John H. McDonald

LITTLE-KNOWN NAVY UNIT HAD KEY ROLE IN WAR

At a time when death is claiming about 1,000 daily of the Greatest Generation - the veterans of World War II - an effort continues to honor those who have served the nation in wars to preserve the American way of life.

The U.S. was more than 60 years in paying its respects to those who served in World War II in Europe and the South Pacific; that coming within the last three years.

The World War II Memorial is walking distance from memorials to those who served in the Korean campaign and Vietnam War, all on the National Mall in Washington between the Washington Monument and Lincoln Memorial.

Millions have paid visits to the Mall to pay their respects. Many thousands of veterans who served in what author Studs Terkel termed "The Good War," ran out of time, never aware of the national heart-warming thank-you.

The Korean remembrance was 50 years in becoming a reality. It's a squad of advancing soldier statues on a battlefield. Next is the black marble of The Wall, listing those who paid the price in Vietnam.

Metal statuary nearby is of the raising of the flag on Mt. Suribachi on blood-soaked Iwo Jima. The cost of U.S. military: 6,821 killed and 9,217 wounded. Even greater were enemy losses on the island nearest Japan: 20,000 killed and 1,083 taken prisoner.

The flag-raising on the volcanic island became the most famous picture of the world war. Smaller tributes to the various wars continued to be erected around the USA this summer. Memorials in Springfield, Ill., and Colorado pay respects to Korean War veterans of all military services.

A little-known and under-appreciated military unit was formed by the U.S. Navy in October 1941. The U.S. Naval Armed Guard was designed to provide gun crews aboard the country's 1,375 merchant ships, which played a major role in providing supplies, fuel, weapons, tanks and aircraft primarily to Europe.

Equipped with .30-caliber and .50-caliber machine guns and sometimes anti-aircraft armament, the assigned Navy crews were most effective against aircraft attacks and German submarines that surfaced to fire on the transport ships or mariners who abandoned sinking ships.

Naval armed guardsmen were not equipped to fight off German U-boats that prowled in wolfpacks far beneath the convoys of merchant ships.

First Naval Armed Guard casualties were recorded in 1942 when 571 ships were sunk or damaged by German U-boats. Killed were 622 Naval Armed Guardsmen.

John H. McDonald was a member of that elite Navy team. Like many who returned from the world war who had seen too much, too soon, he was tight-lipped about his service, says daughter Melinda Hefner. One of five children, his family moved from South Carolina to Granite Falls after losing everything to the Depression.

The family of seven piled into an old car, their earthly possessions tied to the top.

Late in life, McDonald began to share some stories but seemed to avoid those that were "unspeakable," especially for his daughters. He did recall taking part in scrubbing a member of the crew who didn't bathe. It was after the fact he learned that the sailor was in a shower when an earlier ship was torpedoed and sunk. He escaped but admitted he was "scared to death" to use a shower.

Working 18 to 20 hours a day was not unusual for the Armed Guardsmen. Keeping a watch day and night was unnerving. Every wave, he said, took on the look of a submarine periscope or torpedo. Lack of sleep was a hazard and at times food and munitions were short.

"I could hear the cries of men, some yelling, 'Oh, help me God!' It seemed as though I was having a nightmare."

In 1943, more than 1,000 troops were killed when 374 transports were damaged or sunk. Most notable was the SS Dorchester, a passenger ship converted to carry troops. The ship took a torpedo amidships from a U-boat just 90 miles from docking at Greenland. More than 1,000 Army troops went down with the Dorchester, including Hickory native Lt. Glenn Zerden.

The Navy continues an effort to identify those lost on the SS Dorchester. An untold number paid the price. Four chaplains - two Protestants, a Jew and a Catholic - gave up their life jackets so others could safely evacuate the ship. The chaplains locked arms as the Dorchester slipped into an icy grave. The heroic ministers were revered with a special U.S. postage stamp, paintings, statuary and a living foundation for their selfless heroism.

In its eight years of history, the Naval Armed Guard served aboard more than 1,600 ships, important in conducting the war, were damaged or sunk.

Records compiled by the Navy revealed that 144,900 guardsmen served on more than 6,236 American and Allied ships. Of this number, 2,085 were killed and 1,127 wounded.

MacDonald's closest wartime buddy was Gene Lassiter, who grew up in Buies Creek. He was in his 70s when he finally located his friend.

"I don't think there is any end to it," Phillip Pauro lamented.

In later years, his close Navy friend was stricken with a brain disease that eventually took his life. Daughter Glennie Sims took McDonald to see his friend a last time. "Daddy was a strong man," offered daughter Melinda, "but losing Mr. Lassiter was heartbreaking for him."

John McDonald later joined the legions of the Greatest Generation who have passed on.


Originally published in the Hickory (North Carolina) Daily Record on October 15, 2007

By Charles Deal
Hickory Daily Record Staff
Charles Deal is a former newspaper editor and publisher. Reach him at chazdeal@aol.com.

 

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