As the oldest in a family of seven kids, my Uncle Delbert Wilson took that “job” seriously, encouraging the others, maybe bossing sometimes, always pulling his own weight.
When no jobs were to be had in small-town Iowa during the Depression, he and next brother Donald joined the Navy in 1934, both starting out serving on the USS Chicago (CA-29).
After their first enlistment was up, Don stayed in but Delbert thought surely he could make more by finding a job in southern California.
But he ended up coming back to Dexter, although before long his dad had taken the job of running a farm near Minburn. There was tension with Japan in the Pacific, and war had already broken out in Europe. As soon as Pearl Harbor was attacked, Delbert knew he would be recalled by the Navy so he reenlisted.
He was assigned to the USS Maumee (AO-2), an oil tanker at Baltimore, Maryland. His family was well aware that U-boat wolf packs were targeting tankers all along the East Coast. They had reason to worry. By the end of June, German subs had sunk nearly five hundred Allied ships, 142 of them tankers, mostly in the western Atlantic and Caribbean.
The Maumee had been launched the year Delbert was born, 1915. During the Great War, the ship pioneered refueling at sea. In reserve since 1922, the tanker had been recently overhauled and just recommissioned.
Delbert wrote more details to Donald, “You can probably guess what the Maumee is if you haven’t seen her. Don’t let anyone tell you she’s an old crate because practically everything is new. Most of the electrical equipment was produced this year. I’ve had two watches on the switchboards already but as yet haven’t switched or paralleled generators. This equipment is new to most of us, even the chief.”
Delbert was always a faithful letter-writer, so when no one had heard from him for awhile, they got nervous.
Leora wrote middle son Dale in mid-December that they hadn’t heard from Delbert for over a month. “My, I hope we hear from him soon.” She figured he must be on a long trip. “I suppose he is OK, but would be awful glad to get a letter.”
Delbert had started a letter aboard the ship, but on November 6, the tanker had begun its first transatlantic trip since World War I. It was part of a convoy of forty-six ships headed for North Africa, where the Allied invasion called Operation Torch was underway. U-boats watched for convoys of Allied supplies, some lurking west of the Azores to intercept them.
The Allies landed in North Africa November 8, fired at by the new French ship Jean Bart, and took Casablanca on the 11th. From November 11 to 15, seven ships had been torpedoed near Casablanca. In fact, November was the worst month in the “Battle of the Atlantic”–117 ships sunk by U-boats.
While his family in Dallas County spent several worrisome weeks without a letter from Delbert, the day before Thanksgiving, the Maumee arrived safely at Casablanca.
Every day–though busy with chores and picking corn–Wilsons looked and hoped for a letter from Delbert. Every week, they kept writing to him. And worrying.
“When I go home,” Doris wrote her oldest brother, “about the first thing I do is read the letters from ‘the boys.’ For about three months now we haven’t had any from you and you can bet we are all getting pretty uneasy. Of course we don’t talk to each other about being worried but just the same I can’t help but feel it in everyone at home. God, I hope you are OK.”
Delbert kept adding to the letter he’d started weeks before, but still couldn’t yet mail it. The Maumee had mothered about thirty small craft–PC boats, sub chasers, mine sweeps–on the way over via Bermuda and the Azores. When they got to Casablanca, the Americans on shore said they looked like an old hen and a bunch of baby chickens.
“I’ll give you all a clue as to where we went so fast–so fast in fact that I just about didn’t get that last letter written to you all,” he wrote. “Well, I’m sorry to say I didn’t have the opportunity of meeting Field Marshall Erwin Rommel and his Afrika Corps–just as well, I guess–he still has plenty of fight in him.”
Delbert described what happened as they approached North Africa. “At a range of 10 to 12 miles, our Navy opened up against a force of shore batteries, French battleships, cruisers, and destroyers. The Jean Bart and cruisers tried very hard to get our big battleship, but their range was a bit short. Then our battleship would steam in where their projectiles hit the water so the next salvo would be over them. As our forces dodged about, they blasted hell out of everything in sight. We lost most of our men when the landing was made–more than they want to tell a present. One French cruiser got a full broadside from one of our new destroyer’s five 5-inch shells in her engine and fire rooms blew up.”
Before their convoy arrived, a bomb had put the pride of the French fleet, the Jean Bart, out of action. Del had a good view for almost a month, from the Maumee anchored inside the breakwater, of “ships with gaping holes in their sides, ships with their keels on the bottom, ships on their sides, and ships that had raging fires.” At least half a dozen Nazi U-boats had been sunk, he said, and divers sent down to make sure of the nationalities.