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Tom Cleaver
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RIP Admiral Don Shelton

November 2, 2021 · in News · · 15 · 2.4K


Just got this tonight, a NOTAM from the Golden Eagles.

The rule is, "There are old pilots, and there are bold pilots, but there are no old, bold pilots." There's an exception to every rule, and Don Shelton was the exception to that one - truly an old, bold pilot. What a privilege it was to hear him say "My friend," and be looking at me.

It's a privilege to know all the them as I have, but it's a special privilege to know some of them, and Admiral Shelton is high on that short list.

When you read through his resume, I submit that landing a Corsair dead-stick at night on a carrier, being the project officer for the Gutless Cutlass and the Screamin' Demon, is proof of his status as the exception to the rule.

He was one of the "originals" - his first CO in flying was Chick Harmer, and he had a lot to do with creating 24/7/365 naval aviation.

He managed to make it into three of my books.

The last time we talked was when he called to say "thanks" for his 100th birthday present, which is the photo above. Damn the Covid, I couldn't risk giving it to him personally.



It is my solemn and sad duty to report that Golden Eagle Emeritus RADM Doniphan B. Shelton, USN (Ret), made his Last Take Off peacefully in the loving presence of his family at 0437, Sunday 31 October 2021. Don had courageously battled numerous gastro-intestinal related illnesses in the past 8 years and at the age of 100 succumbed while at home, overlooking the Pacific Ocean in hospice care.

Don was raised in the mid-west in Springfield, MO graduating from Springfield High School and after just having turned 18 years old, he enlisted in the Navy on 06 August 1939 in Springfield, MO. He completed Boot Camp at the Navy Training Center in San Diego, CA in October 1939, initially reporting as a Seaman aboard the battleship, USS New Mexico, serving until April 1940 when he transferred to the battleship, USS California for six months before being selected to attend the U.S. Naval Academy Prep Class in October 1940 at Naval Base Norfolk, VA. In July 1941 Don entered the U.S. Naval Academy in Annapolis, MD as a midshipman and was commissioned an Ensign in June 1944 as a member of the accelerated class because of U.S. involvement in WWII.

For his initial assignment Ensign Shelton reported to the light cruiser USS St. Louis in July 1944, underway in the Pacific as the Number 2 Turret Officer and Catapult Officer. As fighting progressed across the Pacific, Don noted that in November 1944 the USS St. Louis was on the receiving end of four Kamikaze direct hits in the Battle of Leyte Gulf, “an experience not to forget” in his words. Having seen that side of warfare, Don successfully applied for flight training and as the war ended, reported in October 1945 as a student Naval Aviator, serving variously at NAS Pensacola, FL, NAS Dallas, TX, and NAS Corpus Christi, TX, flying the SNJ. Don received his Wings of Gold on 7 February 1947 and reported for VF (fighter pilot) Operational Training at NAS Banana River, FL.

Don reported to VF-1E for his first fleet assignment as a night/all-weather fighter pilot flying the F6F-5N Hellcat based at NAS North Island, CA after completion of his training in July 1947. After making his initial carrier qualifications on USS Bairoko/Badoeng Strait, a small deck Escort Carrier, he reported for Temporary Duty with Carrier Air Wing-1 for an “Around-the-World” cruise embarked in USS Tarawa. Upon completion of the deployment in August 1948 he reported to VCN-1 and Fleet Air Wing Training Unit, Pacific based at NAS Barbers Point, HI.

In November 1949 Don reported to Composite Squadron-3 based at NAS Moffett Field, CA where he excelled as an all-weather/night fighter pilot flying both the Hellcat and the F4U-5N Corsair. He made two Western Pacific deployments, first embarked in USS Boxer and then embarked in USS Valley Forge leading up to the U.S. involvement in the Korean War. In early 1951 he deployed as a Night Fighter Detachment flying the F4U-5N aboard USS Philippine Sea for combat duty, flying night interdiction missions. On 2 March 1951 he performed a successful pre-dawn dead-stick carrier landing in his stricken F4U on the first available deck, the USS Princeton, a sea story he was always pleased to re-tell. During this two-month detachment he flew 23 consecutive night interdiction combat missions.

Returning to CONUS, Don was assigned to Class 7 of the U.S. Naval Test Pilot School at NATC Patuxent River, MD in August 1951. After completing the course of instruction, he was assigned to the Service Test Division in February 1952, flying newly introduced jet aircraft. Don flew the first jet engine (F9F-4 Panther) to 1,000 hours using component replacements, vice conducting an overhaul. He flew various tests in the F2H Banshee and performed shot gun air starts in the F9F-5 Panther. He became the F7U-3 Cutlass project officer, including early investigation of F7U-3 stall characteristics and investigation of jet flame-out approaches.

