May is a month of remembrances for 96-year-old U.S. Navy veteran Don Windle.
On May 5, 1944, the Navy launched his ship, the USS Aaron Ward (DM-34), a destroyer minelayer commissioned in October of that year.
On May 3, 1945, two days shy of a year of its launching and during its first and only cruise of World War II, Japanese bombers and kamikazes pounded the USS Aaron Ward into submission near Okinawa.
“Six kamikazes hit us, three carrying 500-pound bombs,” said Windle. “A third of the crew were casualties. Fifty-three were killed.”
He lost many close friends and comrades that day, and others as well when he served as a project liaison officer in the Seabees during the Vietnam War in 1966-1967.
Memorial Day, the last Monday each May (May 29 this year), is a pensive one for the three-war veteran (World War II, Korean, and Vietnam) and resident of the Veterans Home of California-Redding. While Windle has been honored as a World War II veteran hero during Memorial Day parades—“I kept my dress uniform to be buried in,” he said, “It’s snug, but I can still get into it.”—he cannot help but to look back. “You sit and reflect on the years past,” he said. “Sometimes more than others.”
Reflect, indeed, about a military career that began in 1943, when he fibbed about his age to join the Navy in 1943.
“I was 16,” Windle said. “I told them I was 18, but I still had to have a parent sign (his enlistment). I told them, ‘I’m an orphan’ even though I’d just left home two months before.”
A judge appointed a legal guardian (Navy ensign) to represent Windle, who became one of roughly 500 “wards” that particular ensign shepherded into the Navy.
“They made it convenient,” Windle said. “They needed lots of warm bodies.”
He sometimes wonders how he survived that horrific day on the USS Aaron Ward. One of the kamikazes hit the gunnery position on the bridge, just above his own and killing the men manning it, yet he escaped relatively unscathed. The ship received the Presidential Unit Citation for her heroic battle that day. It also earned a battle star for her service in the assault and occupation of Okinawa Gunto (March 25–June 11, 1945). Towed for patchwork repairs, it headed home to be decommissioned after the atomic bombs were dropped on Hiroshima and Nagasaki ending the war. The ship was scrapped a year later.
He also survived routine barrages of shells, mortars, and rockets launched into his battalion command by the enemy. He was at Khe Sanh when the North Vietnamese attacked U.S. forces in April 1967.
In fact, he describes his service through three wars as such:
“In World War II, I got shot at and shot back,” Windle said. He was stationed in the Philippines for two years during the Korean War. “During the Korean War, I didn’t get shot at, didn’t shoot back. In Vietnam, I got shot at—a lot—and didn’t shoot back.”
After the USS Aaron Ward was too damaged to continue, he was reassigned to the destroyer USS Aulick. He left the Navy when the war ended, but then signed on with the Seabees, where his one-year tour in Vietnam convinced him it was time to return to civilian life. He left the military in 1969 and opened a woodworking business in Oxnard, but quickly sold it and spent the next 30 years as a tax preparer.
As Memorial Day approaches, his time on the USS Aaron Ward remains embedded in his memory. His appreciation for Commander William Sanders—on his way to becoming an Admiral—only grew when Sanders began penning an annual Christmas letter to the surviving crew members and to the widows and families of those killed that day.
“It became a 15-page letter listing all of the current names and addresses of the surviving crewmen,” Windle said. “When the skipper died (in 1992), his nephew took it over and still writes the letter. But there are only two of us left.”
The other crewman lives somewhere on the East Coast, Windle said.
Windle moved into the Redding Veterans Home on May 5, 2021—two years ago this month and 77 years to the day the Navy launched the USS Aaron Ward.
Another anniversary in May, and one he can recall more fondly than the rest.
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Lt. Commander Don Windle is a modest person with stories that chill the depth of our soul. Though quiet he also is outgoing and regularly participates in the activities, joining all of us in the life at the Veterans Home here in Redding. It is my honor to meet and associate with Don. It is a real pleasure for me. Thank you Sir for your service.