US Navy Veteran Jim McDonald and the Veterans History Project
May 27, 2023
by Ryan Honl
The aircraft carrier USS Coral Sea launched in the 1940s at the time of the Second World War and saw it's last day of service in 1990. It was named after the Battle of the Coral Sea in the Western Pacific against the Empire of Japan. The sea battle took place in the waters between Australia and the island of Guadalcanal. The battle resulted in 656 US Navy and 966 Japanese sailors killed in action.
Jim McDonald, resident of Roseau, served on that aircraft carrier during the Vietnam War. It's motto was "Older and Bolder." It could carry between 65 and 130 aircraft in different periods of service. In the middle of the deck to the side of an aircraft carrier is the control deck tower. That's where Jim served as an air controller. He kept track of all the aircraft on the ship; when they took off, when they landed, where they were going, who the pilots were, how much fuel they had left, and numerous other data. He pretty much knew how to do most everything in the tower, but spent most of his time with headphones on writing data on a glass wall. He had to write everything backwards to the sailors on the other side of the glass so they could read it, a pretty unique skill.
"I got to work closely with a lot of the officers that were very nice people. We got quite close. It was really enjoyable," he said. "We listened to the pilots and the air bosses. Keeping all those records of everything kept us busy."
Jim served all over the Western Pacific such as Japan, Australia, Hong Kong, and Vietnam. The best place he harbored was in Sidney, Australia. The Australian people treated him and his shipmates pretty nice, being appreciative of the US Navy preventing an invasion of their country during the Second World War.
The USS Coral Sea was one of the first aircraft carriers to participate in the Vietnam War, serving there through all of 1965. On April 3, 1965, Vietnam People's Air Force MiG-17s attacked aircraft from the USS Coral Sea in the first United States aerial combat of the Vietnam conflict. Jim was there. Recounting his experience he said, "We were just off the coast of Vietnam. We sent a lot of aircraft in. All the squadrons were involved. Some would get shot with holes in them. Some never came back. It was kind of sad times when pilots did not come back from their mission."
Jim grew up in Roseau and graduated from high school in 1959. After having worked on several farms and for Northern Upholstery in town, he then went to Bemidji State College before enlisting in 1962.
"I went with two other guys from Roseau on the Buddy Plan, Gale Olson and Errol Johnson. We were close friends and went to boot camp together," he said. "They called it the Buddy Plan if you joined at the same time and went through boot camp together."
When John F. Kennedy became the president, he changed enlistments in the Navy from 4 to 3 years. Jim and his two buddies signed up for 3 years together.
When asked what life lessons he would share with the younger generations he said, "To respect people and to be a better listener and learn from other people," To those thinking of serving in the military, Jim wanted them to know that although things have changed since he was in, he would encourage them to serve. He also said the pay is just a wee bit better these days too!
Jim has been a member of the American Legion for almost 50 years. He's also a life member of the VFW. He's held nearly all leadership positions over that time from chaplain to sergeant at arms to commander.
He gave some advice for veterans in the community who have served and maybe haven't participated in the Legion or VFW. He said, "Veterans have given up part of their life to be in the service. They're doing it because I think most of them love their country and they want to do something for it. They'll sacrifice what they have to for that reason. Veterans are very welcome to join the Legion whether they're young or served a while ago. We appreciate people being members. If you want to be active you can. If you don't you can just be a member."
The American Legion meets the last Monday of the month at the Legion building and the VFW meets the second Monday of the month also at the Legion building.
You can watch Jim's full interview on Youtube at the new "Roseau Veterans" channel. That channel will have recordings of all parades and funerals in the community among other veterans events, such as Memorial Day, 4th of July, and Veterans Day.
His recorded video is also being submitted to the Library of Congress' Veterans History Project. Their website has thousands of interviews with veterans starting from World War I to the present day that will be there forever for the public and historians to view. Any veterans that want to participate can send an email to firstname.lastname@example.org
The current plan is to have one interview a month with precedence for those who served at earlier dates.