Charles H. MacDonald
C.O. 475th Fighter Group - 27 kill ace
By Stephen Sherman, June, 1999. Updated June 28, 2011.
The Jap plane ducked into a cloud and disappeared before Mac's eyes. Putt-Putt-Maru flashed in after it, popped out and in again. There!
MacDonald spotted the Japanese fighter off to his right and banked toward him. Everything turned gray again. The enemy pilot kept trying to edge away to the right. A couple more times in and out of clouds and MacDonald was in his blind spot, behind and slightly below him.
He closed to 500 feet, then opened up with the P-38's twenty mm. cannon and four fifties. The hits scored but the Jack (Allied code word for this late model fighter) did not explode; MacDonald zipped up over it. As he turned left, he looked back and saw the pilot bail out.
Another Jack got on MacDonald's tail, and Lt. Col Meryl Smith, Exec of the 475th, had to come to his rescue. He got behind the fighter and blew it away. The two American planes headed north toward some friendly ships. Below them the U.S. armada was spread out, emptying men and supplies onto the beach at Ormoc Bay. They patrolled uneventfully for a few more minutes, then headed back toward their base at Dulag.
Ormoc Bay Landings
The landing at Ormoc Bay was the climax of the American liberation of the Philippines. By September of 1944, MacArthur's forces had captured Morotai Island, 300 miles south of the Philippines and Nimitz' Marines had taken the Palau Islands, about 500 miles to the east. On October 20, four U.S. divisions waded ashore on the eastern beaches of Leyte --- strategically located in the central Philippines. Several days later the Japanese countered in the huge, complicated naval actions known as the Battle of Leyte Gulf (or the Second Battle of the Philippine Sea). While they were unsuccessful in dislodging or isolating the U.S. troops on Leyte, they brought in tens of thousands of reinforcements to bolster their defenses there. To cut off continued Japanese troop reinforcements, General MacArthur decided to land another division on northwestern Leyte, at Ormoc Bay. Fifth Air Force fighters of the 475th FG and the 49th FG, operating from hastily improvised fields at Dulag and Tacloban on eastern Leyte, were ordered to put up maximum strength to support the December 7 Ormoc assault.
Colonel Charles H. MacDonald, CO of the 475th, and his counterpart, Colonel Jerry Johnson of the 49th, briefed their fliers on the evening of the 6th. Both groups planned to send up three squadrons of 12 planes each, and endeavor to keep some planes over the amphibious forces at all times during the day. The weather was expected to be good. Enemy air opposition was expected to be strong. After the briefing, they all tried to get some sleep in their mosquito-netted cots in their small muddy tents.
Charles Henry MacDonald was born in DuBois, Pennsylvania, and graduated from Louisiana State University in 1938. While at school, he developed in interest in becoming a pilot, and passed the required exams for flight training. After graduation, MacDonald went to flight training at Randolph and Kelly Fields in Texas. After finishing training, he was assigned to the 20th Pursuit Group at Barksdale Field in Louisiana, flying P-36's.
His group was later assigned duty in Hawaii in February 1941. The P-36's were loaded onto the Enterprise and the 20th sailed to Hawaii. MacDonald had a unique experience for an Army pilot, he had to takeoff the carrier and land his plane in Hawaii. MacDonald was present for the attack on Pearl Harbor, and managed to get airborne, although only after the attack was over. After flying patrol for an hour and a half, MacDonald and his small group of planes headed back to Hawaii, but encountered a fierce hail of flak from nervous and shaken gunners. MacDonald had to run the gauntlet in order to land his aircraft. He remained in Hawaii until early 1943, and was sent back to the United States to help train a P-47 squadron in Massachusetts.
In June, 1943, MacDonald was stationed at New Guinea with the 348th Fighter Group. This assignment proved to be uneventful. He spent several months flying P-47's in escort patrols for transports in the Marilinan area. MacDonald was recruited by General George Kenney to join the 475th Fighter Group, which was the first all P-38 Lightning equipped Group in the Fifth Air Force. By May 14, 1943, the 475th, nicknamed "Satan's Angels" became operational at Amberly Field, Australia. Its three squadrons, 431st "Hades," 432nd "Clover," and 433rd "Possum," spent three months preparing for combat, then headed out Port Moresby, New Guinea. In August and September, the Group moved up to the advanced base at Dobodura on the north coast. Much closer to the action, combat missions nolonger required the round trip over the lofty Owen Stanleys.
