MacDonald, Donald J., Rear Adm., USN (Ret.)
Admiral MacDonald had a varied career that included tours as an aide at the White House just prior to U.S. involvement in World War II and as a special naval observer at the American Embassy in London, where he witnessed the Battle of Britain and the bombing of London. He served as executive officer of the USS O'Bannon (DD-450) during the capture and defense of Guadalcanal, and later commanded the ship. During the rest of the war he held positions on the staffs of Commander in Chief U.S. Fleet, Commander U.S. Naval Forces France, and finally served on the staff of Commander Naval Forces Germany. After his return, he commanded the presidential yacht Williamsburg (AGC-369), which provided him a great deal of insight into the personality of President Harry Truman. Later tours included head of the foreign language department at the Naval Academy, command of a destroyer squadron, and duty as assistant director of the undersea warfare department of OpNav, from which position he retired in October 1959.
(Note: Due to edits, corrections, and/or amendments to the original transcription draft, there are some inconsistencies between the recording and the text.)
John T. Mason, Jr.: What was your understanding of the nature of Admiral Ghormley's mission at that point?
Rear Admiral MacDonald: At that point it seemed to me definitely that they wanted to have Admiral Ghormley over there because it looked like we were going to get involved in the war and then he would end up being the commander of the U.S. naval forces in that area. It seemed to be obvious that that was what was in mind, not only for President Roosevelt to have a top military man in London at the time, but also to have one ready if things should all of a sudden break fast.
We were not allowed at any time to disclose where we were going or anything else. This was quite a hardship in connection with dealing with my family. I couldn't tell them exactly where I was going or why.
John T. Mason, Jr.: Whether you were going east, west, north, or south!
Rear Admiral MacDonald: Yes. It wasn't clarified for some time afterwards. We've already talked of Count Austin, and he had children and a wife and he had to more or less really make arrangements.[*]
My getting ready was fairly simple. I had to sell an automobile and vacate my quarters.
John T. Mason, Jr.: Was the Britannic escorted?
Rear Admiral MacDonald: No, the Britannic was not escorted, because at that time they didn't escort anything that could travel as fast as the Britannic.
John T. Mason, Jr.: And her speed was what?
Rear Admiral MacDonald: I think she probably made 17 or 18 knots all the way. At that time they were only convoying ships that made less than probably 10 knots.
John T. Mason, Jr.: But she did zigzag?
Rear Admiral MacDonald: Not that I recall, but she was loaded down with military equipment, airplanes, ammunition, and everything else, and had some passengers on board. Of course, the trip over, as far as the passengers were concerned, was really delightful. We had awfully good food, we had all of the servants and stewards and everything that made for very good cruising.
When we finally landed in Liverpool, why, we had had a very uneventful passage.
John T. Mason, Jr.: Did Captain Kirk, who was then our naval attaché over there, have knowledge of the mission?**
Rear Admiral MacDonald: Not particularly. He didn't know too much about it and was very anxious to find out what his status was when Admiral Ghormley arrived. He had made arrangements for us to stay at the Dorchester Hotel in a suite of rooms with two bedrooms and a sitting room on the top floor of the Dorchester.
John T. Mason, Jr.: That was a dubious honor, was it not, the top floor of the Dorchester Hotel in a raid?
Rear Admiral MacDonald: That's where the story begins. We had no sooner arrived than the Battle of Britain started. In the very beginning, we could go up on the roof and watch the bombing down by the docks. The original bombing by the Germans was the dock area, where they set off warehouse fires, ship fires, and everything, and they were burning furiously for weeks. That's where it all started.
John T. Mason, Jr.: But they weren't concentrating on the city itself?
Rear Admiral MacDonald: No, they were not concentrating on the city. That came much later. They were trying to hit specific targets at that time. Later, they shifted their specific targets to the roadways and the railroad stations. But, due to the British defense, particularly their wonderful fighters, all this bombing was in the evening, at night, quite late at night, so that our stay at the Dorchester was quite an experience because practically every night there were air-raid sirens, so we had no sleep. We used to go up on the roof when the air-raid sirens sounded to see what was going on, where most of the people were supposed to go into the shelters down below. They had air-raid shelters in the basement of the hotel.
Of course, everything was all blacked out, so we couldn't turn on any lights.
John T. Mason, Jr.: Did you ever go down there?
Rear Admiral MacDonald: No, I never went down into that shelter. Most of the people never did go into the shelter. They went down to the ground floor, in the dining room and lounges and so forth, and stayed there.
The air raids didn't last too long in the very beginning. Just sort of solitary bombers coming over and unloading.
The thing that I admired after we were there for a while were the air-raid wardens who, the minute a siren sounded, would have to go out and patrol the streets and everything in the pitch- dark, make sure there were no lights. They were pretty courageous people, and a lot of them were women. I certainly admired them.
What we were doing after we got over there, there were a lot of meetings set up, which later were given the name the ABC papers meetings.***
John T. Mason, Jr.: What did that stand for?
Rear Admiral MacDonald: I'm sorry you didn't ask Count Austin that. He used to sit in on all of those meetings with the admiral, and I just would work on the communications aspect, working to prepare a mutual codebook that the British and American navies could use in the event hostilities involved us. The ABC was more or less what we would do in the event that we got into the war, what help would we give the British, and dividing up sectors of control and responsibility, command responsibilities, and so forth. This was more or less what ABC papers were all about, getting all set to do certain things on each side and who would be responsible.
John T. Mason, Jr.: And Ghormley had the authority to go ahead and do this?
Rear Admiral MacDonald: Well, he went ahead. He was a very brilliant tactician and strategist, well known in the Navy for those qualities. He worked with the British and then, of course, after drafts were prepared he sent them back to the United States in order to get comment from back here whether they were going in the right direction and whether this was satisfactory. He was just sort of the intermediary in all of these dealings but also in on the preparation of the original draft.
[*] Lieutenant Commander Bernard L. Austin, USN, whose oral history is in the Naval Institute collection.
** Captain Alan G. Kirk, USN, whose oral history is in the Columbia University collection.
*** ABC – American, British, Canadian Plans.
About this Volume
Based on seven interviews conducted by John T. Mason Jr. from May 1974 through December 1979, the volume contains 505 pages of interview transcript plus an index and appendices. The transcript is copyright 1986 by the U.S. Naval Institute; the interviewee placed no restrictions on its use.