Battle of Midway: Memories of Donald Wilson

Ordinarily a six-month repair job after the damage in the Coral Sea battle in May 1942, the USS Yorktown (CV-5) was in dry dock at Pearl Harbor only three days, being patched and welded around the clock. The Navy had decoded a Japanese plan to attack Midway Island. Two dozen enemy ships were headed to Midway.

The Yorktown, its hull patched by huge steel plates, rushed back to sea with welders still at work. Iowan’s Donald Wilson was an Electrician’s Mate First Class on the carrier. 

Two U.S. naval task forces, including the carriers Enterprise, Hornet, and Yorktown, and their screens of support ships, rendezvoused northeast of Midway Island. Scouter planes spotted four Japanese carriers. About noon on June 4, the Yorktown‘s planes were engaged in a dogfight with enemy planes. They also managed to bomb a Japanese carrier, which later sank.

The ships’ guns filled the sky with black smoke, but several Japanese dive bombers slipped through Combat Air Patrol and attacked the carrier. Several bombs smashed into the ship and exploded below decks, crippling the boilers and starting fires.

About three hours later, while repairs were being made, two more blasts slammed into the carrier. Torpedoes. 

The port side rose, then fell to a list of twenty-seven degrees. Sailors were ordered topside for life jackets. Don Wilson and all those below dashed up ladders with battle lanterns. Soon the blue and white “abandon ship” signal was hoisted. Don scrambled over the lifeline on the fantail. He treaded oily water for an hour.  Air raid alerts scattered the nearby ships three times during the rescue. Don was one of over 2000 exhausted survivors eventually pulled out of the Pacific.

The Japanese retreated, having lost all four carriers–four of the six that had been part of the attack on Pearl Harbor.

On every turn between zero and 17 knots

Donald Wilson, who has served on the CV-5 since its commissioning in 1937, later wrote, “At Midway the ride was very smooth compared to Coral Sea, as our speed was much slower. And, of course, being tuned to the screws, a slow-down or stop comes in loud and clear. And stop we did. In fact, we were on every turn between zero and 17 knots during our lull in the Midway engagement.

“The sad sight of seeing her roll over and sink after our salvage attempt will be with me forever. I am one of the few that abandoned her twice; in fact, my last step on CV-5 was off the fantail where I abandoned ship both times.”

More details.

Salvage attempt

The Battle of Midway took place from June 4-7, 1942. When the crippled Yorktown didn’t sink right away, Donald Wilson was on the volunteer crew to attempt to salvage it. He later received a Citation and Naval Commendation Medal for that service:

United States Pacific Fleet

Flagship of the Commander-in-Chief

The Commander in Chief, United States Pacific Fleet, takes pleasure in commending

Donald W. Wilson, Electrician’s Mate First Class

U.S. Navy

For service set forth in the following


For heroic conduct and meritorious service in the line of his profession as a member of the volunteer salvage crew which attempted on June 6, 1942, to salvage and return the U.S.S. Yorktown to port. Knowing full well that the Yorktown was in a precarious condition of damage received in battle on June 5 [sic], 1942, that she was barely seaworthy, and that she would probably be the target of repeated submarine and air attack against which it would be difficult to defend her, he requested that he be allowed to return to the ship and assist in her salvage. The efforts of the salvage party were so successful that all remaining fires were out, and two degrees of list had been removed when, in mid-afternoon, the ship was struck by two torpedoes fired from an enemy submarine. His conduct was in accordance with the best traditions of the naval services.

C.W. Nimitz

Admiral, U.S. Navy 

Donald still used the U.S.S. Yorktown as his return address on his next two letters home. News reports told about the battle, but the loss of the carrier wasn’t revealed for several months. He finally let his folks know that he’d been assigned to one of the battleships that had been sunk during the attack on Pearl Harbor, which made them more puzzled.

More about Donald Wilson.

All five Wilson brothers are featured on the Dallas County Freedom Rock at Minburn, Iowa.

Their WWII years are remembered in Leora’s Letters: The Story of Love and Loss for an Iowa Family During WWII.



    • Thank you, Sally. Donald Wilson lost his three younger brothers during the war. That’s why I wrote “Leora’s Letters: The Story of Love and Loss for an Iowa Family During World War II.” Leora was their mother, and my delightful grandmother. The second Leora book is about the family during the Great Depression. I’m finishing up “Leora’s Early Years,” which will be published this summer, and I’ve started the manuscript that tells what happened to the three young pilots during the war. None of the family had seen any of it until I began researching several years ago. (I was born two days before D-Day, so it’s an interesting age to be able to write these, but there are answers to prayers among them from two dozen years ago!)

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