Donald Wilson, Humble Hero

Most of the heroes among us are just ordinary people. Like my Uncle Don Wilson. I knew him as Mom’s brother, who lived way out in Washington State.

And who liked to fish.

When I was a kid growing up on an Iowa farm, the best part of getting a fat letter from Aunt Rose was pictures of Uncle Don and a fish. Mom’s older brother had been a commercial fisherman. Even when he later took a job with the Washington DOT, he still headed out with his boat on Willapa Bay every chance he got.

Donald Wilson’s retirement from the Washington State DOT, September 1978.

So every fishing season, we’d get snapshots of him with a big fish hanging from one hand and a fishing pole in the other. Dressed in faded jeans and a plaid shirt, usually a vest with lots of pockets.

1980–steelhead salmon
1995–45 lb. Chinook salmon, “I look tired and I was tired. But happy inside.”


Sometimes a U.S. Navy cap–either the USS Hancock. Or the USS Yorktown.

Although Mom rarely mentioned the war, she’d told us that her brother Don, who grew up in Dexter, Iowa, had been a sailor on the famous Yorktown when it was lost during a big battle in the Pacific Ocean. And that he had had to tread water for an hour before being rescued.

Every few years, Uncle Don and Aunt Rose would drive back to Iowa to visit. I was unaware of all the other combat he’d survived, all the heartache he’d been through, all the complexity of this seemingly-ordinary man.

As teenagers, sis Gloria and I traveled with Grandma to the West Coast to visit relatives, including Don and Rose. In 1962 they lived in a little house out along Washington’s Naselle River. As soon as they learned we were coming, Uncle Don added a room to their home–an indoor bathroom.

Since Aunt Rose didn’t drive, they only had a pickup. Don, Rose, and Grandma sat up front, but they had lined the bed of the pickup with couch cushions so Gloria and I could ride in comfort. One foggy day we joined a crowd of clam diggers, and carried our limit home to fry and make chowder. Digging them was more fun for farm girls used to Iowa beef and pork than eating them.

Years later, l learned that not only had Uncle Don been on the Yorktown during the Battle of Midway, but that he had had to abandon ship twice. The day after it had first been crippled by Japanese planes, the aircraft carrier was listing but still afloat. A few dozen men reboarded the ship for a salvage attempt.

One of them was Donald Wilson.

After repairing on a lower level of the ship all morning, he was on the deck for a sandwich when an alarm sounded. Donald saw the torpedoes in the water speeding toward the ship. He had to jump off the fantail a second time, and was rescued by a nearby ship.

The next morning, asleep on the deck, he was nudged awake. Many of the sailors wept as they stood at attention to witness their ship roll over and plunge into the ocean.

“I served on her her whole life,” he said.

July 1943,  survivor of the loss of the Yorktown (CV-5), and now married to a girl from Washington State

He later received a citation, signed by Admiral Chester Nimitz, for being part of the salvage attempt.


I’d written to Don and Rose for decades, but after reading the old letters, I started a correspondence with Uncle Don that lasted the rest of his life. I wanted to make sure he had all the medals he was entitled to. He said he didn’t want any, that he was no hero, and wasn’t interested in medals.

That is, until I learned there was one for the citation. When he finally received that medal, he proudly framed all of his ribbons and medals.

Uncle Don was also a “plank owner” on the USS Hancock, another aircraft carrier–a member of the crew of a ship when it was placed in commission (just like he had been on the Yorktown). The Hancock was in nearly every battle during the last desperate months of Pacific combat, except when being repaired after being attacked by kamikazes.

Burial at sea after the USS Hancock (CV-19) was hit by a kamakaze

Pictures of five Wilson brothers of Dallas County, Iowa, in their uniforms were part of my growing up years–at our farm home, at Aunt Darlene’s, and at Grandma Wilson’s in Guthrie Center.

The three youngest Wilsons–Dale, Danny, and Junior–lost their lives, two of them in combat. The surviving family members never got over losing those three young pilots. Including Donald.

Still in the Navy after the war, Donald decided he didn’t want to make it a career after all. He was ready for some peace and quiet. And a fishing pole.

No one would suspect that the ordinary man in the snapshots with the big fish was indeed a hero with a poignant history.

Scan0002 (3)

WW II Medals of Donald W. Wilson

Navy Commendation Medal (Yorktown Salvage Crew)

Asiatic-Pacific Campaign Medal with 7 Stars

Philippine Defense Ribbon with 2 Stars

American Defense Service Medal with “A” and 1 Star

Navy Unit Commendation Ribbon

American Theater Medal

WW II Victory Medal

China Service Medal

Navy Occupation Service Medal

Navy Good Conduct Medal

Philippine Liberation Medal

See: Blue Skies and Blood: The Battle of the Coral Sea by Edwin P. Hoyt, 1975.

Miracle at Midway by Gordon W. Prange, 1982.

That Gallant Ship: U.S.S. Yorktown CV-5 by Robert J. Cressman, 1985.

For more about Donald Wilson, see:

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