Doniphan Shelton Official Navy Photo

Fellow Flag Officers,

It is with extreme pleasure I inform you that Rear Admiral Doniphan Brown “Don” Shelton, U.S. Navy (Retired), is alive and well and will be 100 on 22 May 2021. Don enlisted in the U.S. Navy in 1939, graduated from the Naval Academy in 1944, and served as a naval aviator until his retirement in October 1979 from the position of director of plans and policy (J-5) for Commander in Chief, U.S. Pacific Command (CINCPAC). His commands included Fighter Squadron 92 (VF-92), Attack Carrier Air Wing 19 (CVW-19), Paricutin (AE-18), Tripoli (LPH-10), and Naval Base Subic Bay. Don served on Pacific Fleet battleships just before World War II, served on light cruiser St. Louis (CL-49) when she was hit by multiple kamikazes off Leyte, witnessed the last successful Japanese torpedo plane attack of the war, served as a night carrier pilot flying interdiction missions over North Korea from the Sea of Japan in the winter, served as a test pilot for the most dangerous swept-wing plane to fly off U.S. aircraft carriers (the F7U-3 Cutlass), and commanded a squadron of the equally dangerous F3H Demon all-weather fighters. Don also commanded an attack carrier air wing during the Gulf of Tonkin crisis, an ammunition ship supporting maximum effort carrier air strikes into North Vietnam, and Tripoli during multiple amphibious assaults into Vietnam. During the fall of Saigon, Don commanded the Subic Bay Naval Base, humanely handling over 43,000 South Vietnamese refugees. He was also a leading advocate for naval aviation’s all-weather, day/night capability.

At the risk of being corrected by someone who is still alive, here is Don Shelton’s truly amazing career (and he’s not shy about correcting official records).

On 7 August 1939, Don Shelton signed on for a six-year enlistment in order to have a chance to go to the U.S. Naval Academy. After a couple months of boot camp at Naval Training Center San Diego, he reported as a seaman to the battleship New Mexico (BB-40) at San Pedro, California. In April 1940, he transferred to the battleship California (BB-44), which at the end of Fleet Problem XX was ordered by President Franklin D. Roosevelt—along with the rest of the battle force—to remain at Pearl Harbor rather than return to San Pedro. This was over the objection of the Commander in Chief, U.S. Fleet, Admiral James O. Richardson, who argued the move was a provocation and not a deterrent to the Japanese, in addition to being logistically unsound (and who was subsequently fired for speaking out). Awarded a competitive fleet quota to Annapolis, Seaman Shelton transferred from California to the Naval Academy Preparatory Class, then at Naval Operating Base (NOB) Norfolk, in October 1940. (California would be sunk by Japanese aerial torpedoes during the 7 December 1941 attack on Pearl Harbor.)

Seaman Shelton entered the U.S. Naval Academy as a midshipman on 2 July 1941 with the class of 1945. According to his classmates, Midshipman Shelton regularly said he was about to “bilge out” (drop out or get kicked out depending on context), yet he nevertheless still outshined his classmates academically. He was known for his frequently uttered expression, “As a sultan, I would be a natural.” (The moral here is that what is written in the Lucky Bag is forever, kind of like the internet.) He also sang in the choir.

Following the 7 December 1941 attack, the U.S. Naval Academy class of 1942 was immediately graduated and sent to the fleet, while the other classes were accelerated by a year. Thus, Midshipman Shelton graduated from the Naval Academy and was commissioned an ensign in June 1944 (with the class of 1945). Following a brief period of instruction at Naval Air Station Jacksonville, he reported to the battle-scarred light cruiser St. Louis in July 1944. St. Louis had previously shot down several Japanese planes during the attack on Pearl Harbor, been near-missed by torpedoes from a Japanese midget submarine as she exited the Pearl Harbor channel during the attack, had her bow blown off by a torpedo from a Japanese destroyer during the Battle of Kolombangara (13 July 1943), and, on 14 January 1944, been near-missed multiple times and then badly hit by a Japanese bomb that killed 23. During the Marianas campaign (Operation Forager), St. Louis damaged her No. 3 propeller shaft, but nevertheless stayed in action during the bombardment of Guam before returning stateside in July 1944 for repair. Following repairs, and now joined by Ensign Shelton as a division officer, catapult officer, and No. 2 turret officer, St. Louis steamed for Hawaii in October 1944 for refresher training. (St. Louis was a Brooklyn-class light cruiser, completed in 1939, with a main armament of 15 6-inch guns in five triple turrets, three forward and two aft. The Mk 16 6-inch/47-caliber guns could fire so rapidly that the Japanese referred to the class as “machine gun cruisers.”)

