Liberty Ship, Atlantic
As Donald Wilson and the USS Hancock was sent into combat in the Pacific, in October 1944, hundreds of troops, fourteen pilots–including Lt. Dan Wilson–and five new P-38s sailed for Europe aboard a crowded Liberty Ship. Danny started a letter to his folks, noting that it was also the day brother Dale had had his first mission a year earlier. Dale Wilson had been missing in action since the end of November.
The letter was censored, and he wouldn’t be able to mail it until they arrived at their destination.
His bunk on the ship was in a small compartment with several other men, so he spent most of the time on the deck with his shirt off, watching the waves break across the bow, enjoying fresh air, listening to a phonograph someone scraped up. “All in all,” he wrote, “the time goes by pretty fast,” watching other ships, sharks, flying fish, and seaweed. “In the evening the main attraction is to line up by the side and watch them throw over the garbage.” He said that as the evening grows dark, phosphorus particles glow in the water, especially in the darkened ship’s wake.
His buddy, Harry Wold, wrote his fiancée, “Laid around in the sun all day, talking with Danny Wilson, a kid from Iowa. Met him at Santa Rosa. He’s really a good kid, doesn’t smoke, drink, or run around with wild women. He’s a lot like Youtz, which makes him one of the two nicest fellows I’ve known.”
Six days later, Danny wrote that had a good tan and had seen seagulls and other “odd-looking birds,” so knew they were nearing land. “This ship goes at a good speed, possibly a dogtrot,” he said. Hinting that they were nearing Gibraltar, he added, “We’ve put our watches ahead four hours from E.S.T. Wonder if they’ll have the Prudential Life Insurance sign lit up, if we go through at night?”
“I didn’t see the sign lit up,” he noted the last day of October, “when we went by in the moonlight.” He’d set his watch up another hour and reported that he hadn’t been seasick on the trip. It was Halloween which reminded him of going out on the “80,” an 80-acre field, to gather a few dozen little pumpkins in the evening, and his mother making them into pies the next day. “Then I’d probably be just one of the gang who would eat more than a sensible amount.”
“Hope you have knocked off a while to go squirrel hunting,” he told his dad. “I’m thinking of you always, Mom and Dad, and very much more than I’ve ever expressed it personally.”
After thirty days on the ship, Dan had “turned in his sea legs” and was at a Replacement Depot, in Naples, living in a tent with Lt. Wold and three other pilots. He mailed his Liberty Ship letter, with its green 8-cent airmail stamp, to Minburn. It was forwarded to Perry, where Leora had begun to jot on the backs of envelopes the dates they arrived. “Arr. Nov. 15,” she wrote on this one.
Danny had been sight-seeing and bought a small silver bell inscribed “Capri.”
And he composed several letters, all censored, one to Doris and Warren. “I’m now somewhere in Italy,” he said. “I’m writing this on a big tin can in a pup tent.” Conditions were as good as could be expected, and after seeing what the Italians had, they were having it “damn good. People in the States can’t realize how lucky they are.” The towns were filthy, he said, and parts had been bombed. People were trying to exist in filthy, meager conditions, with ragged clothes and no shoes. Some have a starved ox or horse and a cart and would sell anything, even themselves, to survive. They watched lots of British fighter planes and bombers fly over.
Danny had more training missions, about the “same kind of deal as Dale went through overseas before flying the first combat mission.” It certainly was keen to fly the P-38 again, he said. Their steel Marston Mat runways were slick in wet weather, and takeoffs and landings were made in a big spray of muddy water.
He’d gotten an Italian-American dictionary, but the pilots had quite a time talking to the “Eyeties,” as he called them. He said a lot of them knew more American than they did Italian.
“No, Mom, I didn’t go near where Don was.” He’d tried to hint in his letter that he went the opposite way from Hawaii, but his parents hadn’t caught on.
He hoped his folks would get word about Dale soon, and hoped the Japanese would go through with their promise to send names of their prisoners, especially after the uncivilized things they’ve done to their POWs had been reported.
Triolo Field, San Severo, Italy
Mid-November, Danny and other replacement pilots rode an army truck to the 14th Fighter Group base at Triolo Field, or Foggia Number 7, near San Severo, Italy. Although “Triolo” was just a railroad crossing, the base was on an estate complete with a castle, which the fighter group used as offices. Italians stored farm machines and had shops in some of the older stone buildings on the estate, which was surrounded with farmland.
The officers’ housing, tents, for the 37th Fighter Squadron was near a tennis court, the Officer’s Club and mess, and not far from the road leading to the landing strip at Triolo Crossing, about half a mile to the northeast. The control tower stood next to the crossing. Across the tracks were parallel runways—one metal mat, one dirt—surrounded by a metal-mat taxiway and revetments for the planes. Sturdy stone buildings sat beyond the runways.
A sign above the door of the Ops Building announced, “Through these portals pass the world’s greatest fighter pilots.” These fighter pilots, including Dan Wilson, had their pictures taken under the sign. Dan lived in a leaky tent with four other pilots. It was rainy and cold, cold enough for snow to fall in the foothills, so they put another tent over theirs and put in a stove made from a scrounged fuel drum.
The three squadrons of the 14th Fighter Group—a total of 150 pilots—flew P-38 Lightnings, distinguished by the red spinners of their yellow-tipped propellers. Nazi oil targets were their top priority, plus railroad marshaling yard, railroad bridges, and transportation centers.
Dan Wilson would soon be in combat against the Nazis.
Even though I know the date of Dan’s embarkation from the East Coast, I’ve never been able to learn what Liberty Ship they were on. Harry Wold didn’t remember either.