Hometown Heroes

This November marks 75 years since the end of WWII and 65 years since the start of the Vietnam War.

All across MFA territory, there are veterans of multiple wars going about their daily lives. Some may talk about their military service, while others wish to forget it. In this issue, we talked to two veterans willing to share their remarkable stories.

Living legend

On June 5, 1984, to commemorate the 40th anniversary of World War II’s D-Day invasion in Normandy, France, Dr. Thomas Macdonnell sat down at a typewriter and wrote his first-person recollection of that momentous day in history. He had never spoken of his ex­periences before, though dreams of that day had often haunted him.

“I vividly remember too much, for to talk or even think about any particular second, minute or hour gives me a gut and chest feeling, which I now know medically as ‘stress angina,’” he wrote.

Known as Dr. Tommy by most, Mac­donnell will be 98 years old in January. He lives Marshfield, Mo., in the house he built with his wife, Ann, on the farm where they raised eight children together.

On June 6, 1944, Macdonnell’s boat was one of the first to hit Omaha Beach in Normandy in the top-secret Allied mission that was called Operation Nep­tune at the time. Originally scheduled to take place on June 5, when the moon was full and seas were predicted to be low and calm at first light, an unexpect­ed storm delayed the mission.

“We left Portland Harbor in Dorset, England, at 3:45 a.m.,” Macdonnell said in an interview for this article. “But Gen. Eisenhower called off the mission because the channel was so choppy. We were all seasick and wet.”

Macdonnell’s boat, known as a landing craft tank (LCT), was projected to hit the beach at 6:30 a.m., but high winds drifted the vessel east. He wrote he remembered the sounds of vast numbers of airplanes as they passed overhead to bomb the French coast and the German Army forces there. He remem­bered hearing the U.S. Navy ship bombardment that he hoped would take out most of the German defenses. He remembered double-checking rifles and ammunition and receiving hand gre­nades, gas masks, life preservers and other personal equipment.

“I landed at about three minutes after 7 o’clock in the morn­ing,” said Macdonnell, who was a machine gunner. “I started firing about five minutes after 7. By 11 a.m., the platoon ser­geant had a shouting roll call. Instead of there being 25 of us, there were only 10. I’m not even sure there were 10, just very few of us left.”

Though already morning, Macdonnell described the beach that day as dark and misty.

“We were the first boat on the beach as far as I could see,” Macdonnell said. The LCT hit a mine when it landed, wound­ing a Navy officer and killing two men lowering the ramp.

Macdonnell’s LCT carried four half-tracks, a truck equipped with wheels in the front and tracks on the back, designed to navigate rough terrain. Each machine gun in these vehicles fired 50-caliber rounds.

“It took two big, strong, 1st Infantry Division men who had come up from Africa to load the canisters on those guns,” Macdonnell said. “I had three canisters on each side of my gun, a quarter-inch steel plate guarding me in front with an opening for sights, and four machine guns.”

Macdonnell remembered unloading the vehicles from the LCT quickly and firing at any likely target, honing in on what looked to him like a “larger coastal defense railroad gun” and two machine guns atop the hill.

“My guns fired rapidly,” Macdonnell said. “Around 2,400 rounds a minute if you held them that long. You didn’t though, just for short bursts. It didn’t take but just one blast, and I had both machine guns of the German defense knocked out.”

After a short while, one of his ammunition handlers was killed, leaving them with no one powerful enough to take his place. His lieutenant said, “you’re infantry now,” Macdonnell recalled. He and the other ammunition handler grabbed their rifles and took cover behind driftwood on the beach. The cover couldn’t save his fellow infantryman.

“It was a fairly large log,” Macdonnell said. “But it was facing the enemy instead of being crossways. A rifleman shot and killed him. Hit him right in the forehead.”

A mortar knocked out the crews of the other two half-tracks, killing all but one of Macdonnell’s friends in the process. He isn’t sure what happened to the fourth truck, he said. He didn’t look back.

“I was moving forward, when a bullet hit my left hip, and a mortar hit my but­tocks,” he said. “It was a big hole, bleeding quite a lot, but I truthfully didn’t give it much concern.”

Macdonnell started up the hill to find refuge from the onslaught.

“The first place I saw that would give me some cover was a slit trench used as a latrine,” Macdonnell said. “I didn’t hesitate. I jumped in and felt the shellfire over the top of me. I remember distinctly before my right eye was a song sheet written in German and before my left was a newspaper that said, ‘Das Reich.’ It was a little messy, you might say, but it was the safest place on the beach.”

From there, Macdonnell was able to launch two rifle grenades aimed at a third machine gun. The first one was short, but the second one hit his mark. With his injuries, Macdonnell couldn’t run. He crawled to a rock where his captain and two sergeants were sheltered.

“I told them that we had to get to the observation control area, because they were blowing our boats out of the water,” Macdonnell said. “I didn’t get an order, but I did get a suggestion to stay there, where I was out of range of the Germans having a direct shot at me. But I didn’t.”