St. Louis arrived off Leyte on 16 November 1944, after the main action of the Battle of Leyte Gulf, but while the Japanese were still hotly contesting air superiority. On 27 November 1944, during a gap in combat air patrol (CAP) coverage, 12–14 Japanese aircraft attacked during a major refueling-at-sea operation; the planes were driven off and St. Louis emerged unscathed. However, shortly afterwards, another attack by 10 aircraft came in, several of them kamikazes on suicide missions. With no CAP opposition, the Japanese flight broke into three groups and attacked from multiple directions. At 1138, a flaming Val dive bomber got through the antiaircraft fire and crashed into St. Louis’ port quarter; the plane’s bomb exploded in the hangar starting a serious fire, destroying the chiefs’ berthing, damaging the catapults and float planes, and killing or wounding all the aft 20mm gunners. A minute later, a second burning kamikaze came in from the port beam as St. Louis went into a hard turn at flank speed, causing the plane to graze the No. 4 turret before crashing into the water 100 yards to starboard. At 1151, two more kamikazes, already on fire from antiaircraft hits, attacked St. Louis. The first was splashed just off the port quarter. The second one attacked from starboard and crashed a few feet long on the port side, ripping off a 20-foot section of armor belt, perforating the port side with shrapnel, and causing a port list. At 1210, another kamikaze was shot down and crashed 400 yards astern. Ten minutes later, a sixth plane dropped a torpedo aimed at St. Louis. With warning from a PT boat, St. Louis maneuvered to narrowly avoid the torpedo. By 1236, all major fires were out and the ship was back on an even keel. During the engagement, St. Louis shot down four planes, assisted in downing two, and was hit by two, suffering 15 dead, 1 missing (later declared dead), 21 seriously wounded, and 22 with minor wounds. In the same attack, kamikazes damaged battleship Colorado (BB-45) and light cruiser Montpelier (CL-57), and sank submarine chaser SC-744.

Following repairs stateside, St. Louis returned to action in March 1945 in time to cover the minesweeper and underwater demolition team operations in preparation for the landings on Okinawa. This was followed by additional shore bombardment and antiaircraft duties at Okinawa. On 12 August 1945, Ensign Shelton was on watch in sky aft on St. Louis, anchored in Buckner Bay, Okinawa, when a lone Japanese plane dropped through the smoke cover and launched a torpedo. Ensign Shelton gave warning, but there was not much that could be done. The torpedo narrowly missed St. Louis ahead and hit battleship Pennsylvania (BB-38), also at anchor, in the stern, nearly sinking the ship (and the torpedo probably would have but for the shallow water), making Ensign Shelton witness to the last major U.S. warship damaged in World War II. St. Louis was awarded a Navy Unit Commendation for her actions in the Okinawa campaign. On 31 August, St. Louis was ordered to depart Okinawa on short notice to accept the Japanese surrender of Formosa. Having received orders to flight school, Ensign Shelton was awakened at 0330 and given 30 minutes to get off the ship in order to execute his orders. Ensign Shelton then made his way back to San Francisco on the light carrier Cabot (CVL-28), the first “Magic Carpet” ship repatriating U.S. servicemen from the Far East.

In August 1945, Ensign Shelton commenced flight training at Naval Air Station (NAS) Dallas, Texas, followed in March 1946 by additional instruction at Naval Air Training Base (NATB) Corpus Christi, Texas. In July 1946, Lieutenant (junior grade) Shelton reported for further flight instruction as NATB Pensacola, where he was designated Naval Aviator (HTA) (#P-25214) on 6 February 1947. That same month, Lieutenant (j.g.) Shelton reported to NAS Banana River (now Patrick Air Force Base, Florida) for additional fighter training.

