FORT BENNING, Ga. -- A World War II veteran and longtime Columbus resident who earned the Distinguished Service Cross for his actions in the Battle of Okinawa is the newest member of the Chemical Corps Hall of Fame.
Retired Command Sgt. Maj. Theodore R. MacDonnell, 90, received the tribute March 22 during a ceremony — fittingly enough — on World War II Company Street at the National Infantry Museum and Soldier Center. He was set to be inducted last June but couldn’t make the trip to Fort Leonard Wood, Mo., so officials from the U.S. Army Chemical, Biological, Radiological and Nuclear School there came to him instead.
“We always find the time to honor those who perform well above the call of duty,” said USACBRNS historian Dave Chuber. “Today, the Chemical Corps honors an individual who has given extraordinary service to his nation, the Army and the Corps.”
MacDonnell served 31 years in both the Chemical Corps and Infantry before retiring in 1973 as sergeant major of the All-Army Shooting Team at Fort Benning.
“He is a true American hero for two branches,” Chuber said. “He joins a select group of great patriots and heroes associated with the U.S. Army and the Chemical Corps.”
MacDonnell said the induction means more than any award he’s ever gotten in his life.
“I accept this on behalf of all my buddies who did not return,” he told the audience. “They deserve this award more than I do.”
The son of a World War I British army veteran, MacDonnell had dual citizenship in the United States and Great Britain until age 21. A gifted athlete, he gained a spot on the 1940 British Olympic decathlon team, but the start of World War II in 1939 prevented his participation. He returned to the United States in 1940 and joined the Army two years later.
MacDonnell graduated from the first Ranger training class in 1943 before being recruited into the 91st Chemical Mortar Company, which was attached to the 7th Infantry Division during the battles of Kwajalein, Leyte and Okinawa.
“Okinawa is the forgotten war. People don’t know much about it or the battle because of the atomic bomb dropped at the end,” he said. “People always focused on the occupation and end of the war, but that was a very major battle. If you were there during the kamikaze attacks, that was a horrible thing to go through. The Battle of Okinawa never really got the attention it deserved.”
According to historical accounts, the United States suffered more than 62,000 casualties, including about 12,000 killed or missing, making it the bloodiest battle U.S. forces experienced in the Pacific theater. Roughly 107,000 Japanese troops were killed and 7,400 captured, while Okinawan civilian deaths in the campaign are estimated to be between 42,000 and 150,000.
After the war, MacDonnell became an Infantry drill sergeant with the 10th Mountain Division. In 1968, he earned a Combat Infantryman Badge while serving as a first sergeant during the Tet Offensive in Vietnam.
“I’ve had a lifetime that is way beyond the usual — I lived during a time that if you wanted to do something, you could do it,” he said. “I’ve had a really full life. I’ve lived well, done well, been in some tough circumstances.”
The Philadelphia Phillies signed MacDonnell in 1940, but he never made it higher than Double-A ball in the decade’s post-war period. He also took a shot at pro football and dabbled in painting and writing.
His calling turned out to be that of a career Soldier, he said.
“I tried those other things, but didn’t make baseball or football,” he said. “I was in and out of the military on three different occasions. That’s why this means so much. I’ve had achievements and awards and had my shot at things but I don’t believe anything was as thrilling to me as being in the Hall of Fame.
“It means a lot, it really does. Just like any sport, if you’re in there, you’re a little bit better than everybody else. I felt like I’ve done something with my career, and not just been there.”
Except for a bad knee joint, MacDonnell remains spry and healthy. He uses a cane but does isometric exercises. He bowled the past seven decades, giving it up just this year, although he still goes out to the local alley as a coach.
“I’m the same as anybody else who gets to this age,” he said. “You push through whatever you got. If your leg hurts, you keep on going.
“You have to work on it. ... It’s killing me to look around and think I’ll be in a wheelchair. I just can’t do that, I just can’t.”
The Chemical Corps Hall of Fame was established in 1989 at Fort Leonard Wood. MacDonnell becomes its 65th inductee.