Mid-March the USS Maumee was again headed for North Africa, but Delbert Wilson had transferred to the USS Achelous (ARL-1), the very first landing craft repair ship, at Baltimore, Maryland. The 350-foot-long converted ship had a welded up front end where the tanks had rolled out, he said. Now a floating machine shop. “May not be bad duty, although from the Skipper on down, all believe we are headed for Africa,” Del said. The ship was scheduled for commissioning in April, but he didn’t think it would leave the States before the middle of May.
About thirty sailors were put up in the Lord Baltimore Hotel, two to a room, “real bunks, a radio, shower and bath! They give us $1.50 a day for meals and it sure takes it all and more. Meat is kinda scarce in this town.”
And Delbert had met a really nice girl, who was in the Coast Guard Police–assigned to duty at Bethlehem Steel, where the Achelous was being fitted out. She didn’t smoke or drink, seemed sensible, so much different from the others, he said. “She sure is a good actress if she’s not OK.”
For three days and night, the crew loaded big marine diesels on the Achelous, and stores of all kinds. Yard welders, burners, and chippers never stopped. “Welding gas, fresh paint, heat, and howling engines don’t make for sound sleep.”
The ship soon got underway to calibrate the compass and make test runs. “I reckon we’ll do 12 knots in a pinch–some speed!”
Next they headed to the firing range in Norfolk to test their guns. Delbert said he sure hated to leave Baltimore, “if you get what I mean.” The ship had eight 20-millimeter and two quads (eight tubes) of 40-millimeter and one new three-inch gun for subs. Well armed for a ship that size, he said.
Tugs pushed the Achelous to the pier at the Naval Operating Base to take on more equipment, ammunition, and food–getting ready for a big trip. “They are rushing us, seem to have priority in getting what we want, so they must need a repair ship of this type bad someplace–my guess is Africa. This ship is built to sit and do repair work of all kinds. Won’t stand much sea going. Pretty well constructed, however, for the way they threw it together.”
It would be a a year to eighteen months before the Achelous would be back to the U.S. again, Delbert figured. “We will have plenty of protection, is one thing for sure, with 12 or 15 million bucks of tools and engines aboard! I’ll say! I’m in the repair gang of E’s [electricians]. I also have taken over the compass on here. Same as on the Maumee. A M.K. XIV Sperry, a merchant marine type. A nice compass, but won’t take high speed turns without showing too great an error.”
Ten men were in his electricians gang, mostly “green kids,” as was most of the crew. Since no one knew what some of the machines were, it would be quite a while before they would become an efficient repair ship.
By mid-April, the crew still didn’t know where they were headed. Delbert was elected to fill and charge 100 dry batteries and charge them. “Rubber boots, rubber apron, rubber gloves, goggles, and a tub of soda water to wash in if necessary,” he said. “It’s quite an operation–one you don’t hurry on.”
To hell with heroism
Delbert had read that fathers were going to have a separate rating so knew that his brother-in-law Sam probably wouldn’t be drafted. “He is doing a hell of a lot more good where he is at–and so are you, Junior,” he told his youngest brother. “I wish I could make you realize it. Yes, I know you want to fly–so do I, but there is plenty of time for that. We will have two experts to each us after the war. I’d wait awhile yet–maybe you can time it so you will be in basic or advanced when it’s over. No use stickin’ yer neck out till you have to. To hell with so-called glory, medals, and heroism. It’s the guys who stay around close and healthy that will enjoy the confetti, if any, after this damn war–not the men with bruised brains of battle. Modern war is hard enough for men to realize, who have seen some of it. I figure it’s something to stay away from as long as you can–you don’t rate any part of it yet, Junior.”
Delbert was ten years old when Junior was born. Junior was just eight years old when his oldest brothers first joined the Navy. But when Junior was in high school, Delbert was back to Iowa. They’d worked together and hunted together. Delbert felt protective of his kid brother.
In April, the USS Achelous sailed with a convoy bound for North Africa–without Delbert. Mumps. His next half dozen letters, sent from the naval Hospital at Norfolk, arrived at the Minburn farm in envelopes with caricatures of sailors on them.
Two dozen years earlier, three brothers of Delbert’s mother were drafted and sent to France. Although the worry in those days–besides the war–was virulent influenza. But one of them was hospitalized for a while in France with mumps.
“I’ve been in this damn place for six days. Seems more like six weeks. Yea, I’ve got the mumps–don’t feel so bad, though. My temperature is about normal so I get a regular meal–which means a lot in a place like this. I have about week to go here at least before they will even consider turning me loose. They keep you in bed all the time it is not absolutely necessary to get up. They bring everything to you–meals, bath, etc.”
The swelling under his under his jaw was going down, but it still looked like he had a double chin. Delbert was in the ward for acute cases, with several new ones arriving.
After Del got out of the hospital, his ship was gone. What was next would change his life forever.
The Wilson family story is told in Leora’s Letters: The Story of Love and Loss for an Iowa Family During World War II.