August 6, 1945. Hot sultry Iowa. Doris was staying with her folks, Clabe and Leora Wilson, in their small white house on an acreage near Perry. . . . The first home they’d ever owned.
The five stars on the red, white, and blue service flag in the window signaled that all five Wilson brothers were serving in the war – Delbert, Donald, Dale, Danny, and Junior.
Two of the brothers were missing in action, and another was still in combat. Those brothers aren’t the only ones Doris worried about. Her husband was in Texas, with a date set to leave for combat.
As her toddler slept nearby, Doris wrote to 1st Lt. Warren D. Neal, Combat Crew Headquarters, Crew #24, Biggs Field, Texas:
“We have been hearing all about the atomic bomb for the last couple of days. It really sounds like it will shorten the war considerably and I sure hope soon enough that you don’t get in on it, Hon – the shooting, I mean. That would sure be a load off my mind. . . .”
Two years earlier Doris had married a farmer who’d enlisted in the Air Corps and become a pilot. A few days after earning his own wings, Warren was assigned to instruct advanced cadets in Marfa, Texas, where Doris joined him after their Iowa wedding.
Their first home – the only place they could find to rent – was one room in a Texas church. A year later their first child was born, a daughter named Joy. In a few months Warren was ordered to Arizona to train in B-17s. Uprooted, Doris and her toddler returned to Iowa to wait out the end of the war.
When that first atomic bomb was dropped, Warren had been named commander of new big B-29 Superfortress and crew of ten, soon to leave for Saipan – and combat over Japan.
Doris dreaded that. And dreaded it that Dale and Danny were both still missing.
Maybe Dale will be found in a POW camp. We could even hear from him before long. But it’s been months. Oh, God, let him be all right.
Dale was three years younger than Doris, and sister Darlene’s twin. Dale joined the Air Corps to become a pilot, fulfilling a boyhood dream. He hoped to fly fighters but the army needed bomber pilots. Dale copiloted a B-25 Mitchell, island-hopping across the Pacific the summer of 1943. That November his plane was shot down just off New Guinea, on his thirteenth mission.
A few months later, a Japanese short-wave broadcast named Dale as a POW, but they’d heard nothing more. Every day now, POWs were being released and their names announced over the radio. Clabe Wilson tamped Prince Albert tobacco into his pipe and listened hour after hour, yearning to hear Dale’s name.
Brother Dale was the first person Doris had written that she was expecting a baby. Her tiny V-mail letter was returned from New Guinea, unopened, stamped “Missing.”
Day and night they prayed that Dale and Danny would return safe and sound.
I wish Danny would just come walking in. But maybe he’s hiding out over there. Or maybe he was injured and is still in a hospital.
“I just want you to know,” Doris had written Danny when he joined the Air Corps, “Whether you turn out to be an ace or a grease-monkey, you’ll still be a swell brother to me.”
Danny became a fighter pilot, flying the P-38 Lightning – which his brother Dale had called “a man’s dream” – in combat over Austria, Germany, and Yugoslavia.
He’d been missing since February.
I hope Donald gets back soon. He’s seen his share of combat.
During a furlough early in the war, Donald – a USS Yorktown survivor – had described witnessing the long, colorful torpedoes that had doomed his carrier. And about watching his ship roll over at Midway and sink.
Now Donald was on another aircraft carrier, which has been in nearly every major Pacific battle during the last ten months, except when out of action for repairs. For kamikaze damage.
At least Junior and Delbert are safe here in the U.S.
Junior, so sick of farming and with all four brothers gone, joined up as soon as he could. Now a new fighter pilot in Texas, Junior was anxious to go overseas, if only with the occupation forces.
Delbert had reenlisted in the Navy after Pearl Harbor was attacked. In August, he was in submarine training in Connecticut, but he had had his share of danger – on a tanker crew along the east coast, and to North Africa across Atlantic Ocean crawling with U-boats.
August 9. In the little white house next to fields of tasseled corn, Wilsons kept the radio on all day. They heard the news that a second atomic bomb had been dropped on Japan.
. . . . Surely they will surrender now. Oh dear God, let the war be over. . . . But those atomic bombs. I’m afraid from now on the world will never be the same. . . .
Later that day, their mailman comes to the door. At this unexpected hour he would be bringing a telegram. The bad news about Danny.
Clabe and Leora retreat to their bedroom. Doris hears their weeping as she faces the dreaded message.
She opens the envelope. Scans the words. They begin to swim.
It doesn’t say Danny.
It says Junior. . . . Junior. . . It can’t be. . . . He’s still safe in Texas. . . It can’t be. . . .
That morning, his P-40 had thrown a rod and exploded in formation training. Junior Wilson was 20.