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 a picture of Uncle Don with a big salmon. Mom’s older brother had been a commercial fisherman. Even when he later took a job with the Washington Department of Transportation, he still headed out with his boat on Willapa Bay every chance he got.
So every fishing season, we’d get snapshots of him with a huge 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.
Sometimes a U.S. Navy cap–either the USS Hancock. Or the USS Yorktown.
Although Mom rarely mentioned the war–World War II, she’d told us that her brother Don, who grew up in Dexter, Iowa, had been a sailor on the famous Yorktown–the one 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 by train with Grandma to the West Coast to visit relatives, including Don and Rose in Washington. 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 had only 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 try fried clams and make clam chowder. Digging them was more fun than eating them for farm girls used to Iowa beef and pork.
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 25-year-old spent an hour in the oily Pacific after Japanese bombs had crippled the ship. The next day the carrier was listing, dead in the water but still afloat. A few dozen men reboarded the crippled ship for a salvage attempt.
One of them was Donald Wilson.
After doing repairs all morning on a lower level of the ship all morning, he clambered up to the deck for a sandwich. An alarm blared. Don jumped up and saw the torpedoes in the water, speeding right at his ship. He ran to the fantail and leaped a second time. A nearby ship rescued him and others.
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.
Donald Wilson first joined the Navy with his, older brother in 1934, during the Great Depression when there were no jobs for teenagers, nor for their father. Don stayed in the Navy and in 1937 became a “plank owner” on the brand new Yorktown–meaning he was a member of the crew when a ship was placed in commission.
“I served on her her whole life,” Don later wrote.
He later received a citation, signed by Admiral Chester Nimitz, for being part of that salvage attempt.
I’d written to Don and Rose for decades, but after Grandma died and getting to read the family’s war 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 it, he proudly framed all of his ribbons and medals.
Uncle Don was also a “plank owner” on the USS Hancock, another aircraft carrier. The Hancock was in combat nearly every major naval battle during the last desperate months of the Pacific war, except when out of action for repairs after a kamikaze attack.
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 the blows of losing those three young pilots.
Including their older brother Don.
Still in the Navy after the war, Don 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 a big fish was indeed a hero with a poignant history.
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.
Listen to an 8-minute version on Our American Stories.
Donald Wilson is also featured on the Dallas County Freedom Rock at Minburn, Iowa, with his four brothers. All five served. Only two came home. Their story is told in Leora’s Letters: The Story of Love and Loss for an Iowa Family During World War II.