Macdonnell had noticed a light in the distance. Designated a sharp-shooter, he knew he could hit anything he could see.

“I moved into the brush where I had a straight shot at the observation post,” he said. “I could see a scope come up, just like the periscope in a submarine. I eased off a shot and knocked it out. I later learned that I took their eyes in one shot.”

Macdonnell fought like this into the afternoon. He spent the night in a large bunker with other men, shielding against sniper fire. It wasn’t until the next eve­ning that he would be evacuated to a hospital ship. After three surgeries and three weeks in a hospital in England, Macdonnell would live to fight another day.

And fight he did. Macdonnell was transferred to the 3rd Army under Gen. George S. Patton and fought in the Battle of the Bulge, the last major German offensive campaign on the Western Front during the war. There, he was again wounded—this time from “friendly fire.”

“We were counterattacking close to St. Vith (Belgium), when I accidentally exploded a roadside bomb,” he said. “They didn’t give me a Purple Heart for that one because it was our bomb I exploded, but that was OK with me. I already had two.”

That incident required more surgeries and, due to his inju­ries, Macdonnell was removed from the fighting unit. But there was still much to be done. He witnessed the release of a Rus­sian prison camp in Czechoslovakia, and in Munich, Germany, he helped open the gates at Dachau Concentration Camp.

“That’s where I saw bodies stacked head to foot, foot to head, about 4 feet high and just skin and bones,” he recalled. “They were taking them to the incinerator or to a large ditch.”

Though the war officially ended on Sept. 2, 1945, Macdon­nell wouldn’t return to the United States until November of that year. He’d ranked highly on the officer candidate school test, and Gen. Patton was building a cadre of trained men.

“They made me staff sergeant, but when the war ended, I told Gen. Patton’s adjutant I had done all the killing I intend­ed to do,” Macdonnell said. “I was going to go home, go to medical school, become a doctor and start saving lives instead of taking them.”

While recovering in the English hospital, he had received an acceptance letter from the University of Missouri. After earning his bachelor’s degree, he transferred to the University of Indiana Medical School. In 1950, he earned his doctorate of medicine degree and worked for the city medical department in Indianapolis where he met his wife, Ann. She was a nurse and worked alongside her husband for the 73 years they were married. She died in 2013 at the age of 87.

“I had a wonderful wife,” Macdonnell said smiling, as he re­counted a story about her cooking and one of their early dates.

Over the course of his medical career, Macdonnell delivered 4,582 babies, not including twins and triplets. He opened four hospital clinics and served as a Missouri state representative, helping to pass the Clean Indoor Air Act during his time in the legislature. He farmed, raising registered Hereford cattle. He’s met former President Bill Clinton, the queen of England and even carried the Olympic torch.

Since WWII, Macdonnell has been written about and inter­viewed many times, but perhaps the most poignant words are the ones he typed himself 35 years ago.

“War is hell!” he wrote. “I remember many things that caused me to have bad dreams for years. D-Day morning was the hell of war, the afternoon was tragic and the restless night was filled with horror.”

Vietnam valor

About an hour south of Marshfield, Dairl Johnson, a veteran of the Vietnam War, lives and farms in Reeds Spring, Mo., with his wife, Doris. Dairl was raised on a farm in this small Stone County community, the second-youngest of 11 siblings. At that time, farming wasn’t what he wanted.

“When we got engaged, he said he would never live on a farm, and he’d never live in Reeds Spring,” said Doris, who met her future husband when she moved to the rural area from Springfield as a high school sophomore.

In 1969, four years after the Vietnam War began, Dairl’s number was called. He was drafted into the Army at age 18.

“They sent me to Vietnam for my senior trip,” he said.

He completed basic training over the summer at Fort Leonard Wood, Mo., preparing him for the jungles of Vietnam.

“They called it little Korea, because it was hot in the sum­mertime and cold in the wintertime,” he said. “They had nice brick, air-conditioned buildings, but we stayed in what I called the Gomer Pyle buildings—those long, metal ones with a dome on top. They told us where we were going, we needed to get used to the heat.”

When he completed basic training, he returned home to Reeds Spring and married Doris.

“We were married for a little over a week when he went back to base and had orders for Vietnam,” Doris said. “At that time, Nixon had said no more troops would be going. He lied.”

Prior to shipping out, Dairl received specialized training in gas chambers, nerve agents, flamethrowers and grenades among other military weaponry in Anniston, Ala. From there, he got to come home for a short time before heading to Seattle, where he could choose to board a boat or airplane. The boat took 31 days, but didn’t count toward time served. Dairl chose to fly.

In mid-November, Dairl boarded a 22-hour flight bound for a country in crisis. He landed at Bien Hoa Air Base in southern Vietnam.

“That was a big holding place,” Dairl said. “There were probably 1,000 troops there, but a plane would land with 100 incoming troops, and 100 troops would get to go back out.”

He was stationed for 13 months at Phuoc Vinh Base Camp, located on the main road between Saigon and Dong Xoai.