In July 1947, Lieutenant (j.g.) Shelton reported as maintenance officer and ordnance officer to Fighter Squadron 1-E (VF-1E) “Firebirds” at NAS North Island, flying the F6F-5N Hellcat night fighter. This tour including qualifications and operations from escort carriers Bairoko (CVE-115) and Badoeng Strait (CVE-116), and temporary duty with Carrier Air Group One on carrier Tarawa (CV-40) for an around-the-world (almost) cruise. In September 1948, VF-1E and VA-1E were combined into Composite Squadron Night 1 (VCN-1), which was redesignated as Fleet All-Weather Training Unit Pacific (FAWTUPAC), at Barber’s Point, Hawaii (with Detachment 1 at San Diego), with Lieutenant (j.g.) Shelton as personnel officer, maintenance officer, and instructor. He continued operations and training aboard Badoeng Strait.

In October 1949, Lieutenant (j.g.) Shelton was assigned to Composite Squadron 3 (VC-3) “Blue Nemesis” at NAS Moffett Field, California, transitioning from the F6F-5N to the F4U-5N Corsair night fighter. VC-3 operated as detachments on Pacific Fleet aircraft carriers, including Boxer (CV-21), Valley Forge (CV-45), Philippine Sea (CV-47), and Princeton (CV-37). During the first year of the Korean War, Lieutenant (j.g.) Shelton—Lieutenant Shelton after his promotion on 1 January 1951—flew 23 night interdiction missions over North Korea from Philippine Sea and Princeton, and was awarded an Air Medal for his first 20 missions. On 2 March 1951, he also got safely aboard Princeton in a predawn dead-stick recovery. (Of note, the only U.S. naval aviator ace of the Korean War was Lieutenant Guy Bordelon of VC-3, operating on a shore detachment from Princeton in 1953, although the accuracy of his tally can still start a bar fight.) Shelton is entitled to wear the Navy Unit Commendations awarded to Valley Forge, Philippine Sea, and Princeton.

In June 1951, Lieutenant Shelton detached from VC-3 and proceeded to NAS Patuxent River, Maryland, for Test Pilot School (Class 7) and then served there as a test pilot. He flew various tests in the F2H Banshee and F9F-4, -5, -6, and -7 Panther jet fighters, including shotgun air starts in the F9F-5. He flew the first F9F-4 jet engine to 1,000 hours utilizing component replacement vice overhaul. He also flew the F7F Tigercat in tests for the preliminary configuration of the Mercury space capsule couch. During what was probably his most challenging assignment, Shelton was the project officer for the F7U-3 Cutlass jet fighter, his role including the early investigation of the F7U-3’s stall characteristics. He also flew profiles investigating jet flameout approaches.

In December 1953, Lieutenant Shelton continued as Cutlass project officer at NAS Miramar as part of Fleet Aircraft Service Squadron 12 for fleet introduction of the Cutlass, including carrier trials aboard Hancock (CVA-19). The Vought F7U-3 Cutlass was a radical departure from traditional aircraft design, and may have been the most dangerous aircraft to fly off U.S. Navy aircraft carriers. It had its good points (roll rate of 570 degrees/second), but killed four test pilots and 21 other Navy pilots. Of 288 aircraft acquired, 78 were lost in accidents, the highest accident rate of all Navy swept-wing fighters. The Cutlass’ dangerous reputation inspired the sobriquets of “gutless cutlass,” “ensign eliminator,” and “praying mantis,” and lead to hostile congressional investigations of the U.S. Navy carrier aircraft acquisition programs, including the almost as dangerous F3H Demon. The Cutlass and Demon account for many of the spectacularly horrifying ramp strike films and photos.

In October 1954, Lieutenant Shelton was assigned to Composite Squadron 3 (VC-3) at NAS Moffet Field as team leader for the F7U-3 TTU (Tactical Training Unit). This period included transition to the F3H Demon all-weather jet fighter, which like the Cutlass was prone to flameouts, and Lieutenant Shelton survived one during an approach to NAS Patuxent River during the F3H fleet introduction.

Promoted to lieutenant commander in June 1955, he was assigned to Fighter Squadron 124 (VF-124) in April 1956, first as operations officer and then as executive officer for the first Pacific squadron deployment of the all-weather F3H Demon. The deployment occurred aboard Lexington (CVA-16) after the attack carrier had received both the SCB-27C and SCB-125 conversions in a single refit (angled deck, new island, hurricane bow, etc.). Although almost as trouble-prone as the Cutlass, 239 Demons were ordered by the Navy. The F3H-2N and later missile-armed versions served into the early 1960s as an all-weather supplement to the F-8 Crusader day fighters.

