Donald McDonald’s sobering examination of his youthful enthusiasm was dictated decades after the war to his son, Donald MacDonald Jr., who desired a memoir of his elder’s experience during World War I.
AUBURNDALE — Donald McDonald was gung-ho from the moment he graduated from a military academy in his hometown of Montgomery, Alabama.
The buildup to America’s involvement in the Great War was underway and when the nation formally declared war against Germany on April 6, 1917, McDonald was prepared, holding the rank of second lieutenant, an entry-level commissioned officer.
“We all sang (George M. Cohan’s) 'Over There,' ” McDonald said. “We were young and full of patriotic enthusiasm. Yes, we would go 'over there' and show them a thing or two. Guts and glory! How little prepared we were for the gruesome reality that awaited us in the trenches.”
McDonald’s sobering examination of his youthful enthusiasm was dictated decades after the war to his son, Donald MacDonald Jr., who desired a memoir of his elder’s experience in war-torn France during World War I.
McDonald survived the war that served as a precursor to World War II. He was lucky. Some 17 million people perished; another 20 million were wounded.
Today marks the 100th anniversary of the end of the world’s first global war; the reason we celebrate Veterans Day. Originally called Armistice Day, it marks a moment in history — the 11th hour on the 11th day of the 11th month in 1918 — when the Allies formally ended their feud with Germany with an armistice, or truce.
McDonald was just 27 when he and his comrades lowered their weapons and rose from the blood-stained trenches of France to return home. The Germans did the same.
Home for McDonald was Montgomery, but he settled in Winter Haven, where he raised a family, built an insurance business and served as the founding commander of Veterans of Foreign Wars Post 4289 in Winter Haven.
His son extracted some of his father’s memories of the war before his death Jan. 26, 1978, at age 89. The words didn’t come easy.
For years after the war, the elder McDonald relived some of the horrors in his dreams; he drank heavily.
“He could hear the screams of the horses and the cries of the men,” his son said.
The Army misspelled MacDonald’s name, leaving out the “a” in Mac. He never bothered to set the record straight, but insisted that his children use the correct spelling.
MacDonald, who worked at his father’s insurance agency for 26 years, said he’s certain that his dad suffered from post-traumatic stress disorder, and demurred at the thought of dredging up war tales. His son persisted over time. Bit by bit, the words came over the course of several decades.
In France, McDonald was sent to the front lines of battle.
“Sometimes there were uneasy pauses in the fighting and the dead and wounded were collected,” he said. “But these times were rare; most men who fell into no man’s land either had to crawl back to their lines or die where they lay.”
McDonald was part of the American Expeditionary Force. His identification shows him as a member of the 34th Infantry, presumably the regiment which was part of the 7th Division. MacDonald said his father led a mortar team, responsible for operating a Stokes mortar — a front-line weapon that launched smaller explosive shells and bombs.
Artillery ruled the World War I battlefield.
“The Germans had some really huge guns,” McDonald said. “They had a liking for larger artillery pieces but therein lay a problem. The trenches were oft times muddy and difficult for any kind of movement of anything really heavy. Our artillery was usually smaller but more mobile.”
The battlefield exposed troops to a horrific array of weaponry — machine guns, flamethrowers, poison gas. McDonald described the sound of “ripping paper” as mortar bombs and massive shells sliced the air.
Air warfare was in its infancy, and he noted the novelty of planes in combat.
“When an aerial dogfight happened overhead, all the (ground) fighting stopped. We would actually get up and out of the trench and watch. So did the Germans. They were usually several hundred yards away and we could see them and they could see us. But there was no shooting, only betting with your buddy on who would be the winner. As soon as a plane went down in smoke or flame, it was back in (the trench) and war would resume.”
MacDonald hopes his father’s memories will serve as reminders to his own two children, and their children, of the sacrifices made.
“He was lucky, his wounds were mainly psychological,” MacDonald said. “I wanted him to be remembered. So few of the stories have survived.”
Eric Pera can be reached at firstname.lastname@example.org or 863-802-7528.