The Bravest Man I’ve Ever Met
You can’t see courage any more than you can see character.
By David Grace (www.DavidGraceAuthor.com)
At an office Christmas party on a December evening many years ago, I found myself chatting with the wills and trust lawyer in our suite, John Donegan.
I had known John in a superficial way for a few years, but we had never been especially close. We had more of a “Hello, how are you today?” sort of acquaintanceship.
John was not physically imposing. He stood maybe five-feet nine, wore heavy, black glasses, and kept his hair thick enough with product that you could count the furrows from his comb.
Had he chosen a different profession, John could have found regular work at Central Casting portraying film versions of a back-office accountant, high-school principal or, of course, a probate lawyer.
If you’ve ever seen those old commercials where store owner, Mr. Whipple, begs his customers, “Please, don’t squeeze the Charmin” you’ll have a pretty good mental picture of what John looked like.
On that Winter evening, as the guests trickled in, John and I talked about this and that, but then we somehow got onto the subject of WW II. John mentioned that he had served in the Pacific which surprised me because he never struck me as a military sort of guy.
Intrigued, I started asking him questions about his service and, bit by bit, he told me his story:
In 1941, twenty-six-year-old John Donegan, graduate of the University of Arizona, was teaching high-school mathematics.
Shortly after December 7th he volunteered for service and was sent to the Army Air Corps Flight School. He graduated as a First Lieutenant and was given command of a Mitchell B-25 bomber.
“Twin engines, twin tail,” John told me, describing the plane.
He was sent to the Pacific and based on some island whose name I don’t remember within a few hundred miles of New Guinea where the Japanese had a huge base. John’s B-25 had a total complement of five, and their job was to attack Japanese-held islands and airfields.
To understand what they were up against, you need to know that a fifty caliber machine-gun cartridge is about 5 ½ inches long and the bullet itself is about half an inch thick. Machine gun bullets travel more than half a mile per second and each gun fires about ten rounds per second.
A Japanese Zero fighter carried two 30-caliber machine guns and two 80-caliber cannons.
The ground-based Japanese type 99 anti-aircraft guns fired shells containing about twenty pounds of high explosives wrapped in metal that fragmented when the charge detonated. They were effective up to about 34,000 feet.
Every week to ten days John and his crew would get a new assignment and take off with their group. On their way in they were sometimes attacked by Japanese Zeros. Once they were past the fighters and descended to make their bombing run, they would take fire from ground-based flak cannons and machine guns.
Now, think about that for a moment.
Here you are in this plane, maybe ten or fifteen thousand feet in the air, and before you reach your target one or more Zeros attack you, each of them with four machine guns firing bullets that can cut through the wings and fuselage of your ship as if they were tissue paper.
Guys on the ground are trying to kill you with what are essentially twenty-pound hand grenades. You’re seeing the shells explode in the sky around you and from time to time you hear pieces of raw steel crashing through your fuselage.
You know that if one of those pieces hits one of your bombs or your fuel tank, your plane is going to become nothing more than a cloud of steel confetti.
You have to descend as you close in on your target. The B-25 was known as a strafing bomber and often made attack runs only a hundred feet above the ground. In those situations small parachutes were attached to the bombs to delay their impact until the plane was far enough away so that it wouldn’t get blown up by its own ordinance.
Of course, that meant that it was subject to intense, ground-based machine gun fire.
So, here you are flying into this mess of bullets and shrapnel and by some miracle you don’t get killed. You don’t get shot down. You don’t have one of your engines fail, you don’t run out of gas or get lost or crash when the landing gear collapses or a tire blows out on the makeshift runway.
On every mission you see some of your friends get shot down or blown up or crash or are just never heard from again.
And then, a few days later, they tell you, “Lieutenant Donegan, here’s your new mission. Get back in your plane.”
And you do, but this time, you aren’t so lucky and your plane gets shot up and when you try to land back at your base, you crash.
And a few days later they give you a new plane, and they say, “Lieutenant Donegan, get your crew into your new plane and go out there and do it again.”
John Donegan voluntarily flew into those clouds of shrapnel and flak and machine gun fire 48 times. How many of us would have had the courage to do it just once? And if once, certainly not twice.
And during those forty-eight missions he was shot down or crashed three times.
Now, think about that for a moment.
Your plane is shot up. Bullets are still whizzing past your head. You limp back to your field and try to land, but your plane crashes. Somehow you manage to crawl out of the wreckage and survive, and a week later they give you a new plane and tell you, “Lieutenant Donegan, get into your new plane and go out there and do it again.”
And you do. And then you get shot down. And you survive. And they give you a new plane and and you do it again.
By the time John completed his 48th mission and was rotated home to go on a bond-selling tour, 80% of the men in his flight-school graduating class were dead, killed in action.
Eventually, John returned home, sold some bonds, then went to Wright Field in Dayton, Ohio where he became a test pilot for early versions of helicopters.
When the war ended he mustered out, married, moved to California where he attended law school, and then set up his wills and trusts practice.
After his discharge from the Army Air Corps, John Donegan never piloted an airplane again.
So, on that December evening as I was looking at this old, rather fussy-looking man with pomade in his hair, I realized that you can’t see courage any more than you can see character.
It doesn’t necessarily get stuffed into some movie-star physique. Sometimes it lives disguised, hidden, in an unremarkable guy who looks like Mr. Whipple.
Only the heart knows.
John and his wife are dead now. Their son, John Donegan Jr. also became a wills and trust lawyer and today is retired and living in Southern California.
Every time I hear someone who dialed 911 or drove an injured bicyclist to the emergency room called a hero, I shake my head, because, as admirable as their actions are, I know that they’re not heroes.
A real hero is someone who voluntarily puts their life in danger, day after day after day, without promise of reward and without knowing if their sacrifice will, in the end, even make a difference.
A real hero is the kind of person who gets up every morning, knowing what is waiting for him, and still climbs back into that plane.
I know what a real hero is because I knew one.
— David Grace (www.DavidGraceAuthor.com)