The war was finally over.
On September 2, 1945, General Douglas McArthur accepted the Japanese surrender documents aboard the USS Missouri in Tokyo Bay.
More than 300 ships were in Tokyo Bay for the historic ceremony, including an aircraft carrier with Iowan Chief Electrician’s Mate Donald W. Wilson on the crew.
How did a twenty-eight-year-old from the tiny town of Dexter end up in Tokyo Bay at the very end of World War II?
After he and his older brother had graduated from Dexter high school in 1933, there were no jobs, not even for their father, who labored part-time for the government. So they joined the Navy in 1934.
Donald reenlisted after his four years were up, and became part of the crew of a brand new aircraft carrier, the USS Yorktown (CV-5).
When Pearl Harbor was attacked in December of 1941, Donald was in the brig at the Great Lakes Naval Training Station in Chicago for jumping ship to have one last visit with his folks near Minburn, where they were farming then. The Yorktown had already been part of the Neutrality Patrol in the Atlantic, dodging U-boats.The sailors knew that war was looming
Wilson was quickly returned to the carrier, which was ordered to the Pacific where it was instrumental in the early naval action. The Yorktown was damaged in the Battle of the Coral Sea in May of 1942, and sunk at Midway a month later.
Donald had to abandon ship twice at Midway. The ship didn’t sink right away. He was part of a group of fewer than 200 men who reboarded the crippled carrier to try to salvage it. In fact, he was topside in time to see the torpedoes that ultimately doomed the ship.
Wilson was awarded a citation by Admiral Chester A. Nimitz for being a salvage crew volunteer.
Later in the war, after a promotion to Chief Electricians Mate and more schooling, he was assigned to the crew of another new aircraft carrier, the USS Hancock (CV-19). From October 1944 through the end of the war, the Hancock was in nearly every major naval battle, except when out for repairs after being slammed by a kamikaze.
The day the surrender documents were signed, and the Hancock was one of the ships in Tokyo Bay, the grave of Donald’s youngest brother was just a month old. Donald had gotten the news that Junior Wilson’s P-40 had exploded in formation training in Texas.
When Donald’s parents at Minburn got that telegram, they were expecting news about his brother Dale, whose B-25 and crew had been Missing in Action since November 1943. Or about another brother Danny, who had been Missing in Action since February when his P-38 was lost in Austria.
Donald folks didn’t know until the next January that Danny’s grave had been located in Austria, and that an official Declaration of Death date had been made for Dale.
A few months later, their father Clabe Wilson died of a stroke. And a broken heart.
Donald had planned to make the US Navy his career, but by then he’d married and just didn’t want to spend so much of his time gone from home. He became a commercial fisherman in Washington State, where his wife was from.
He wouldn’t want to be called a hero, saying he was just doing his job. In fact, Uncle Don didn’t want me to apply for any medals that he’d earned but didn’t have. That was, until he learned that the Naval Citation Medal had been awarded for those who’d been part of the salvage crew for the USS Yorktown at Midway. He gladly accepted that one.
This one young Iowan was part of world history, including being on an aircraft carrier in Tokyo Bay when World War II came to an end. Yes, the war was over, but the wounds of war never completely heal.
I thought Uncle Donald Wilson said that the ship was in Tokyo Bay at the signing of the surrender, but according to Arthur J. Barnett (N Div, 1944-45), in a letter published in the December 1999 issue of “Hannah News,” it was not.
“All the carriers were ordered to sea the day before to launch planes to fly over the Missouri during the Surrender. The sight of all those planes massing was something I will always remember.”
Leora’s Letters: The Story of Love and Loss for an Iowa Family During World War II is available from Amazon in paperback and ebook, also as an audiobook, narrated by Paul Berge.
It’s also the story behind the Wilson brothers featured on the Dallas County Freedom Rock at Minburn, Iowa. All five served. Only two came home.
Published in The Des Moines Register, September 4, 2020.
10-minute video of the USS Hancock and USS Shangri-La to the United States after the war, October 21, 1945.