Gene McDonald was barely 20 when he began flying missions over German-occupied France during World War II. At 91, the nation he helped liberate gave him its highest award, the Legion of Honor, last month.
McDonald, one of a number of aging World War II veterans awarded the Legion of Honor this year, felt a flush of pride when an official pinned the medal on his lapel Oct. 14 at the French Consulate in San Francisco.
Sitting in the office of his Greenhaven home Tuesday, McDonald said an even more emotional moment for him came when troops of allied nations marched down the Avenue des Champs-Élysées in Paris after Germany surrendered in 1945.
McDonald watched from a sidewalk cafe, drinking champagne, as Gen. Dwight Eisenhower, supreme commander of the allied forces in Europe, strode through the Arc de Triomphe.
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“I’ll never forget it,” he said, tears welling in his pale blue eyes. “It’s something you’ll never see again.”
McDonald was a recent graduate of McClatchy High School in 1943 when he joined the Army and was trained in Texas as a fighter pilot.
He arrived in France shortly after the D-Day invasion of Normandy in June 1944. Taking off from an airstrip above Omaha Beach, he and his squadron of P-47 Thunderbolt pilots bombed Nazi tanks and strafed artillery units so the allies could advance.
Ultimately, he flew 67 fighter-bomber missions over Europe and won a dozen medals, including the Distinguished Flying Cross, awarded to pilots who display heroism or extraordinary achievement in combat.
McDonald spoke in a matter-of-fact way about dive-bombing German forces. Starting at 6,000 feet, he’d point his plane downward at 400 mph and pull out of the dive 200 feet from the ground. He gave his two airplanes – both of which he named for his girlfriend “Miss Marge” – most of the credit.
“The P-47 was a tough airplane. You got to really love it because it got you out of jams,” he said. Dive-bombing runs were “dangerous as hell. You got pretty well shot up, but that P-47 could take it.”
The riskiest of his missions was a raid over Belgium during the Battle of the Bulge in December 1944. German forces, mounting their last major offensive of the war, had overrun the Americans, who were desperate for air support. But cloudy winter skies had shut down air operations.
“The general called and said, ‘Get over here. They’re killing us,’ ” McDonald said. Then he reported a small clearing in the skies.
McDonald’s squadron took off, flying nearly blind and on instruments for much of the journey.
McDonald saw a “hole in the clouds,” just yards across, through which he could make out three German tanks firing on American forces. He dived through the hole, dropped his two 500-pound bombs and destroyed the tanks before flying low on fuel back to base in Asch, Belgium.
The Sacramento Bee wrote a story at the time about 2nd Lt. Edwin. E. McDonald’s successful tank-busting mission. (The E is for Eugene.)
After the war, Gene McDonald got married and graduated in the first class from what was then Sacramento State College, now California State University, Sacramento. He worked for 20 years as a sales manager for a local building supply company, then built houses across the capital region as a general contractor.
He and his wife, Marge McDonald, 89, have been married for 69 years. They raised three children in a house Gene McDonald built on Lake Greenhaven. They have seven grandchildren and 15 great grandchildren.
McDonald has his silk “escape map” of western Europe pinned to his office wall. Pilots carried the maps in case they were shot down over enemy territory and had to flee or be captured.
Most of the pilots he knew from World War II have died, McDonald said. He remembers their bravery. When leaders asked for volunteers to fly dangerous missions, “I never heard one guy say ‘I don’t want to go,’ ” he said.