Donald Wilson: USS California (BB-44)

The battleship USS California (BB-44) was moored at Pearl Harbor’s “Battleship Row” when a Japanese bomb had exploded below deck December 7, 1941, setting off an ammunition magazine. A second bomb ruptured the bow and the ship settled into the mud. Ninety-eight men were lost, sixty-one wounded.  

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When Donald Wilson was on the crew of the USS Yorktown (CV-5), their oiler USS Neosho (AO-23)–mentioned here–was attacked during the Battle of the Coral Sea. The crew rescued but the ship was sunk by gunfire.
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The USS California (BB-44) at Pearl Harbor, December 7, 1941.

Since then, the battleship had been refloated and drydocked at the Pearl Harbor Navy Yard for overhauling.

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After the Yorktown was sunk at the Battle of Midway, CEM Donald W. Wilson and others from the ship were assigned to salvage the battleship. He wrote home that he’d been transferred to the USS California. His parents and brothers were puzzled by this because they knew he would never ask for an old battleship.

When Don and other Yorktowners came aboard, two of the four main electric-propulsion motors were being rewired in drydock by General Electric. What a mess, he said. The electrician’s mates from the Yorktown spent their days baking out another motor as a standby.

“Received your letter yesterday,” older brother Delbert wrote Donald the summer of 1942. “Quite a surprise–your getting transferred. How did you ever do it? Whatever you said in your letter and figured would go through was clipped out by the censor. Write and give me the dope.”

His sister Doris wrote from McDonalds in Perry where she was working. “Mom brought your letter in for me to read, also Dale’s so I’ve been keeping up on the family news from home. I suppose you couldn’t explain about your move to the California, but we all have good imaginations–maybe too good.”

Mid July, The Perry Daily Chief reported: “U.S. Aircraft Carrier Yorktown Receives Direct Hit At Midway–Japanese bomber scores direct hit on the U.S.S. Aircraft Carrier Yorktown during battle of Midway, despite heavy anti-aircraft barrage shown in photo. The loss of a destroyer and the damage to the Yorktown were the only cost to the U.S. battle force while the Japanese lost 20 ships.” 

His mother Leora told Donald, “Well, the full story (or supposed to be) of the battle of the Midway and we know why you were transferred. We surmised that might be the reason. I guess you could tell us an experience if you could. You can tell us someday, I hope not far away. The news came from the Navy over the radio last night on late news. We didn’t hear about it ’til this morning. Dad saw one of the Des Moines papers when they were in Adel with hogs. Was a picture of your ship after the battle. I tell you, we did a lot of wondering where and how you were and just hoped and praying you’d be OK. Was sure glad to get a letter from you written after June 4th.”

The Wilsons on the farm still didn’t know that the Yorktown had been sunk in the Battle of Midway.

“Sure would like to be with Don and hear the story,” wrote Delbert. “When we all get back there we sure will have a grand roundup, won’t we? We will have a celebration that will shake the countryside for miles around.”

Leora told Don, “News is trickling in about another battle in the Pacific. We are hoping and praying everything goes all right. Makes us pretty anxious, I can tell you.”  

Later in 1942 the battleship limped on two engines to the west coast where overhaul would be completed at the Puget Sound Navy Yard.

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USS California (BB-44) after overhaul, January 1943. USN photo # 80-G-211931

Donald served on the USS California through part of 1943. Don was sent to a naval electrical school on the east coast and afterwards was assigned to a brand new carrier.

The battleship California was returned to service in early 1944 and was in combat through the end of the war.

While serving aboard on the California, Donald, age 26, married a west coast woman who was thirty-one. He’d known her only a couple of months. “I think I was fortunate,” he wrote home,” in getting a woman of middle age, for the simple reason that a teenage one, say, would be out finding out what it’s all about while I’m out to sea. You of course always figured you’d see your son married to some sweet sixteen year old and farming. Well, I did, too—once. That was ten years ago.”

Here’s Anne Clare‘s fascinating 16-minute story about all the changes to Bremerton, Washington, during WWII.

Donald Wilson’s WWII story is told in Leora’s Letters. In fact, his trip back to Iowa AWOL in November 1941 opens the book.



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