On October 15, 1943, radar warnings informed controllers that a large force of enemy aircraft was moving towards Dobodura. MacDonald and fifty other P-38's rose to meet the Japanese aircraft. MacDonald raced ahead and pressed an attack on seven Val dive bombers. He quickly downed two Vals, and was concentrating on a third when he was hit hard by a Zero who slipped in behind him unnoticed. With loss of hydraulic pressure, MacDonald had to "belly in." Although he was not hurt, he had learned a valuable lesson. During the course of the battle, the 475th shot down 36 enemy aircraft without the loss of a single P-38!
While he was CO of the 432nd Squadron, MacDonald demonstrated his leadership on an October 25th mission to Rabaul. While leading a formation of P-38's flying escort for some B-24's on a Rabaul strike, heavy weather closed in, and all P-38's except MacDonald's flight turned back. Suddenly, the weather cleared and the formation of B-24's, with hardly an escort, was attacked by Zeros. MacDonald and his flight darted in and out of the bomber formation, clearing the Zekes from the bombers tails. They couldn't spend time finishing off damaged enemy aircraft nor confirming kills. Through their skill and diligence, they prevented many bombers from being shot down. But another pilot could confirm one kill by MacDonald, a Zero, his fourth aerial victory overall. For his actions, he was awarded the Distinguished Service Cross.
MacDonald moved up to Group Commander in Nov. 1943, replacing George Prentice who was rotated home. Leading the group for 20 months, Colonel "Mac" flew his P-38, Putt-Putt-Maru, with the unit number "100."
During early April, he led the 475th on missions over the Japanese stronghold of Hollandia, in northwest Guinea; by the end of the month, it had fallen.
In mid 1944, General Kenney arranged for Charles A. Lindbergh to visit and fly with the 475th. He was able to teach the P-38 pilots to increase their operational range by 50%. During his stay with the 475th, he and MacDonald became good friends, and earned MacDonald's respect as an excellent pilot. On one interesting mission on July 28, 1944, he flew on an apparent milk run with MacDonald. However, this "uneventful" mission became a sticky situation. A Japanese fighter broke through their formation and set his sights on Lindbergh's P-38. They were on a collision course, guns blazing from both airplanes, when at the last moment, Lindbergh pulled up. The wounded Japanese fighter could not follow and dove into the sea.
General Paul Wurtsmith put MacDonald on a one month "punitive leave" for allowing the national hero to get into a dangerous situation. 'Mac' returned to the 475th in time to lead the group during the momentous events surrounding the liberation of the Philippines.
Early on the morning of December 7, 1944, MacDonald's orderly entered his small tent, pushed aside the mosquito netting, and shook MacDonald out of his cot. After a miserable breakfast, the pilots headed for the line: the 432nd Squadron in Lightnings with yellow spinners, the 431st with red, and the 433rd with blue. They had been briefed the night before - protect those troops landing at Ormoc Bay.
First sortieThey took off and headed toward Ormoc Bay, 40 miles away. It was 6AM. They reached an altitude of 6,000 feet and circled uneventfully over the massed American ships.
Then MacDonald noticed that he was low on fuel; somehow the plane hadn't been fully gassed for the mission. He radioed Captain Perry "Pee Wee" Dahl, Second Flight Leader, and told him to take over, MacDonald had to return for gas. While MacDonald was getting refueled, he heard the roar of engines in the sky; the American planes returned while he was still there. There had been a sharp dogfight and Pee Wee was shot down; he had been seen bailing out. Other planes also could go back into action.
