An old aircraft carrier lies three miles below the waves of the Pacific Ocean, halfway between Asia and North America–the USS Yorktown–sunk in one of the most important sea battles of the 20th Century, according to World War II historians.
An Iowa boy from the small town of Dexter–in the US Navy only because it meant steady meals and a job during the Depression–became part of history and nearly lost his life when that ship was sunk.
Wilson–the same young man who had jumped ship the November before to see his Iowa family once more before war broke out–experienced his first real combat in early May of 1942 when his ship and the aircraft carrier USS Lexington fought off the Japanese attempt to take the island of New Guinea.
That first combat was especially sobering as the Lexington was lost, and his own ship damaged badly enough to put into Pearl Harbor for weeks of repairs.
After learning of a Japanese plan to attack Midway Island, the Yorktown–patched by huge steel plates–rushed out of dry dock with welders still working on board.
Decades later Don Wilson remembered details about this turning point in the Pacific war, and the struggle to retain this small island 1300 miles west of Hawaii.
As they neared Midway on June 4, an aerial dogfight broke out. Three bombs smashed into the Yorktown, two of them exploding below decks, crippling the ship’s boilers and starting fires.
Two hours later, while still undergoing repairs, the ship was hit again. The crew, ordered topside for life jackets, dashed up ladder after ladder carrying flashlights and battle lanterns.
As soon as the “abandon ship” signal was given, Donald scrambled over the lifeline on the fantail and jumped into the ocean. After treading water for an hour, he was one of about 2000 survivors eventually pulled out of the Pacific.
The Yorktown was crippled but didn’t sink. It stabilized enough that officers decided to make a salvage attempt. They chose 29 officers and 141 men, including Don Wilson, to dangle from ropes in a bosun’s chair across to the eerily silent ship.
He clambered down ladder after ladder to gather tools to connect submersible pumps. Footing was treacherous, he remembered, and the heat stifling. When he later went up top for air, an alarm began to blare.
Don was just in time to witness a torpedo spread rushing toward the ship in the mirror-flat ocean–a salvo of four long torpedoes, props turning, gliding in the clear water.
Two of them plowed into the crippled Yorktown.
Heavy blasts rocked the ship. Loose gear scraped and banged. Don rushed toward the fantail, the spot where he had abandoned ship three days earlier. He leaped into the elevator pit and scrambled out the other side. Other sailors joined him on the stern, preparing to jump.
For some reason that he could never explain, Don shouted, “Wait!”
A tremendous underwater explosion churned the bodies of the boys already in the ocean. When the oily water subsided, Don again plunged into the Pacific.
He was rescued and slept that night on the deck of a nearby ship. Someone nudged him awake the next morning. He could see that his carrier was doomed, beginning to sink.
Weary sailors all stood at attention. Neighboring ships half-masted their colors. At sunrise on June 7, 1942, the USS Yorktown, flags still flying, rolled over and sank.
Donald Wilson, age 26, had served on that ship since before its 1937 commissioning. “Her whole life,” as he put it. USS Yorktown (CV-5)
The Wilson family at home learned that there had been a battle near Midway Island, but the loss of the Yorktown wasn’t announced until months later. Don’s letters were censored, so he couldn’t even allude to it.
Don received a citation, signed by Admiral Nimitz–Commander in Chief of the U.S. Pacific Fleet–for being part of the volunteer salvage attempt, and a Navy Commendation Medal as well. That fall he was promoted to Chief Electrician’s Mate and allowed a furlough.
While back to the Minburn farm, he described in detail the Battles of the Coral Sea and Midway to family and friends. Edmonson’s Studio in Perry took a picture of him in his new Chief’s uniform.
Don Wilson had planned to send home his precious family pictures and letters, but didn’t get around to it. They lie at the bottom of the ocean with the historic Yorktown. Yorktown wreck located
See: Miracle at Midway by Gordon W. Prange, 1982.
That Gallant Ship: U.S.S. Yorktown CV-5 by Robert J. Cressman, 1985.
Donald Wilson was one of five brothers who served during WWII. Only two came home. They are featured on the Dallas County Freedom Rock. Their story is told in Leora’s Letters: The Story of Love and Loss for an Iowa Family During World War II.