Wilson Brothers Enlist in the Navy 1934

Because there were so few jobs available during the Great Depression, young men decided to join the US Navy.

Donald and Delbert Wilson. “Just arrived home to Dexter from Des Moines where they were looking after navy business.” Jan. 18, 1934. (The house in the background still sits along old US Route 6 in Dexter.)
sled (2)
Danny, Junior, and Dale with the new sled their older brothers–Delbert and Donald–bought them while in Des Moines to join the Navy.  Jan. 1934.

Delbert and Donald Wilson, 1933 Dexter High School graduates, did just that.

In her memoirs, their mother wrote: “There was no work for anyone. The ‘Great Depression’ was on and men were idle all over. One or two of their classmates were joining the military services. The boys thought that would be a good thing to do, but their mother and father didn’t like the idea for some time, but times were getting worse and we finally agreed that it was better than idleness, although it was hard to let them go. Some boys with nothing to do were getting into trouble. Their father signed the papers for them to join the Navy.”


Leora: “Delbert and Donald left in February 1934 for training at Norfolk, Virginia. They got leave after some training and came home for 10 days. My, how good it was to have all our family home again. They were assigned to a cruiser, the Chicago. It was the same ship a schoolmate, Howard Benz, was on. They were glad for that.”

The Wilson brothers finally had enough to eat, something worthwhile to do, and a paycheck. They were also able to send home a little money to help pay for school books for their five younger siblings. And coal to heat the house the Wilsons were renting in Dexter.


Leora: “They got to sail all up the east coast of the U.S. and west coast to Alaska, down on the west coast of South America, and to Hawaii on their training cruise. There was lots of letter writing back and forth.”

USS Chicago at Philadelphia, July 1934.
The Chicago at New York City, September 1934.

When docked at New York City, Del and Don were shown around the city by their uncle, Perry Goff, one of Leora’s brothers who lived there at the time. I wonder what their parents thought when they wrote home that Perry had not only given them a tour of the city, zipped around on the subway and up the Empire State building on a fast elevator, he’d bought them a fifth of wine for $4 and all the beer they could drink. Delbert was 19, but Donald wasn’t quite 18. Uncle Perry had paid for everything. “What the hell,” he told them, “I made 128 bucks on the horses yesterday.”

Perry Alfred Goff (1903-1982) “Played the horses” and became a waiter in restaurants from New York City to Florida.

I don’t know what their parents advised them about drinking or smoking. Clabe and Leora had only asked their sons to promise not to get tattoos.

The Wilsons didn’t know it at the time but their cruiser would head through the Panama Canal that October, headed for Long Beach, California. Leora’s only sister lived not far away, as well as two more Goff brothers. The Wilson Navy brothers took turns writing about being invited often for dinner and taking trips with their uncles to see the sights of Southern California, including the Rose Parade.

The USS Chicago (CA-29) was lost during WWII on January 30, 1943. Terrance G. Papravak, Jr. is writing a book about this ship. This post from his website tells about the lost of the cruiser.

Leora’s Dexter Stories: The Scarcity Years of the Great Depression


  1. It is curious that anyone living so far from the sea would join the navy – but maybe that is why they did.

    I recall in the 1970’s, witnessing a hitch hiker standing in Des Moines where I-35 (which terminates at the Gulf of Mexico) intersects I-80 (which takes you east to the Atlantic and west to the Pacific).

    He was holding a sign that simply read, “The Ocean”

    • I wondered about that too, but they had a classmate join the navy the fall before. Delbert had already tried helping an uncle who did landscaping in Southern California, but the jobs dried up out there in 1933, and he ended up back in Dexter. Just few options in such a small town (748 souls in 1930).

      Uncle Don went on to make a career of the navy–but that was before he lost his three youngest brothers in WWII and his father a few months later. Both Del and Don returned to Iowa for awhile, but both ended up on the West Coast eventually.

      We live very near the junction of I-35 and I-80. I grew up on an Iowa farm. I remember hoping to live “anywhere but Iowa.” The Air Force sent us to Idaho (which we loved) and, after Guy got back from Vietnam we lived in Colorado, where our son was born. The birth of the only grandchild was what lured us back to Iowa, which has turned into such a lovely state! (Our son now lives in the Twin Cities.)

    • Love that they brought home a sled for their younger brothers. Those brothers certainly enjoyed the sled, and also getting letters from around the globe!

    • I don’t remember ever meeting Perry, or Rolla, another brother who never married, mostly lived on the east coast, and eventually had their bodies sent back for their oldest sister (Leora) to bury in Iowa!

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