August 1945 — Peleliu, Caroline Islands, Western Pacific
Donald R. Wilson was born and raised in Portland, Oregon. As a young boy he was stricken with rheumatic fever and was bead-ridden for about one year. He played varsety football, attended Washington High School and graduated from Franklin High School in 1940. He sang solo in the Staub Memorial Congregational Church. Don attended Pacific University on a music scholarship. He also attended Willamette University in Salem, Oregon.
In 1942 Don entered U.S. Navy Aviation Cadet training and became a Marine Corps Officer and Aviator. Don, while stationed at El Toro MCAS, California, met Betty Clark in Los Angeles, California. She at the time was working for TWA airlines in reservations. They married after a short courtship and lived initially in Laguna Beach, California before Don was shipped overseas to war. While Don was overseas, Betty returned to her home town of Quincy, Illinois to live with her parents . Don flew F-4U Corsair fighter planes in combat in the Pacific Theater during World War II. He was assigned to Marine Fighter Squadron VMF-121 and later VMF-122 stationed on Peleliu, in the Palau, Western Caroline Islands. In July of 1945, Don was shot down and crash landed just off a reef in the ocean near Koror, Babelthuap in the Palau Islands. His airplane was hit by enemy ground fire from Japanese anti aircraft positions on Babelthuap. He was too low to parachute to safety and was afraid to crash land on the Japanese held island because the Japanese would execute all captured American pilots immediately. No captured aviators are known to have survived the Palau air campaign. He managed to glide his airplane with a dead engine and crash land in the ocean. His airplane sunk immediately but he was able to inflate and climb into his life raft. He was still very close to the shore where the Japanese were then shooting at him, so he tried to paddle his way further out to sea. An American Navy PBY sea plane tried to land in the water and rescue him but the PBY could not land in the rough sea conditions and was chased away by enemy ground fire. Large sharks began to swim around Don Wilson while he paddled out to sea in his little raft. Don put a dye marker in to the water which would help make him more visible to rescuers in the air. The dye marker also seemed to help chase away the sharks because they would swim up to his little raft but then turn away when they got into the dye marker. He was rescued by an American LST landing craft after about four hours in the water and returned safely to his base on the island of Peleliu. Don and his fellow Marines on Peleliu were preparing for the invasion of mainland Japan when the two atomic bombs fell on Hiroshima and Nagasaki in September of 1945. These events ended the war with Japan to pre-empt what could have been the bloodiest battles of World War II. Most of the American military in the Pacific were then gladly able to return home as Don did and he was reunited with his wife, Betty, in California in November of 1945.
Brief Historical Background of Air War over Palau
During 1944-45, US forces (Navy, Army Air Corps and Marines) made repeated air raids over the Palau Islands (approximately 500 miles north of the equator and 600 miles south and east of the Philippines). The first series of attacks occurred in the spring of 1944 in the form of aircraft carrier task force strikes (Operation DESECRATE ONE) to prevent the Japanese Army and Navy in Palau from providing flanking air support against MacArthur's invasion of Hollandia/northern New Guinea. During the summer of 1944, the second series occurred in the form of both carrier task force strikes (Operation SNAPSHOT, in which former President George Bush participated) and Army Air Corps B-24 raids (13th AAF and 5th AAF). The purpose of these raids was twofold: a) to prevent Japanese aircraft from flanking MacArthur's invasions of northern New Guinea and the Philippines and b) to soften up Peleliu (an island with a large Japanese air field in southern Palau), scheduled for invasion by 1st Marine Division on September 15, 1944 (Operation STALEMATE).
Although the rest of Palau was bypassed after the Peleliu invasion as the war proceeded toward the homeland of Japan, the requirement for ongoing US air coverage over Palau was essential to prevent further aggression from the remaining 20,000 Japanese troops stationed throughout the northern Palau islands. As a result, a third series of air actions occurred during and after the invasion of Peleliu, by both the US Marines Corsair fighters (VMF 114, 122, 121 from the captured Peleliu airfield) and the Army Air Corps B-24 bombers (7th AAF from a new airfield on nearby Angaur built to support the Philippines invasion). Each provided independent air support/suppression against Japanese ground forces throughout Palau until the war ended. In the face of the war moving elsewhere, the daily air battles fought over Palau were unaccountably fierce, on the part of both sides, turning into a struggle of attrition with both sides sustaining lethal casualties up to the last day of the war.
Palau, because of its strategic location (between the Mariana Islands and the Philippines) and because of its deep-water harbors, was the regional headquarters for the occupying Japanese military. Accordingly, it was heavily defended, both in numbers of troops (~35,000), airfields (3) and antiaircraft sites (many). In the face of some of the heaviest Japanese antiaircraft fire anywhere in the entire Pacific war and with the large number of US air strikes, it was inevitable that American planes would be shot down and they were. Because the Palaus have a barrier reef around the islands, many of the planes fell onto the islands or into waters.
Even though the invasion of Peleliu turned out to be the third bloodiest battle fought in the Pacific, the several naval, ground and air campaigns involving Palau are generally treated as a historical footnote of little interest, compared to more well-recognized Pacific battles such as Guadalcanal, Iwo Jima and Okinawa. But the numbers of Americans (with their planes) that were lost in the Palau area are not insignificant. At least two books have been published, describing the Japanese ships sunk by US Navy air actions in the Palaus.