We have just celebrated another Memorial Day, honoring our nation's women and men who have served our nation gallantly, thousands of times sacrificing their own lives and thousands more who have suffered irreversible injuries -- all in the cause to protect and preserve our country's freedom. President Obama in his speeches on Memorial Day addressed those who were lost and suffered in the country's two most recent wars, Iraq and Afghanistan. But he also addressed those who were denied a proper homecoming at the time, the men and women who served in the Vietnam conflict. Today (May 29, 2012) the country's flag will also fly at half-staff throughout the State of Illinois to honor one of those heroes from the Vietnam conflict -- George Duncan Macdonald. An Arlington National Cemetery funeral with all its regalia will also occur to "bury" George on this day as well.
But just who was George? Much of what follows is a composite of a story that appeared a couple of days ago in the Chicago Sun Times ("Family ends 40-year search for missing Vietnam War captain" and a Facebook page recently established for our high school class of which I was a member -- Evanston Township High School (ETHS), 1966. George was in the class too.
George held the rank of captain in the Air Force. Months before the Vietnam conflict ended, he was a navigator on a converted C-130 gunship during a nighttime mission over Laos. Enemy aircraft took it down in mountainous terrain and it exploded. Two of the sixteen-crew members escaped the fiery crash, but the whereabouts of George -- or his remains -- were unknown. For the next 12 years, his mother Jean MacDonald, a conservative activist who fought against political corruption, commenced a search that only a mother could, as she did not believe her boy had died that late December day. It took her all the way to Mexico City for proof that her son was alive, somewhere. Sadly to say, she never found out the answer before she herself passed away.
George was well liked by his classmates from Nichols Junior High through high school and beyond. He was a twin, growing up in a household full of siblings. George went on to become a Big Ten Athlete at Ohio State, running track. He joined the ROTC to assist with his college bills. He wanted to become an Air Force pilot, but an injury prevented him from doing that; he opted instead to become a navigator, entering the service in June 1971. He went to "Nam" a year later, and from correspondence written home, he was enthusiastic about his work -- tracking enemy troop and truck movements during low-flying, nighttime missions in that massive C-130. On Christmas Eve 1972 while the family gathered for its holiday meal with all the trappings, and only five months after he commenced his nation's service in Southeast Asia, the doorbell rang. Two Air Force uniform-clad men appeared and delivered news no family of a service person ever wants to hear: their son's plane was shot down; he was MIA and presumed killed according to government reports.
From there, momma Jean went to work. Her relentless activity to find out the truth about her boy was no less than admirable, described as "obsessive persistence" in the Sun Times article. In 1982, she told reporters, "The U.S. government is engaged in a cover-up of this episode, and perhaps other similar incidents... I believe the government has lied about the status of my son." In 1985, the Laos government gave permission to the U.S. to excavate the crash site. At the same time, Jean was undergoing open-heart surgery, but she never made it out of the hospital. Before she died, she "begged" her children to keep up the battle to learn the truth about their brother. Later that year, the White House said George's remains were positively identified based on teeth and tiny bone fragments. Two years later, the government reversed itself. But daughter Jeanette Macdonald Frye took up the gauntlet that has led to what is being observed this day. As George is so honored by the State of Illinois and at Arlington, his status remains: killed in action.
While it will be 40 years since that fateful Christmas Eve knock-on-the-door, the memory of George Duncan Macdonald will not be forgotten; it lives on through his family, loved ones, the people of the State of Illinois, and his high school classmates. And the nation honors another of its war heroes...