At 96, Dr. John MacDonald remains sharp and vigorous. “I use a cane now,” he says, “but apart from that I’m fine.”
During a recent chat at his Oak Bay apartment, he recounted the story of his extraordinary service to King and Country during the Second World War.
When war was declared in September 1939, MacDonald went straight to the recruiting office to join up. “They told me, ‘We’ve got enough unemployed guys trying to join the army – go back to university.’”
After graduating from the University of British Columbia in 1941, MacDonald tried again. “The navy was giving direct entry commissions,” he recalls. “To hell with joining the army as a buck private – I joined the navy as a temporary acting sub-lieutenant.”
Training took place at HMCS Naden in Esquimalt. After eight weeks, the men were to transfer to the new HMCS Royal Roads officer training facility. “There were 23 spaces, and there were 25 of us. I and another guy were the two cut.”
As the only one of the group with a university degree, MacDonald was puzzled and respectfully asked the instructional officer for an explanation. “I saluted him smartly and said: ‘Sir, I don’t question your judgment but I’d like to know what I did wrong so I won’t do it again.’ He said, ‘Well, MacDonald, we drew your name out of a hat.’ And I said, “well sir, if that’s the way the Royal Canadian Navy chooses its future officers, I’m better off out of it.”
After signing the proper forms, MacDonald believed he was released from naval service and was recruited by the army. After a few weeks of training in Brockville, he was arrested and summoned before the commandant. “I was charged with fraudulent enlistment – in that I had joined the army while I was still in the navy – and the maximum punishment was death,” he says laughing. Fortunately, the commandant cleared things up and MacDonald resumed training as a signals officer.
In Terrace, he was assigned to a unique armoured train project and he used his expertise to fix a faulty radio, recalling that for target practice the men would shoot 25-pound guns at the mountains and cause massive avalanches.
In the Queen Charlotte Islands – now Haida Gwaii – he borrowed a jeep from the RCAF and went roaring along the beach. “We forgot about the tides coming up. The wheels just sank in the sand and the water came up over the Jeep. We had to go back the next day and tow it back. We took every nut and bolt apart and put it back together again and it ran.”
In 1943, he was given command of the new signals section of the 21st Army Field Regiment. In September, he was sent overseas on the Queen Mary. “Me and 18,500 troops,” he recalls. “I remember talking to an American on board and he said: ‘It’s too bad you Limeys can’t make a ship like this,’ so I took him by the nose and pointed out where the ship was built.”
On D-Day, he landed on Juno Beach under shellfire. “There were a lot of corpses, both men and horses,” he recalls. “We went over in a landing craft. It backed out and was sunk by a shell just as we got there. We got the hell out of there and went as far inland as we could.”
Weeks later, MacDonald, then captaining the 2 AGRA signals section, was camped out with his men near Cannes. American bomber planes flew overhead. “They didn’t have people on the ground guiding their bombs,” he says, describing the terror when the American planes started bombing his position by mistake. Out of 45 men, seven were killed and 15 were injured. Returning to headquarters, he didn’t realize he was covered with blood. MacDonald was cited for bravery in dispatches for assisting with the wounded.
In spring 1945, with the Germans in retreat, MacDonald received orders to push forward into Holland. He and fellow officer Roy Flawn drove a jeep along a bomb-shattered road. “At one junction, a German anti-aircraft gun was still burning,” he says. “We got to this little town. Every door was closed, every window was shuttered. The Germans had left about 10 minutes before we got there. Roy and I sat in our Jeep smoking and suddenly the locals realized that the Allies were there. All the doors flung open and the people clustered around us. The wine came out and the schnapps and so on. We were sitting there having a ball!”
MacDonald returned to Canada on New Year’s Eve, 1945. “I remember getting out of the ship in Halifax and there were women giving out hot dogs. We hadn’t seen hot dogs in years.”
MacDonald believes he has lived a very lucky life. “I survived the war and I’m glad that in 70 years since things have improved. I wouldn’t want to see another war.”