Donald and Delbert
Clabe and Leora were not in favor of their sons’ joining the military, but boys with nothing to do get into trouble, Leora said. At least one other Dexter boy had joined the Navy. Because Delbert and Donald were so young, their parents had to sign for them to join up in early 1934. They made them promise to watch out for each other, and not get any tattoos.
After basic training, the brothers were assigned to the heavy cruiser USS Chicago on the east coast. As sailors, they had plenty to eat. When they had an extra ten dollars, they’d send it home to help buy coal, electricity, overalls, and books for school. Leora said her older sons’ gifts were life savers during those terrible years.
“Fill the boys and girls up on pork chops and mashed taters and gravy and a big glass of milk,” wrote Donald. The five kids at home were Doris in tenth grade, twins Dale and Darlene in seventh, Danny in fifth, and Junior in fourth.
Wilsons got an atlas and began to follow the Navy brothers as they sailed to new places. From the east coast to Guantanamo Bay, Cuba. Through the Panama Canal to southern California, where they visited relatives who were former Iowans. The Chicago traveled up the coast to Seattle, north to Alaska, and even to Honolulu. Del and Don wrote home about a base being built on isolated Midway Island, where Donald would nearly lose his life in just a few years. While heading to South America, they described their initiation for sailors’ first crossing of the Equator.
When Delbert and Donald eventually came home on furlough, they had no tattoos but had started smoking cigarettes. Their three younger brothers—Dale, Danny, and Junior–loved hearing the stories about the Navy but were mighty disappointed at their smoking.
After four years, Delbert got out of the Navy, hoping he could earn more by working in California, but Donald stayed in.
One by one, the other four Wilson brothers ended up in military service. Delbert, the oldest, rejoined the Navy. Younger brothers Dale, Danny, and Junior would become pilots.
His entire life, Donald Wilson regretted that he’d ever gone AWOL in November of 1941. But because he had, his family gained that very precious family picture.
World War II plunged this rural Dallas County farm family into the devastation of losing three of their five sons.
November 1941 was the last time that all seven siblings were together.
Donald was in combat in the Pacific on two aircraft carriers–the USS Yorktown (CV-5) (which was lost at Midway Island) and the USS Hancock (CV-19).
Delbert Rejoins the Navy
Delbert rejoined the Navy.
The day before Mother’s Day, 1942, Darlene and Sam Scar drove over to the Dallas County farm early to see Delbert off to Des Moines. Rain threatened as Sam snapped a family picture–Clabe in overalls, leather jacket, and hat, holding his pipe. Leora, in a house dress and apron, short enough to stand under her husband’s chin. Junior’s hands shoved in his overalls pockets, his jacket zipped up halfway. Delbert, as tall as his father, in a dark suit with an open collared shirt. Dale and Danny in overalls, Dan’s hands in his pockets. Solidly built, both wore leather jackets. Darlene, a little taller than her mother, in a cotton house dress.
From Des Moines, Delbert took a train to the Philadelphia Navy Yard. His thoughts were still on the farm, asked whether they got all the corn planted. “Suppose you will get the corn plowing job, eh, Junior?” he asked. “You all want to take it easy with that tractor. Don’t get to thinking you are a ‘hot’ driver.” This wouldn’t be the last time he’d give advice to his youngest brother, ten years his junior, but the next time would be to try to persuade him to stay out of the war.
Delbert was first assigned to the USS Maumee, an oil tanker, in the Atlantic.
Dale–Army Air Force
Just a month after Delbert left, Dale joined the Air Corps. Doris snapped the family photo: Clabe in a suit and hat. Junior, hair neatly combed, in slacks and shirt. Leora in a printed dress and hat. Danny and Dale in their suits, shirts with open collars, hair slicked back. They drove to Des Moines early for Dale’s swearing in at the Old Federal Building.