In December 1953 Don received orders to report to “Project Cutlass” based at NAS Miramar, CA where fleet introduction of the F7U-3 Cutlass was underway. He performed initial carrier qualification trials in the Cutlass aboard USS Hancock before being assigned as the Team Leader for the F7U-3 Tactical Training Unit in VC-3 based at NAS Moffett Field, CA in October 1954, serving there until February 1956.

Notably, Don left his instruction duties and returned to Patuxent River, where on 1 February 1956 he performed the first F3H Demon flame-out approach and landing during the F3H Indoctrination Program. It was later that month, on 18 February 1956 that Don achieved his best, most significant career event ever, when he married Peggy Terrell. Don returned to San Diego, CA to become Operations Officer, and subsequently Executive Officer of VF-124, the first AIRPAC F3H squadron, and deployed to the Western Pacific, embarked in USS Lexington. Upon completion of this fleet tour in January 1959 he reported as a student to the Armed Forces Staff College in Norfolk, VA. He completed the six-month course in June and reported for a “pay back” tour on the staff of the U.S. Naval Test Pilot School, Patuxent River, MD in June 1959. Although he screened for the original 110 candidates for Project Mercury during that assignment, he “missed the cut” and continued his role as a one-of-a kind leader in Navy fighter aviation.

Newly promoted to Commander, Don was selected for Command and in March 1961 became Commanding Officer of VF-92 flying the F3H based at NAS Miramar, CA. During this tour he once again deployed to the Western Pacific, this time embarked in USS Ranger. After a successful deployment and command tour, Don was ordered across the country once again to attend the Senior Course at the U.S. Navy War College, Newport, RI. While there for the year August 1962 to August 1963, Don earned his Master’s Degree with extension courses from George Washington University.

Don commenced refresher training in August 1963 as prospective Commander, Carrier Air Wing-19, flying the A-4 Skyhawk and F-8 Crusader. He assumed command of CAW-19 as it stood up on 20 December 1963 and deployed, embarked in USS Bon Homme Richard on 28 January 1964 to WESTPAC and the Indian Ocean. During the deployment, in August 1964 the Tonkin Gulf Incident led to the beginning of the Vietnam War and Don led the Air Wing in missions until returning to home port on 21 November 1964.
His west coast assignment concluded as Don turned the Air Wing over for its next Vietnam deployment and he reported in April 1965 to OPNAV OP-602C, the Pentagon, Washington, D.C. as Director for National Command Matters. While confined inside the Beltway for two years, Don was promoted to Captain and selected for Major Command at Sea. In June 1967 he became Commanding Officer of the ammunition ship, USS Paricutin and deployed to WESTPAC and the Tonkin Gulf for operations in support of carrier operations during the most intense carrier air strike operations of the war in Vietnam (matched only in 1972). He always recalled this as “a really fine tour.”

Now CAPT Shelton completed his command tour of Paricutin in June 1968 and in August he took command of the large deck amphibious ship, USS Tripoli. The ship was designated the Flagship for Commander, PHIBRON-9 and Commander, Amphibious Ready Group Bravo, deployed to the Tonkin Gulf for maritime operations with the embarked Marines, who conducting eight major amphibious assaults, including Operation BOLD MARINER, the largest assault since WWII and Korea. Don spent two consecutive years in the combat zone afloat (bagging some rotary wing time along the way), before his change of command in August 1969 and crossing the country once again for an assignment as Branch Head, OP-506C, Aircraft and Weapons Requirements, the Pentagon, Washington, D.C. He continued to serve in OPNAV when in June 1971 Don was assigned as Deputy Director, Politico-Military Policy Division, OP-61B. Don was selected for the rank of Rear Admiral and in April 1972 became Director, OP-61 serving until February 1973.

Departing D.C. in February 1973, Don once again traveled to the Pacific, taking over his fifth command as Commander, Naval Base/Commander U.S. Naval Forces Philippines/CINCPAC Representative Philippines, Subic Bay, P.I. As the chaos of the end of U.S. involvement in Vietnam escalated, In April through July 1975 RADM Shelton supervised the initial planning and then coordinated the on-going operations for Project New Life, the processing of 43,000 evacuees and refugees from South Vietnam through Subic Bay. He established facilities on Grande Island and personally directed every facet of operations, from induction, to boarding and feeding, through transportation to the final destination for these thousands of displaced families. Notably, one refugee was South Vietnamese Vice President Nguyen Cao Ky, who had piloted his personal helicopter onto USS Denver along with U.S. Ambassador Graham Martin’s wife. The Philippines ordered that Ky was not to set foot on Philippines’ soil, so upon arrival in Subic on board Denver, RADM Shelton had Ky flown by helicopter to NAS Cubi Point across Subic Bay, and then walk across a raised path of wooden pallets to a waiting C-130 to be flown on to Guam. Problem solved.
To quote Don, “One of the very finest Navy operations in my experience,” an achievement he was extremely proud to have led.