“I was a decon specialist, that’s what they called us,” Dairl said. “We were in the chemical corps of the 1st Air-Cav (Air Cavalry) Division.”

“Agent Orange,” Doris further explained.

Dairl slept on nailed-together ammunition boxes. For a mat­tress, he blew up a poncho and poncho liner. Every night, he would cover himself with mosquito netting.

“We had tents surrounded by barrels filled with sand,” he said. “We called them hooches. Each hooch had a bunker next to it. That’s where we stayed.”

When asked what he could share about his war-time experi­ence, Dairl simply said, “It was bad, and that’s about all.”

“I don’t dwell on it, and I never really talked much about it,” he added. “I tell you one thing, you learn to hear the difference between outgoing and incoming rounds really quickly. We were right next to a helicopter pad, and the V.C. (Viet Cong) would shoot rockets in trying to hit that helicopter. Sometimes the rockets would take out half a hooch or land in front, so I would sleep at the end closest to the bunker. I remember someone saying to a new guy, ‘If you can beat ol’ D.J. to the bunker, then you’ve really done something,’ because I was fast.”

While in the jungle, Dairl wrote letters to his wife and family, but in the spring of 1970, there was a long stretch of silence.

“We didn’t hear anything for over a month,” Doris said. “No letters, nothing. My dad went through the Red Cross to try and find him. After it was over, we found out he’d been in the invasion of Cambodia, and he couldn’t tell anybody. Our families didn’t have a clue what had happened to him for six or seven weeks. It was rough. It’s a good thing we were young. If we would have known then what was going to happen, we probably wouldn’t have made it nerve-wise.”

“Young and invincible,” Dairl put it.

In December 1970, he returned to the Bien Hoa Air Base— this time as one of the 100 outgoing troops. It was easy to distinguish the new from the old then, Dairl said.

“You could tell they were scared,” he said. “They were pale white, had clean clothes on and didn’t know what was ahead of them. We were all that way at one time.”

Dairl arrived back in the States around Christmas by way of Oakland, Cal. When he and the other soldiers got off the bus to go into the airport terminal, there was a crowd of people standing around.

“It was kind of sad in a way,” Dairl said. “A guy standing next to me and said, ‘Look. There’s a crowd. They’ve come to cheer us on.’ Another guy said, ‘No.’ When we unloaded the bus, the sergeant told us to keep our head down and not to say anything. People would throw things at you and stuff, but that’s just the way it was back then. You just didn’t tell anyone you were in Vietnam.”

Inside the terminal was a large mirror. It had been over a year since Dairl and most of his fellow soldiers had seen their full reflection—something so basic yet inextri­cably intertwined with identity.

“In Vietnam, we had a piece of stainless steel that we carried around, and it was just large enough to see your face,” he said. “When we unloaded in Oakland, we would all just stop and look ourselves over in that mirror—you didn’t hardly recog­nize yourself. We were tan, and we were skinny.”

Back stateside, it took a while for her husband to acclimate to post-war life, Doris said.

“When he first got back, we were staying in a little cabin, and deer season had start­ed,” she said. “The guns started going off, and he got under the bed. It took about five years for him to calm down.”

Dairl finished out his two-year active-duty obligation in Anniston, Ala., with his wife.

“I had the option to extend my time in Vietnam for four months,” Dairl said. “They called it short orders, and if you did that, you could end your active duty early, but I’d seen too many do that and not come back.”

In June 1971, the couple moved to Springfield, Mo., and Dairl worked in construction while Doris went to work at Zenith Electric Corp. After a while, though, the construction work dried up, and Dairl was laid off.

“I came home from work one day, and he said, ‘I bought a farm,’” Doris recalled. “I said, ‘You did what?’”

Dairl was paid for his time in Vietnam, but those checks went in the bank, slowly accumulating. He didn’t need money in the jungle. 

“I used the money I’d saved up to buy this original 40 acres in ’72,” Dairl said. Shortly thereafter, he went to work for the Paul Muel­ler Company in Springfield, which produces a variety of stainless-steel products such as dairy milk tanks and beer tanks.

“Another day, I came home, and he told me he had purchased 10 head of cattle from the neighbor,” Doris said. “Again, I said, ‘You did what?’”

Dairl admits his perspective on life changed after the war. He recognized his upbringing was an idyllic life. He wanted to farm, and he knew how to raise cattle and put in the work it takes to be successful.

He seized opportunities for additional farmland as they arose. When a neighbor passed away, Dairl sold calves and bought the surrounding acreage while still also working nights in the manufacturing plant. In 1975, when Doris was pregnant with their only son, Dairl’s dad died. Dairl was able to buy half the homestead, again paying for the land with cat­tle sales. Later, he found 1,000 acres in Web­ster County near Marshfield and knew that was his shot to make it as a full-time farmer.

“At 18, I never thought I’d be where I am,” Dairl said. “But after Vietnam, I realized this is paradise.”

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