In June 1958, Lieutenant Commander Shelton attended the Armed Forces Staff College for a six-month course before returning as staff to the Naval Air Test Pilot School, Naval Air Test Center, Patuxent River, where he served as assistant director, admin officer, and flight instructor. During this period he was screened for the Mercury Astronaut Program, making it into the top 110 finalists. He was promoted to commander in June 1960.

In February 1961, Commander Shelton commenced flying with Fighter Squadron 221 (VF-221) as prospective commanding officer for VF-92. In June 1961, he assumed command of VF-92, an F-3H Demon squadron, for Western Pacific operations on the third deployment of carrier Ranger (CVA-61). VF-92 was redesignated as VF-54 on 1 June 1962 as part of a reorganization that would lead in 1963 to Carrier Air Groups (CAG) becoming Carrier Air Wings (CVW). In July 1962, Commander Shelton attended the Naval War College’s senior course in Newport, Rhode Island, graduating in June 1963 and concurrently earning a master’s degree in international relations from the George Washington University.  

In July 1963, Commander Shelton commenced flying with VF-124 as a prospective carrier air wing commander. In November 1963, he began flying with Attack Carrier Readiness Air Wing 12 (RCVW-12) as prospective commanding officer of Attack Carrier Air Wing 19 (CVW-19). He assumed command of CVW-19 in February 1964, deploying aboard the carrier Bon Homme Richard (CVA-31) for the “Concord Squadron” cruise to the Indian Ocean, visiting Diego Suarez, Madagascar, Mombasa, Kenya, Aden, Yemen, and hosting the Shah of Iran aboard for an air power demonstration. Bon Homme Richard was just leaving the South China Sea when the Gulf of Tonkin incident occurred in August 1964. Although Constellation (CV-64) and Ticonderoga (CVA-14) conducted the retaliatory strikes (Operation Pierce Arrow), Bon Homme Richard was held on station in the Gulf of Tonkin for 45 days before resuming her return transit to the West Coast.

In March 1965, Commander Shelton finally got assigned to the Pentagon in the Office of the Chief of Naval Operations (CNO) as assistant head of national command matters in the Command Policy Section of the Strategic Plans Division (OP-602C), where he was awarded a Navy Commendation Medal (his first and only, and at that time a rare honor). He was promoted to captain in July 1967 and moved up to head of the Command Policy Section in the Strategic Plans Division.

In June 1967, Captain Shelton assumed command of the ammunition ship Paricutin (AE-18), deploying to the South China Sea shortly after the tragic fire on Forrestal (CVA-59), which was caused in part by defective ordnance. Shelton provided around-the-clock ammunition and ordnance resupply to Task Force 77 carriers operating on Yankee Station in the Gulf of Tonkin during the most intense carrier air strike operations of the war (matched only in 1972). In June 1968, Captain Shelton assumed command of amphibious assault ship Tripoli (LPH-10) after the Navy decided that the helicopter carriers needed to be commanded by naval aviators. Tripoli deployed from San Diego to Vietnam, serving as flagship for Amphibious Squadron 9 (COMPHIBRON 9) and Amphibious Ready Group Alpha (ARG Alpha), and conducted eight major amphibious assaults, including Operation Bold Mariner, the largest assault since World War II and the Korean War. Captain Shelton was awarded a Legion of Merit with Combat “V” for this tour, along with his fifth Navy Unit Commendation.  

In August 1969, Captain Shelton returned to the Office of the Chief of Naval Operations as head of Aircraft and Weapons Requirements in the Office of the Deputy CNO for Air (OP-506C). In June 1971, he became deputy director of the Political-Military Policy Division (OP-61B). He was promoted to rear admiral on 6 November 1971. In April 1972, Rear Admiral Shelton became director of the Political Military-Policy Division (OP-61), with additional duty as special assistant for Pan-American affairs. Sometime during this period future four-star Commander Ron Hays worked for him.

