It’s remarkable how we can know someone for years and not know some mighty interesting things about them! I’ve known Don McKinney for years but never knew that he helped on the Alaskan Highway or that he served in the 101st Airborne Division during World War II.
Sure I misspelled his name in a column when he told me about John Green having landed on Omaha Beach on June 6, 1944. Don was gracious about the misspelling. After apologizing to him he told a humorous story about one time when he had gotten some names mixed up. Sure made me feel better about the mistake.
A few highlights of his service:
Drafted in Feb. 1943 Don did basic training at Fort Riley. In August he was sent to Camp Polk where he was assigned to the 104th Cavalry Reconnaissance Squadron. At that point he volunteered for parachute school although he was too tall (see photo how much taller he is than his two buddies). A shorter person is preferred because when jumping out of a plane during war they are carrying a lot of weight. Being tall can create a problem with the weight. With some luck however, Don was transferred to Fort Benning, Ga. where he passed the parachute training and ordered overseas.
In January 1944 he boarded the ship Acquatina HMS and was on his way to Glasgow, Scotland. After landing there, he left Scotland and headed to LeHarve, France in February 1944 and here he was assigned to the 101st Airborne Division.
Later that month he was transferred to Alsace Lorraine. Don said, “There was very little German activity. We were short of troopers. When we reported for duty we had eight new men, only seven in company of 502 PIC (Parachute Infantry Company). The normal company has 168 troopers. We captured 77 Germans going on patrols over the Moder River.”
Soon the 101st Division was transferred to Ruhr Pocket on the Rhine River. When they arrived in Mourmelon, France they lived in tents. They were preparing for a parade to receive a Presidential Unit Citation, the first Division in the U.S. Army to receive such an award. “We had General Eisenhower to present us the with the award,” remembers Don. “Then we returned to training for another mission. It was cancelled when the 17th Division got that mission which was over the Rhine River. We got to see a 1,000 Bomber B-17 flight on their way to Germany. Very - very - very impressive. It took from 8 a.m. to 10 a.m. for all of them to fly over us.
“We were moved by train and truck to Bavaria and Berchetesgadten where we captured a real live castle. But we didn’t capture any German SS Divisions in that area. They were retreating. It was a vacation and gambling city and we saw no changes from bombing. We stayed in a hotel there with all marble bath fixtures.
“It had been a three way race to Berchetesgadten - the 101st Division, the 3rd Division and a French Division. The 3rd Division won the race. We settled down to be an army of occupation.
“Our division captured numerous small towns and villages. The Germans were in full retreat but we had to be careful of a trap. The 101st was transferred to Austria where there was no action it was all occupation. I lived in an apartment with no beds so I slept on the floor.
“Next the 101st Division was transferred to Auxerre France. We were now at full strength and were in training to go to the Pacific area to fight Japan. In August when the war with Japan was over we stopped training and relocated. We got a furlough to England and went to London and Hyde Park (had great time!).
“Then I was transferred to the 82nd Airborne Division to 508 PIR - Frankfort Germany. This was the Honor Guard for General Eisenhower who was at home and had been replaced by General Clay.
“I tried out for the 508 Basketball Team and made it. We played and practiced in the 1926 Olympic Stadium in Frankfort and we made the Quarter Finals in the Europe Tournament.”
In June 1946, Don was ordered home for discharge in Chicago and joined the Air Force Reserve. After graduating from college he was called up again for 19 months in Korean War and served in the 434 troop carriers wing as staff sergeant in the military police. After being released in 1953 he moved to Greensburg to become manager of a business.
Decatur County resident Pat Smith may be contacted via this publication at email@example.com.