Keeper of the Family

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William Edward Donlon Jr

 

 

 

painting of young  Bill

by his wife Terry

 

Bill was born in Boston on July 16th, 1923 to an Irish father and a Belgian mother, Katherine Bogart Donlon.  His sister Jeanne was born 2 years later. Bill received his early schooling in parochial schools and, while a good student, received his normal share of raps on the knuckles with a ruler for misbehavior.

His Uncle warned him one year shortly before Christmas that if he did not behave Santa Claus would leave him a lump of coal in his stocking.  And, true to his word Santa Claus did indeed leave nothing but a lump of coal in his stocking. Virtue did prevail, however, when one day his impish twin boy cousins informed him that free samples of chocolate were to be had simply for the taking.  All one had to do was follow the man dispensing — at a safe distance. Young Bill declined and was spared, I am sure you have already guessed, the consequences of the newly introduced EX-LAX.

Bill's father was in the insurance business and they moved for a few years to St Louis, Missouri. The picture you see of fisherman Bill shows him proudly holding the groups combined catch of the day and the only caption one can think of is: "Guess what's for dinner Mom!".  But his parents missed Boston and their families and returned a few years later. Bill's mother was a wonderful homemaker. Everything should be perfect. Her Christmas trees were lovely and always, the glowing 3-candles of Boston tradition shown in each window.

So it was on to Boston University and settling in until Pearl Harbor changed his and our lives forever.  Bill immediately quit and enlisted on November 16, 1942 reporting to Active Duty February 1943 at Fort Devans, Mass.  North Africa was their destination, a harsh introduction of blowing sand and bleakness.  Bill celebrated his 18th birthday there. His only Thanksgiving meal was unforgettable in that the turkey had been too long enroute with dire consequences.

The war zone suddenly shifted for his unit and they were transported to what is in the records called the "Naples-foggia and rome-arno campaign in the Mediterranean Theater.  Cold, unrelenting rain fell for week after week. The men could only huddle in their sodden trenches - not even a change of clothing for a month.  Trench foot and other miseries were inevitable.

There is a blank in his recounting of their capture and imprisonment by the Germans. His family received the news' that their only son was Missing in Action for, I believe 15 months.  The first wonderful news that he was alive was delivered by a letter from a patriotic young English lady who monitored the short wave radio. She jotted down their names and sent on to the grateful families. Prisoner though he was, Bill diligently applied himself towards making things difficult for his captors. Soon the great mounds of potatoes (their principal source of food as supplies dwindled) began to rot and collapse. More intense scrutiny was directed towards Bill.

He had other, smaller unpleasantness. Awaking one night to a strange sensation, he realized that the movement he felt on his chest was that of a large and hungry rat! But he had far graver problems. The firing squad was imminent when the forces of the United States rolled in — blessed deliverance! Bill was shipped home and had to remain hospitalized for many months suffering malnutrition and numerous ailments incurred in prison. Thankfully he finally recovered and reentered Boston University majoring in Business Administration. He developed several outside interests.  One document in his study states: "This is to certify that William E. Donlon has earned the right to wear the CREW — 1945". Every time I see pictures of young men rowing on the tranquil Charles River I can imagine young Bill doing the same.

His greatest joy was taking up skiing and trips to Stowe, Vermont. Conjure up the Christmas scenes we all love — pristine little villages, crystalline snow — all true; By contrast, on other weekends Bill would catch the train to Harlem, where jazz was king; that was when he started collecting his many records of all the emerging greats of that era.

He joined the ROTC (the Reserve Officers Training Corps) later being elected president of the Scabbard and Blade Society. Bill was pleased to graduate Cum Laude although later he said he should have tried a little harder and earned a Magna Cum Laude. After his ordeal - Cum Laude was just Fine! Upon graduation Bill was offered a Regular Commission in the United States Air Force. His decision to accept was based partly on his permanent dislike of being cold — skiing excepted.

Las Vegas AF Base was his first assignment coming up from Randolph Field, Texas working for the Provost Marshall. Noting that his young 2nd lieutenant knew no one, he introduced Lillian/Terry, his newly hired legal secretary, to Bill and announced that City Hall was having a big Valentine’s Day event with no less than Frankie Lane and band. On December 31 the) happy couple were married and soon Bill was transferred for his first of 3 tours at the Pentagon. His assignment was with Latin American Affairs and he did background papers for President Eisenhower. Four years later his expertise led to the coveted assignment to JBUSMIC (one of those infernal jumbles of letters that stand for Joint Brazil United States Military Command - I think).

The appointed officers were given 6 months of concentrated Portuguese language at the State Department School of Languages. Strange indeed were the fractured pronunciations of this fascinating language. The wives were given a 6 week course and needed every minute.  It was the era of the Ugly American. All of our group strove to represent our Country in the best light. But one often wonders; for the dozen good people — it only takes one bad person to negate their image. Bill was assigned to dealing with Customs and his ability to speak Portuguese was invaluable.  The people learned quickly that Bill was a man of his word — "un pessoa de confianca" they called him — A Person of Confidence who could not be bought nor sold.