MacDonald and his exec, Lt. Col. Meryl Smith, joined another flight of P-38s and headed back to cover the landing area. At 11:18, they spotted the enemy planes, three Jacks - speedy new fighters. MacDonald and Smith went after them, full throttle, as the Japs split up. MacDonald pursued one that went into the clouds (as described above) and he eventually shot it down.During MacDonald's hide-and-seek in the clouds, Smith had downed another of the Jacks, and after the third one got on MacDonald's tail, Smith knocked it down as well. After a few more minutes of patrolling, they headed back to Dulag. It was only noon and MacDonald had already completed two combat sorties.
For the third mission of Dec. 7, only four planes could go up, including MacDonald and Smith. They headed for Ormoc, and kept to 4,000 feet so that they could intercept any kamikazes. After they flew over the U.S. ships and found no aerial opposition, they continued on, heading for some Japanese ships to the north. Suddenly "Bandits! Behind!" The Lightnings broke and pulled the tightest turns they could. The Zeros and Jacks flashed through the P-38 formation. MacDonald and his wingman turned into one of the Zeros. The cannon and the fifties shook Putt-Putt-Maru and tore into the lightweight Zero. Huge chunks of the target ripped off and sailed backward. It plunged stright down, streaming white smoke and vapor. The pilot didn't get out before the plane splashed into the ocean below. MacDonald had scored his second victory of the day.
He shortly noticed a Zero diving onto a Lightning's tail, possibly Smith's. MacDonald pursued, caught up to the Zero undetected, lined up a 40 degree deflection shot, and fired. Immediately the Zero began to smoke, MacDonald kept firing to within point-blank range, and the Zero came apart -- the tail and rear fuselage fell right away from the forward fuselage and wings. But Smith's plane was nowhere to be found.
As MacDonald scoured the skies for Smith, another Zero and two Lightnings appeared. MacDonald was closest, and took up the chase. But the Zero pilot was good, out-turning MacDonald consistently. Repeatedly, as he would close for a kill, the other guy would pull a tighter turn than the big Lightning could handle, and then he would slip away a little further toward his base at Negros. But the other two American pilots eventually took advantage of the wily enemy's turns. As the Zero pilot tried another (his last) climbing turn, Lt. Leo Blakely, in one of the P-38s, fastened onto him and shot him down. With the Zero accounted for, MacDonald headed back to cover the U.S. convoy. He helplessly witnessed a kamikaze crash into an American warship and then circled over the area where Smith was last seen. He and a couple other pilots searched as long as their fuel permitted, then returned to Dulag. Three missions and three victories.
In the late afternoon, MacDonald determined to head out on a fourth sortie, to continue to search for Smith. Three other Lightning pilots volunteered to go with him. They searched Ormoc Bay in vain, looking for a dinghy bobbing on the waves. When darkness threatened MacDonald reluctantly ordered a return.
The 7th of December, 1944 was a big success for the Americans. The 77th Division had landed safely. A Japanese convoy had been shot up, with a loss of 4,000 soldiers. Only one U.S. destroyer and one small transport had been sunk. The Fifth Air Force pilots downed sixty-four enemy planes. Despite this victory, MacDonald was depressed over the loss of Smith and "Pee Wee" Dahl. But Dahl lived to tell about it. He had been shot down over Ormoc Bay, badly burned, and 'played possum' while a Japanese destroyer shot at him in the water. After dark, he made it to shore where he encountered some Filipino guerrillas. Two weeks later, Pee Wee Dahl walked back into the American air base. MacDonald was elated to see him again.
MacDonald ultimately raised his score to twenty-seven in all.
He shot down thirteen of these in the seven weeks between Nov. 10, 1944
and Jan. 1, 1945.
One of his most memorable missions occurred on 25 December 1944 when he
destroyed three Japanese fighters over Clark Field in the Philippines.
He scored his last aerial victory on 13 March 1945, bringing his total
to 27. MacDonald was one of those rare people who were able to lead,
command, teach, and inspire at the same time.
- Charles MacDonald article from defunct P-38 Geocities website
- Edward Sims, American Aces Great Fighter Missions of WWII, Harper and Brothers, 1958 - USAAF aces, esp. for details of Dec. 7, 1944 mission
- 475th Fighter Group Museum Page - another defunct site!