The Army Air Force had urged men ages eighteen to twenty-six to become pilots, mechanics, navigators, and bombardiers. Dale’s dream of learning to fly was coming closer. As a boy, he’d carved planes out of wood for school exhibition, gotten into trouble for drawing airplanes on his school work, and even had a ride in a bi-plane. That plane had landed in a field near Dexter, where Wilsons lived. Dale, Danny, and Junior had hiked out to see it and they even asked the pilot for a ride. He agreed to take them if they could come up with three dollars. They ran back home, pooled their nickels and dimes, and hurried back to the plane. Imagine the thrill for young brothers of taking off in an open plane for the first time, having family and neighbors watching them fly right over their town, and flying low enough that when Junior tossed out his cap, it landed right in his mother’s garden.
The morning after Dale had left, their bulldog Spats greeted each of them, but waited at the bottom of the stairs for Dale. According to Danny, Spats acted “different all day,” sensing that Dale was missing.
Delbert reminded Donald to write Dale often. “First time away from home, you know–he will need lots of encouragement.” Then Del himself wrote Dale an encouraging letter ending, “I know you will make one of the best in the air force. We are all pullin’ for you.”
Dale took a few required things in a suitcase, then shipped home his civilian clothes in it after being issued regulation military uniforms.
Dale became a pilot of the B-25 Mitchell Bomber.
Danny–Army Air Force
The last day of January 1943, Danny Wilson was anxious to leave the farm for the Air Corps. Sam and Darlene drove over early to see him off. Sam took the picture of the somber family, lined up in their winter coats, standing in a skiff of snow. Junior, in a zipped leather jacket, hands in his pockets. Clabe, wearing glasses, a long coat, and a hat. Darlene, hands in her coat pockets. Delbert—on leave after getting back from Casablanca—in uniform, pea coat, tilted cap, and a pipe. Danny, in a leather jacket and carrying a suitcase. Leora bundled up in a new blue coat and jaunty-feathered hat that Doris had helped her pick out.
Dale had advised Danny to work hard and study and do his best, but took it for granted that Danny would start his training on the west coast, like he did. Instead, Danny was sent to Jefferson Barracks, Missouri, fifteen miles south of St. Louis along the Mississippi River, where he marched to mess, asked permission to mail a letter, and scrubbed the latrine. They kept busy marching, hauling wood, keeping the fires on the street going, doing calisthenics, and pulling guard duty.
“Junior,” Danny wrote, “if some of these guys can get in the Air Corps, you shouldn’t think anything about not getting in. The main thing is to be in good physical condition.”
The suitcase Danny took that day was the same one that Dale shipped his civilian clothes home in. Danny would do the same.
Danny eventually became a pilot of the P-38 Lightning.
Junior–Army Air Force
Junior Wilson was so worried that he was stuck being a farmer, working with the landlord’s “bony old cows,” with no one around Minburn his age. But he got the okay to join the Army Air Force anyway. Sam and Darlene joined the family to see Junior off. Sam again took the traditional picture, catching a somber family lined up in front of the Plymouth.
Leather jacketed Clabe held year-old Richard. When his own children were small, Clabe seemed to always be holding the baby in family pictures.
Junior wore a double-breasted jacket and open collared shirt, like Dale did the day he left for the service. Junior had missed a button on the jacket, so it hung on one side. Left hand on his hip, the other holding the small suitcase that his brothers had also used.
“Junior must have been in a hurry,” Donald teased when he got a copy of the picture, “or all excited to leave where his coat is shifted a button off. Ha.”
Leora and Darlene wore coats, Leora also had on her feathered hat. So far, only Dale’s wings were pinned to her coat. Eventually there would be three of them.
Leora hung a new service flag in the window of the farmhouse. A circle of five blue stars–for five sons in the service. The same month Junior left for the “Air Corps,” Dale Wilson was Missing in Action.
Junior Wilson was sent to Texas, and eventually became the pilot of a P-40 Warhawk.
“What would I tell my grandchildren if I stayed home on the farm?” Junior asked.
The Wilson family story is told in Leora’s Letters: The Story of Love and Loss for an Iowa Family During World War II.