Don concluded this overseas tour and in August 1975 he and Peggy returned to CONUS and Washington, D.C. for duty in OPNAV as Deputy Director, Research, Development, Test and Evaluation, OP-98B. Due to his extensive experience in his previous command, in June 1976 RADM Shelton was assigned collateral duty as the Senior Military Advisor to the U.S. Delegation negotiating a revised U.S.-Philippine Bases Agreement (which remained in effect until 1991). Having once again served in the Pentagon for two years, Don returned to the Pacific for duty on the staff of U.S. CINCPAC as Director, Plans and Policy, J-5 based at Camp Smith, HI. It was during this final tour that Don and Peggy purchased their home in Del Mar, CA which became “Headquarters, Shelton family” for the next 42 years. Don retired from active duty on 01 October 1979 in a ceremony held at the Naval Training Center, San Diego, CA where his journey in the U.S. Navy began 40 years, 2 months, 27 days and 3 hours ago.

In his remarkable career, Don bravely served in World War II, the Korean War, and the Vietnam War, leading from the cockpit (and gun turret) in the most demanding combat-tested environments. His skill at the controls of both prop and jet fighter aircraft was evident in his mishap-free aviation career that included the dead-stick F4U carrier landing on a straight deck carrier and his flight test experience in jet engine flame-out approaches and landings in the Cutlass and Demon. In the course of over 8 Pacific Theater deployments, he amassed over 4,000 flight hours and more than 500 carrier arrested landings. Don’s combat awards include the Legion of Merit with Combat V and the Air Medal but don’t tell the whole story of the risk involved in winter, night interdiction missions over North Korea in the Corsair. His other awards include the Distinguished Service Medal (two awards,) Legion of Merit, 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.)

Don remained an active ambassador for Naval Aviation in Southern California, was among the early members and life-long supporter of the Tailhook Association and an extremely proud member of the Golden Eagles for over 23 years. He served as the Golden Eagles Membership Selection Committee Secretary for the four years of 2006 through 2010 and actively participated in every West Flight activity, even though in Emeritus status, right up to the most recent mini-reunion luncheon held on 7 October 2021. His home included a vast collection of seashells from throughout the world, reflecting his numerous overseas deployments and assignments, and he built numerous aircraft models of World War II and Korean War vintage, many of which were donated to the World Famous I-Bar at NAS North Island, CA.

Throughout the 90’s and turn of the century, Don and Peggy could be found nearly every evening at their reserved seats in Jake’s Restaurant, on the beach just down the hill from their Del Mar home, sharing their life experiences with all who came to know them. Don was predeceased by Peggy in May 2019, and he is survived by daughter Donna and her husband Mike, and daughter Deborah and her husband Tom. RADM Don Shelton lived an adventurous life of over 100 years, a member of the Greatest Generation with a commitment to support Naval Aviation both while serving on active duty and in retirement. He truly left an indelible mark on all who came to know him
He will be missed.

Reader reactions:
8  Awesome

15 responses

  1. RIP to another Good Man.

  2. Sorry to hear about this los.
    Rest In Peace.

  3. Remarkable career and great American...RIP.
    Thanks Tom. It is nice to hear something positive these days.

  4. A moving eulogy to a hero of 3 wars. May he rest in peace and not fade away from memory.

  5. Tom:
    Thank you for the magnificent testimonial to RADM Shelton. Sadly, when we need men like RADM Shelton so badly during these uncertain times, these heroes disappear, leaving behind a superb legacy. Thanks again for your tribute to this hero.

  6. A wonderful tribute to a great American aviator. RIP Admiral Shelton.

  7. Surviving the the Cutlass and Demon,wow! Thank you for sharing that fine tribute. Bravo Zulu.

  8. Amazing career and a great tribute, sorry to hear of his passing.

  9. A slow hand salute for a true American hero. May he rest in peace.

  10. What a great life and a great tribute! Thank you, Tom.

  11. A life well lived.

  12. Thanks for the info, Tom (@tcinla). They don't make them like this any more.

  13. Great Naval Aviator, RIP.

  14. Wonderful people of that generation are passing away, but they will remain in our memory and in the models of airplanes that they glorified, so that we may live in peace today

  15. A wonderful tribute Tom. Thank you for sharing.

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