Part of his duties involved traveling to every country in South America. Anyone who has ever had to make the flight on the reliable Gooney Bird (a C47) will understand. Returning from Chile they had to fly between the Andes Mountains, not over them. The crew had to pray that the fog mists did not close in once the final turn had been made.  The most dangerous trip occurred over the Amazon jungle. The same Gooney Bird lost an engine and the trees beneath loomed bigger and bigger. Bill was the escort to the Brazilian general and his staff. There were many pale, sweating faces on that plane. Thankfully a tiny village appeared ahead with a landing strip and they made it in. It was Bill's fellow officer who told me that the only cool person aboard was Donlon who strolled down the aisle combing his hair and cracking jokes while others mopped their faces.

To Bill's delight he was able to afford and join the Sociedad Ipica Brasileira (the exclusive riding club and stables). It was only a short distance from the Botanical Gardens and our house nearby, where he would stop off from the city and ride his wonderful horse from Argentina, which was the tallest in Buenos Aires — 17 hands as they designate. Bill delighted in commencing training in Dressage with the intricate steps we all admire, as well as taking the low to medium hurdles.

Our most unforgettable trip was the flight into the interior of Brazil into what is called the Gran Pantanal, the vast area that is flooded part of the year. The fazenda (like a large hacienda in Spanish) skirts this flooded area and the Picari River swarmed with piranha and jacaree their word for alligators — thousands of them lining every inlet. Bill caught an 8 inch piranha, stabbed it and tossed it on the floor of the boat. As it lay there he placed a large spent cartridge between its serrated teeth. It neatly bit the metal together.

Three years of fascinating tropical life passed and a 2nd assignment to the Pentagon. One of those severe winters occurred to which they make mention this year with snow and icy streets that refused to melt.  Bill, with his Bostonian expertise was one of the few who negotiated the streets safely.

Next assignment — to the Canal Zone. This was true tropical living. No central air conditioning - just louvers. But ask Madeleine and Spence Creider who had honeymooned there when it was even worse. Son Rick and his friends had all sorts of events to keep them busy, though not always out of mischief. The military provided many golf courses at nominal cost and that is where we both started playing. What could be more pleasant than to meet your husband after work, get in 9 holes before the abrupt tropical sunsets, then enjoy an open air restaurant under the stars.

The third and final tour at the Pentagon was just with the two of us. Son Rick had joined the Air Force and was sent to Syracuse University to study the Russian language. Later he was sent to monitor the same in Turkey and one of the Aleutian Islands.

During this third tour Bill was promoted to Lt Colonel. But fate intervened. One of his officer friends who had also been assigned to Panama put in a highly complementary word to a vice — president of Corn Products, later to be titled CPC International, a conglomerate we recognize as Best Foods, Skippy, Argo etc, etc.

With regrets yet anticipation Bill resigned and we moved to New York City to headquarters on 5th Avenue and across to New Jersey when the company built its new and larger structure overlooking the Hudson River. We had just settled in our pretty colonial 2 story home in the beautiful hilly part of New Jersey with the garden showing off when the word came; they needed Bill to take over an important position in Buenos Aires, Argentina. Goodbye lovely home, farewell to our pet squirrels, chickadees and chipmunk who visited us every morning for his breakfast from Bill's hand.

We had to live for months at the Plaza Hotel in downtown Buenos Aires. Bill was soon visiting distant cities. He encountered real gauchos with their colorful attire and true horsemen of great skill.

The most memorable event was our invitation from a company officer who invited us to his Estancia in the country for the weekend. Bill was invited to ride any of his horses while I admired the lady of the house who donned her proper riding attire and proceeded to play a round of polo on their own field. Bill and I agreed it was like living the part in the movies of glamorous Argentina in its heyday — golden wheat fields against azure blue skies, herds of cattle, the white stallion guarding his harem, and a proper English tea.

Then, quite out of nowhere, Bill experienced strange symptoms that later proved to be hyperthyroidism. Good treatment in the United States corrected the problem. We had left Argentina just as more troubles were brewing. Bill loved our time on Marco Island, Florida. I did too except for the incessant mugginess of summer that air/conditioning could not quite overcome. What pleasure it was to have a Jack Nicholas and a Perry Como teeing off only feet from your back yard.

When I finally had to tell Bill that as much as I enjoyed our life on the Island, that I had always gone anywhere he went, at this time in my life my mother was growing old and needed me. Not once did he object though I knew he loved his life there. We packed, drove cross country through tornado warnings and ugly skies and wrong roads through the Anza Borrego desert (they had looked so direct on the map.)

But we had the good fortune to find Stoneridge and the wonderful people whom we have known all these years. His last illness was a grave one. He bore it bravely as he did every challenge in life. We were able to be together every day to the very last.

While searching for needed I.D. cards in his wallet a small wrinkled piece of paper lay in the very last opening. Unfolding it carefully — for it is so fragile, and with the help of a magnifying glass appeared these words: "Last full measure of devotion, Success to the Brave, With Dedication".  To the side carefully printed is a list of what I now realize are those of his fallen companions. He has honored them in silence all these years. Now I put his named on this hallowed list to join his fellow soldiers. May the Lord hold him in his tender care and may they all dwell in the house of the Lord forever.

by Terry Donlon

 

 

December 31, 1949

Bill and Terry Donlon