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Donald Lister dead at 93; flew Korean War combat missions, lived in Roslyn

Donald Lister, of Roslyn, photographed when he was

Donald Lister, of Roslyn, photographed when he was a Navy pilot in the Korean War. Credit: U.S. Navy

Donald Lister knew the prickly tension of aerial warfare.

His first child was born while he flew combat missions from aboard a Navy aircraft carrier as the Korean War raged.

“The day I went to give birth, I read in The New York Times that four planes from his squadron were shot down,” said his former wife, Ellen Lister, of Rockville Centre, whom he married in 1950 while in flight school. “I didn’t know whether he was OK or not. It was very scary.”

Lister, 93, a longtime Roslyn resident, died Jan. 7 of kidney failure.

Born in Manhattan, Lister was 17 when he enlisted in the Navy in 1943. He was sent to the U.S. Naval Academy two years later, trained as a carrier pilot after graduating in 1949, and was awarded his wings in 1951.

He was assigned to the Navy’s Attack Squadron 55 and piloted single-seat A-1 Skyraiders on 64 combat missions from the aircraft carrier USS Essex. One of his planes limped back to the carrier so riddled with anti-aircraft fire that Navy personnel pushed it overboard.

A 1952 mission involved flying cover for a rescue helicopter as it flew to the aid of a downed pilot some 50 miles north of what is now the border between the two Koreas. The mission earned Lister a recommendation for the Distinguished Flying Cross, which is awarded for "heroism or extraordinary achievement while participating in an aerial flight.” 

“Although opposed by intense and accurate anti-aircraft fire, Lieutenant junior grade Lister repeatedly placed his own life in jeopardy while expediting the rescue of the stricken airmen,” read his medal citation. “By successfully carrying out daring and accurate attacks from low altitudes he assisted the helicopter in making a successful rescue of the downed pilot.”

Lister later wrote of being puzzled after listening to a talk given aboard the Essex by Admiral Joseph “Jocko” Clark. Lister quoted Clark as having said: “You men have had the privilege of meeting the enemy face to face.” Lister recalled he was able to appreciate Clark’s statement only after reading an account of coping with fear written by Holocaust survivor Viktor Frankl.

“How wonderful it was that there was nothing he needed to fear anymore except his God,” Lister wrote of Frankl in papers provided by his family. “It was only then when I understood what Admiral Clark meant.”

Lister also served as a flight instructor, before his honorable discharge in 1955.

After working in the Garment District for his father’s women’s wear company, Lister went into the real estate business in 1984, most recently as a broker in the Roslyn office of Prudential Douglas Elliman. He stopped working about two years ago.

He enjoyed golf, which he played even in winter at local courses, including Eisenhower and Bethpage parks. He remained active with Naval Academy alumni activities. 

After his first marriage ended in an amicable divorce, he later married Phyllis Schwartz.

Lister is survived by Schwartz as well as daughters Beth Ann Scrivano of Freeport and Amy Sue Axen of upstate Lake George. 

A funeral was held Jan. 10. Lister was buried at Mt. Ararat Cemetery in Lindenhurst.

“He came alive when he talked about the Navy and his past,” Ellen Lister said. “He had a wonderful career.”

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