St. Louis (Michigan), Muskegon, Howell, Camp Howze, El Paso, Bermuda, Camp Davis, London, Buchenwald, Edward R. Murrow
John A. MacDonald was born in St. Louis, Michigan in 1919. MacDonald was one of three boys, he was the eldest. His father ran a furniture store; he was also an undertaker, running his own business inside the home. When MacDonald was around eight years old his family moved to Muskegon. In Muskegon, MacDonald recalls fun experiences such as playing in Lake Michigan and riding on ice boats. But in 1930, MacDonald’s family moved again, this time to Howell because his father’s brother-in-law was very ill. MacDonald’s father started a very successful funeral home in Howell. The family settled there. In 1938, MacDonald graduated Howell High School and went to the Detroit Business Institute for two years. Unfortunately, he didn’t obtain a degree but completed the courses nonetheless. He then went on to work for the Leonard Investment Company in Pontiac. About two to three months later, he was inducted into the United States Army. He received his basic training in Camp Howze, Texas. From Camp Howze, MacDonald was sent to El Paso. From El Paso, he was sent to Bermuda where he joined the 423rd Coast Artillery Unit. He stayed in Bermuda for one year before being transferred back to the States as a first sergeant. He was sent to El Paso again then to Camp Davis, North Carolina where he received a second lieutenant commission. In December of the same year, he married his wife Mary. Shortly thereafter, he was sent to New York for a shipment overseas. He estimates this was about six months before the war started.
MacDonald’s ship landed in Liverpool, England. MacDonald and the other soldiers boarded a train to London. As the train was making its journey, it suddenly stopped and all of the lights went out. MacDonald remembers feeling confused. It was then that the soldiers found out that London was being bombed and the Germans would bomb the train, too, if it was seen. The train stayed the night in a tunnel until the bombing ceased. When they arrived, MacDonald had still not been given any orders. So he was promptly assigned for two weeks to inspect truck and motor vehicles on the southern coast of England and report on his findings, good or bad. One night, MacDonald was returning late back from Bristol, when a piece of flak flew into his eye. MacDonald went to the hospital and stayed there for about a week and a half. MacDonald went back to the hospital a second time when a tripwire fell and broke his arm; luckily there was no mine attached. He recalls when he was in the hospital that he was going to be given a purple heart. He quickly said to the person who was pinning it on his jacket to look across the room, where there were several soldiers all of whom had worse injuries that him (like missing limbs) and he said to give his purple heart to them. After he says this, he jokes that he wishes that he kept it because it gets you “points.” MacDonald then briefly mentions being assigned to a truck company that hauled frozen meat to various cities. His next assignment came in Spring 1945, when he was told to transport Edward R. Murrow to a concentration camp because he was working on a news story. The camp was Buchenwald and it had been liberated about one day before MacDonald and Murrow arrived.
When they arrived at camp, they were immediately deloused and then given a tour of the camp. At one point, they were shown the gas chambers but weren’t allowed inside because it was believed that there still might be some gas inside. MacDonald also remembers seeing heaping piles of bones. The camp reeked of burning flesh, he said, and he remarks that he will never forget that smell. MacDonald remembers the remaining prisoners, and referred to them as walking skeletons. He says prisoners were begging them for food, but MacDonald and Murrow were strictly told not to give them anything because the prisoners’ bodies couldn’t handle it. For instance, one man was given a canteen of water and he died on the spot. After MacDonald had taken Murrow back to Paris, he says he washed his clothes and took a bath twice, to get rid of the smell.
MacDonald had never talked about his experiences because it was too hard. He says he never thought that man could be that cruel to man. A lesson he offers is that everyone needs a better understanding of different nations and people. Also, life if precious and it shouldn’t be wasted.
Date: June 15, 1995
Interviewer: Rabbi Charles H. Rosenzveig
Length: 1 hour 1minute
Format: Video recording