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Cold War Warrior - Willis McDonald

In many ways, our jobs as historians at the Texas State Cemetery center around the Civil War. That’s just natural, we have 2,200 Civil War veterans buried here and they are the largest group of people interred here. However, when the Cemetery is full (anywhere from 50 to 100 years) the majority of people interred here will have fought in other wars. Though we’re not a military cemetery, we have veterans of the Spanish-American War, World War I, World War II, Vietnam and Korea. Those are the largest armed conflicts our country has ever been in, however, one war is always left off that list even though it has shaped the modern world as we now recognize it; the Cold War. In many ways, the Cold War was more of a World War than any that came before it. There were true neutral states in World War I and World War II, but in the Cold War, everyone had to pick a side; the Soviets (the Warsaw Pact nations) or the United States (North American Treaty Organization). Many of the Warsaw Pact nations had no choice whether they wanted to be in it or not. There was very little in between space, even the countries that called themselves neutral had interests in one side or the other. You were either for capitalism or for communism and there was no common ground between them.

Giving tours to school children makes you feel old. You can’t avoid it. Most of the children we give tours to these days were either not born before September 11th or were very young when it happened. The Cold War is even more distant; to them it is something they only read about in their history books between World War II and the September 11th. I grew up in the Cold War; I remember what it was like to constantly worry about a nuclear war. Every time the Russians scratched an itch, the world would go on high alert and the occasional crisis brought the world to the brink of nuclear Armageddon. There are at least three instances when we were so close to open war it was a coin flip whether we or the Russians would open our silos; the Cuban Missile Crisis, the Suez Crisis and the Yom Kippur War.  Just because the war never erupted in the United States, Europe or Russia did not mean there were not soldiers ready to fight. I’m probably preaching to the choir here, so let me get to the person I’d like to write about, Willis McDonald, the spouse of Representative Nancy McDonald. McDonald was a highly respected Army officer and served all over the world, including during the Vietnam War. It’s his time in Germany I’d like to write about. McDonald was stationed in Germany in the late 1950s and the 1960s and commanded an atomic battery. That’s not a power source, that is an atomic cannon (see the below picture).

If the Russians were to invade, and they really wanted to invade Europe, they would go through Germany. U.S. intelligence thought so (see diagram, bottom) and in 2007 a historian uncovered actual Soviet plans to invade Europe through Germany and southern France. The plan was, first a massive nuclear strike, then a ground invasion with infantry and tanks. The Soviets had military installations all along their (the Warsaw Pact) borders with NATO countries preparing for World War III. McDonald would have been on the absolute front line, manning a cannon that shot nuclear warheads. He served more than one tour in Germany, going back in the 1960s.

While reading about the 288mm guns, I found a link to the Davy Crockett weapon system. The Davy Crockett was essentially a rifle that shot nuclear warheads. They were small warheads and a three-man crew had to carry it around, but still, a RIFLE that shot nuclear warheads. The Davy Crockett was what would have been used against the massive Soviet ground invasion; the blasts would produce lethal doses of radiation long enough for NATO ground forces to mobilize.

Both sides had men on constant alert for the last war, men like Willis McDonald, men who faced the prospect of nuclear war not just when they watched the news at night, but every second of every day; it was their job. Albert Einstein said “I don’t know what weapons World War III will be fought with, but World War IV will be fought with sticks and stones.”

How do you explain that to a Fourth grader?

Back to Willis McDonald, he was an amazing man and I’m just going to copy and paste here from his biography, it needs little explanation:

His Vietnam combat service began in January 1967. After six months commanding an artillery unit he transferred to the Special Forces (Green Berets, Fifth Group) where he served an additional 18 months in Vietnam - first with a Special Operations unit in the DMZ where he earned his final promotion to Lt. Colonel. McDonald finished his tour of duty in Vietnam in Na Trang, where he was commander of defense for the city, an area of 365 square miles. He retired from the U.S. Army in 1971.

So much of the Twentieth Century and the modern world were shaped by the Cold War and its proxy wars (the Russians in Afghanistan and the United States in Vietnam) that trying to teach that to fourth or seventh graders would be impossible. It would definitely take longer than an hour, which is how long the typical tour lasts. I’m sure they’re taught the Cold War in history class, but getting across that urgency, the fact that it happened beyond a textbook is probably asking the impossible. The stakes in the Cold War couldn’t have been higher, but there were no named battles between the United States and the Soviet Union, unless you count things like the Cuban Missile Crisis as a battle, so teaching the Cold War isn’t as easy as say World War II. However, looking at the lives of men like Willis McDonald may go a long way toward remedying that. 



- Will Erwin