In February 1973, Rear Admiral Shelton assumed command of Naval Base Subic Bay, Luzon, Republic of the Philippines, with additional duty as Commander, U.S. Naval Forces Philippines, and CINCPAC Representative Philippines. As the Republic of South Vietnam finally collapsed in April 1975 in the face of a full North Vietnamese conventional invasion, Rear Admiral Shelton supervised planning and preparation for an expected influx of South Vietnamese refugees. Of some 130,000 South Vietnamese evacuated during Operations Babylift and Frequent Wind, over 43,000 made their way by all manner of conveyance to Subic Bay, where Rear Admiral Shelton had set up a receiving station on Grande Island. Afraid of being overwhelmed, the government of the Philippines did not exactly roll out the welcome mat for South Vietnamese refugees and ordered that none could remain in the Philippines for more than 72 hours. Many of these refugees came aboard South Vietnamese Navy ships; in order for the Philippines to allow these ships into Subic Bay, U.S. Navy personnel met the ships, assumed command, and brought them in under the U.S. flag. One refugee was South Vietnamese Vice President Nguyen Cao Ky, who had piloted his personal helicopter onto Denver (LPD-9), along with Dorothy Martin, wife of U.S. Ambassador Graham Martin. The Philippine government ordered that Ky was not to set foot on Philippine soil. So, upon arrival in Subic, Rear Admiral Shelton had Ky flown by helo to Cubi Point, then walked across a raised path of wooden pallets to a waiting C-130 to be flown on to Guam. Problem solved. Over 43,000 evacuees and refugees were processed through Subic Bay under the most challenging circumstances, which Rear Admiral Shelton described as one of the very finest Navy operations in his experience. He was awarded a Distinguished Service Medal for this tour.

In August 1975, Rear Admiral Shelton returned to Washington, DC, as deputy director of Research, Development, Test and Evaluation (RDT&E), with a collateral duty as senior military advisor to the U.S. delegation to negotiate a revised U.S.–Philippine bases agreement (which remained in effect until 1991). In August 1978, Rear Admiral Shelton assumed duty as director for plans (J-5) for CINCPAC. On 1 October 1979, Rear Admiral Shelton returned to where his career started at Naval Training Center San Diego and retired after 4,000 flight hours, 500 carrier landings, and “40 years, 2 months, 27 days and 3 hours” of service to our nation.

Rear Admiral Shelton’s awards include the Distinguished Service Medal (two awards), Legion of Merit (two awards, one with Combat “V”), Navy Commendation Medal, Navy Unit Citation (five awards—St. Louis, Valley Forge, Philippine Sea, Princeton, and Tripoli), Armed Forces Expeditionary Medal (Vietnam), China Service Medal, American Defense Service Medal with Fleet Clasp, American Campaign Medal, Asiatic-Pacific Campaign Medal (three stars), World War II Victory Medal, Navy Occupation Service Medal (Asia), National Defense Service Medal (two awards), Korean Service Medal (one star), Vietnam Service Medal (three stars), Humanitarian Service Medal, Philippine Legion of Honor, Korean Order of National Security Merit (Cheonsu Medal), Korean Presidential Unit Citation, Philippine Liberation Medal, and United Nations Service Medal.

Fortunately, there is no obituary, so I have no idea what Don has been up to since 1979 other than being a U.S. naval aviation Golden Eagle. In recent years, he has vociferously advocated for a medal upgrade (from Silver Star to Medal of Honor) for Captain E. Royce Williams, U.S Navy (Retired), now 96, for one of the most incredible and unique feats of aerial combat in the entire Cold War and in U.S. naval history. The action, which took place over the Sea of Japan on 18 November 1952, was the only overwater dogfight of the Korean War, and the only dogfight between jets of any U.S. service and Soviet jets flying from bases in the Soviet Union during the Cold War. There is good reason to believe that Williams was responsible for the loss of at least three and probably four of the Soviet MiG-15 jet fighters.

On the morning of 18 November 1952, the three U.S. fleet carriers of Task Force 77 were operating in the Sea of Japan, closer to Vladivostok than ever before (about 80 nautical miles south), striking targets in and around the North Korean port of Hoeryong, previously a sanctuary as it was right across the border from the Soviet Union. Early that afternoon, seven Soviet MiG-15s in two divisions, subordinate to Soviet Air Defense Forces, launched from Unashi Airfield near Vladivostock and were vectored by their ground-controlled intercept (GCI) controller to intercept and attack U.S. Navy carrier aircraft operating in vicinity of the carriers. (Note, during the first years of the Korean War, Russian “volunteer” pilots were secretly flying MiG-15s with “North Korean” markings from sanctuary bases in Chinese Manchuria, but these engagements were confined to an overland strip in western North Korea—“Mig Alley”—along the Yalu River and rarely involved U.S. Navy aircraft.)

