to the East Coast, arriving November 9. They had encountered U-boats and had dropped depth charges–too much like the real thing.

Back in port in Maine, and knowing that it was just a matter of time before war was officially declared, the boys jumped ship and hitch-hiked their way to the Wilson farm near Minburn.

Yes, they’d be in trouble with the Navy, but Don didn’t know when he’d ever get back home to Iowa.

Meanwhile, they enjoyed Leora’s home cooking, with dinner around the familiar oilcloth-covered kitchen table. And they probably went squirrel hunting in the timber with Don’s dad and four brothers, all wearing overalls, with their beloved terrier-bulldog mix, Spats, trotting along with them.

Conversation turned to their old “smoking Buick.” Wilsons decided to pool their money and trade it off on a brand new gray 1942 Plymouth four-door, 95-horsepower, Special Deluxe sedan, with concealed running boards.

 

Both sisters made it home to see Don. They took the time to drive to Perry for a family picture at Edmonson’s Studio. Who knew when they’d all be home again at the same time.

Soon the expected letter arrived from the Navy: Your son is AWOL. Do you know where he is? And told of possible consequences.

After handshakes and pats on backs, Don and his friend turned themselves in at the Great Lakes Naval Training Station, Illinois. While Pearl Harbor was being attacked on December 7, they were in the “brig.”

As his ship prepared to return to the Pacific, Don was sent back to the Yorktown. Within six months Donald Wilson would nearly lose his life during the Battle of Midway, having to “abandon ship” twice. “Davy Jones” did indeed get Don’s letters from home, including graduation pictures of his younger brothers and sisters.

One by one, the other four Wilson brothers ended up in the service. Delbert, the oldest, rejoined the Navy. (He and Don had first joined in 1934. Don stayed in.)

Younger brothers Dale, Danny, and Junior would become pilots.

His entire life, Don Wilson would hate it that he’d ever gone AWOL, but because he did, his family gained that very precious family picture.

World War II plunged this rural Dallas County farm family into the devastation of losing the three young pilots.

November 1941 was the last time that all seven siblings were together.

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