In late 1942, the tanker USS Maumee (AO-2) had made it to French North Africa in a convoy.
After unloading at Casablanca, each Navy man carried a club and a .45 on patrol duty. Arab five to twelve year olds followed them, doing handsprings and other tricks for a cigarette or stick of gum. They’d go wild over a candy bar. Sailors didn’t have candy or gum, but soldiers did. The kids were worldly-wise at age six or seven, Delbert Wilson said. Some had their heads shaved, all but a half-dollar sized spot on the back of their heads, where the hair grew long enough to braid. “Now there really is a hairdo,” he quipped.
“The Arabs there are quite a people,” he said, “about like a tribe of Indians, cunning and very smart in a way. They are very poor as a whole. Most of them wear nothing but rags–even gunny sacks. Servicemen were not permitted in their section of the city, especially at night, as some cold and shivering Arab would knife you for the clothes you had on. Several soldiers and some sailors have been killed. As the Army has taken over the city, they have patrols with rifles and sub-machine guns, but it’s hard to cover a city of 200,000. Whenever they find one of their buddies with no clothes, they open up on all the Arabs standing around and within sight. They had them pretty well in hand before we left.”
On Christmas Day, the Press News of the ship reported that the copper penny had become a war casualty and the substitute was to be zinc-coated steel. Peanuts and peanut butter had been placed under temporary price ceilings. And FDR sent Christmas greetings to “soldiers of those nations large and small who are united in defense of freedom and justice and human rights.”
The tanker lay in Casablanca, French North Africa, for a couple of weeks waiting for enough slower ships for a convoy back to the U.S. “The Atlantic sure is a wide old pond when you poke along at 8 and 9 knots.” By the end of 1942, Delbert was on his way back in a convoy of about forty ships. Wilsons at home still hadn’t heard from him.
Finally arriving safely at Norfolk January 9, 1943, the crew of the tanker celebrated Christmas when mail was finally delivered–a mountain of letters and packages. “Lots of broken cakes, candy, and crushed cookies but they were all just like bunch of kids at Christmas time.” They hadn’t had any candy for over two months. “Words can’t describe how good I feel with all these letters and presents and pictures–boy, those pictures are wonderful.”
Delbert wrote in his neat backhand, “Back in the good ol’ U.S.A after over two months of plowing the Atlantic. It was a bit rough for several days (very poor submarine weather–nobody minded it much even if it was hard to stay on one’s feet at times). It was reported (unofficially) that we made 457 miles one day, 57 ahead and 400 up and down.” It had taken nineteen days to get back from North Africa because of a storm.
The convoy escort of four destroyers had been credited with four or five subs on the way over, making the dreary Atlantic that much safer, he said. The destroyers’ depth charge runs reminded Delbert of a bunch of hounds after a fox, smelling and tracking around just like dogs. And he said their new detection gear could spot anything above or below the waterline. Delbert was also promoted to first class, and he doubled the amount he sent home to help pay for a “place of their own.”
The deck force got five days’ leave, but the engineers had too much work to do. “A fellow’s morale is under sea level, you can imagine,” he wrote.
But Delbert got to deliver that letter in person. The engineering department had a change of heart, so Del left quickly for the Minburn, Iowa, farm, where he surprised the family January 26. There he “took on some good chow,” reported to brother Dale that the cooked wheat (Dale’s favorite) for breakfast was as good as ever, that their parents looked so good, and that Junior had grown about a foot. Junior had a new Speed King, which Del was anxious to try on a fox of his own.
Hurricane and Muffler Fire
While he was home, Del told the rest of the harrowing story of running into another enemy on the way back from North Africa–a hurricane. The tanker had gotten separated from the other ships. With its load of fuel pumped into storage in Casablanca, the empty ship rode high in the water. Every time the wind changed, the tanker changed its heading—with the main drive engines idling—for nearly three days.
They located two destroyers from the convoy, but about four hours later, the Maumee‘s huge mufflers caught fire from all the sludge in the exhaust lines caused by the engines idling so long. The mufflers were red hot and the heat burned off paint in the engine room. They thought they were goners. All the vent systems and blowers were turned on so the men could stand to be in the engine rooms to work there.
Flame shot from the stack fifty to seventy-five feet high. The deck officer got a sea water fire hose, but the Captain stopped him before he got any water down to the fire and blew up the ship. Del thought, “Well, if this doesn’t get us, torpedoes probably will,” because the fire lit up the sky for miles. It finally died down, but the ship leaked oil all the way to Norfolk, signaling wounded prey to lurking submarines.
Doris got home to see her oldest brother and hear his stories, along with their folks and two youngest brothers–Danny and Junior. And Scars came over from their farm west of Earlham to see him, bringing baby Richard to meet his Uncle Delbert. They took a picture of Richard wearing Delbert’s cap, and Danny Wilson with the family, ready to leave for the Army Air Force.
They all learned that the USS Chicago, the first ship Delbert and Donald served on nine years earlier, had been sunk in the Pacific.
While Delbert was home, his mother got Delbert to have his picture taken in uniform at Edmonson’s Studio. Dark, handsome, sporting a Clark Gable mustache.
Aware now that German submarines weren’t the only worry about a son in the Navy, Delbert’s family wished him luck and promised to write often.
All five Wilson brothers 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.