In response to radar warning of approaching aircraft, four F9F-5 Panther straight-wing jet fighters of VF-781 were launched in foul weather from carrier Oriskany (CVA-34) to intercept. Although the “-5” was the latest and greatest Navy jet fighter, it was still outclassed by the faster (by 100 knots), faster rate-of-climb, more maneuverable, and heavier-armed swept-wing MiG-15. The Panther’s advantage was a better gun site system. After breaking through the thick overcast at about 12,000 feet into clear air mass, all four aircraft sighted seven contrails of the Soviet jets. However, the division leader, Lieutenant Claire Elwood, experienced a fuel pump warning light and with his wingman, Lieutenant (j.g.) John Middleton, had to descend back into the cloud deck.

Lieutenant Williams continued to climb along with his wingman, Lieutenant (j.g.) Dave Rowlands, temporarily losing sight of the MiGs as their opponents descended from contrail altitude. With no further warning, Willams and Rowlands were jumped by an echelon of four MiG-15s on a firing pass. Williams immediately maneuvered and hit the trailing MiG (Rowlands’ guns never fired). Rowlands chose to follow the damaged MiG down into the clouds, and out of the battle, just as the three other MiG-15s joined in the fight. This left Williams alone against six MiG-15s; his only hope of survival was tight level altitude turns (if he tried to climb or dive or steady up on the six of a MiG, the other MiGs would have nailed him.) In the process of constant turns, Williams took brief shots at any MiG that crossed his sites, expending all 760 20mm rounds and hitting at least two more MiGs and probably a third.

Finally, a MiG hit Williams with a 37mm cannon round that blew a big hole in his wing root and perforated the jet with over 250 smaller shrapnel holes. Had the hit been a few inches in either direction, it would have been fatal, and it nearly was anyway. By the time Williams dove for the cloud deck and temporary safety, Rowlands had rejoined the fight (without guns) and Middleton had climbed into the engagement to down one MiG, or more likely, finish off one already damaged by Williams. Williams then had to get his badly damaged jet onto the carrier or into the ice bath of the frigid Sea of Japan. He was then fired on briefly by U.S. destroyers, but not hit. To maintain control of the aircraft, he could not drop below 170 knots (normal recovery speed for an F9F was 105 knots). On the heaving deck, he still hit the 3-wire. (His damaged plane was not dumped over the side as stated in some accounts.)

The fact of this engagement was not secret; in fact, there were confidential Office of Naval Intelligence reports and even a reasonably accurate account in Stag magazine in 1953 by the VF-781 skipper, but all referred to “enemy” aircraft or just “MiGs.” What remained top secret for decades was the confirmation by the Naval Security Group radio intelligence detachment secretly embarked on heavy cruiser Helena (CA-75) that these were Soviet Air Defense Force jets, under Soviet GCI control, ordered to attack U.S. aircraft, and that at least three and probably four Soviet jets were lost. Williams was officially given credit for one down, one damaged. Middleton was credited with one down and Rowlands was credited with one damaged (without firing a shot). It wasn’t until the end of the Cold War that Russian sources (which are not prone to exaggerate their own losses) revealed that at least four (and possibly five) Soviet pilots were killed in the engagement, at least three during the fight and one while trying to get his damaged jet back to base.

Neither the top secret radio intelligence nor the Russian information was available to the drafters of Williams’ Silver Star recommendation. Like many combat awards (including Edward “Butch” O’Hare’s Medal of Honor), Williams’ award citation is historically inaccurate, usually because the awarding authority didn’t have the enemy’s side of the story. So, instead of being recognized as the most successful carrier jet fighter pilot of the Korean War, Williams is just one of 221 U.S. Navy personnel to be awarded a Silver Star during the Korean War.

Don Shelton’s quest has yet to bear fruit, but he shows no sign of giving up. (Note: NHHC does not advocate for or against medal upgrades; we just try to be as historically accurate as possible.)

─ Rear Admiral Samuel Cox (Retired), Director, Naval History and Heritage Command