In 1945, Henry McDonnell battled through Germany as a part of the 17th Airborne Division; 60 years later, he returned to Europe with his sons.
Henry and his three sons, Bernard, Henry Jr. and Mark, traveled to the Netherlands in 2005 so they could visit the Netherlands American Cemetery and Memorial. Among the 8,301 graves was a white headstone for Bernard McDonnell, Henry’s youngest brother.
“It was a cold rainy day,” Mark McDonnell recalled. “When dad approached the gravesite of his brother, the whole world pretty much stopped. I was so proud, but it involved some sad memories for my father.”
Bernard McDonnell, a private in the 291th Infantry, 75th Division was killed April 6, 1945. He was posthumously awarded the Purple Heart.
“He was about 18-and-a-half years old,” said Henry quietly, in a video recorded during their trip.
Henry had come to the memorial with a black and white photograph of the woman who had cared for his brother’s grave, a practice common in Europe.
Henry said he had lost contact with the family.
“I sure would’ve loved to see them,” he said in the video. “I would’ve wined them and dined them!”
Among the sea of white crosses, McDonnell also saw the names of a couple of friends. During its 45 days of combat, the 17th Airborne lost more than 560 men, and 129 were listed as “missing.”
Even though he lost friends and family, Henry served proudly, his daughter Eleanor Jackson wrote to the Project.
Henry McDonnell was born July 15, 1919, in La Mira mining camp in Artegea, Michoacan, to Bernard McDonnell Sr. and Dimas Mecino. The couple had four children: Edward, Henry, Eleanor and Bernard.
The elder McDonnell came to the United States in 1928. The family settled in San Antonio, Texas, in a home on Floyd Avenue near the center of the city. He was unable to find work and died of pneumonia soon after their arrival.
In 1929, the United States’ stock market crashed, banks failed and the country was plummeted into the Great Depression. President Herbert Hoover dismissed the crisis as a “passing incident,” but it soon became clear Americans needed more help than the president was willing to give.
The family benefitted from a relief program that assisted in feeding them. Their mother, Dimas, took in sewing jobs to help out.
McDonnell and his siblings were orphaned when their mother died in 1935. A neighbor, Guadalupe Tarin, took the children into her home and raised them as her own. She also helped keep an eye on a friend of the McDonnell family, Ada Bleibaum. Ada was the daughter of a friend who came with the McDonnells to America so Ada could attend a Catholic school in St. Louis, said Frances Marroquin, one of Henry’s daughters.
Guadalupe was a supervisor at Jenner Manufacturing Company, later named Judson-Atkinson Candies factory, and her parents often sent fresh vegetables grown on their farm to help feed the children. Guadalupe canned and preserved as much as she could and often sent Henry on missions at night to secretly leave extra vegetables on the porches of the poorer neighbors, who were too proud to ask for food.
“Henry was extremely grateful to Mrs. Tarin for her generosity and kindnesses,” his daughter Frances said.
In 1933, Franklin Delano Roosevelt was elected president, offering Americans a “New Deal.” Roosevelt created many programs to put Americans to work, including the Civilian Conservation Corps. The CCC provided outdoor employment for 2.5 million young men in nearly 3,000 camps across the country. Participants earned $30 a month, of which $25 was sent directly to their families.
After graduating from Brackenridge High School in 1938, McDonnell took part in the CCC. His documents listed him as “single with dependents,” as he would send Guadalupe money to help care for Eleanor and Bernard.
After his stint in the CCC, Henry joined the Texas National Guard, which would be federalized as the 36th Infantry – a reflection of the changing times.
On Dec. 7, 1941, the Japanese attack on Pearl Harbor would end America’s isolationist policy. The country declared war on Japan, and three days later, Germany and Italy declared war on the United States.
Only 10 days after he turned 23, McDonnell was a member of the U.S. Army. His discharge documents show he enlisted on July 25, 1942, at Fort Sam Houston in San Antonio.
Henry’s older brother, Edward, also served in WWII. He was a member of the National Guard, and later joined the 15th Army Air Force and attended gunnery school, said their sister, Eleanor McDonnell Hebert.
“He served as a ball turret gunner for the Salvo Sally,” she said in an e-mail to the Project.
Their brother Bernard was later drafted, a fact Henry learned about from reading his mail from home.
“Bernard was a foot soldier, not a paratrooper. Henry and Bernard never saw each other in Germany,” Hebert said.
McDonnell’s division arrived in England on August 30, 1944. During the next few months, they would prepare for their push across Europe.
On Christmas Eve of 1944, they would arrive at Camp Mourmelon in France, and in March of 1945, they began their march into Germany, taking part in the Rhineland, Ardennes and Central Europe campaigns. The men of the unit would earn 4 Distinguished Service Crosses, 8 Legion of Merit awards, 177 Silver Stars, 5 Soldiers medals, 695 Bronze Stars and 16 Air medals.
When his children became old enough, Henry started sharing some of his war stories with them.
“Dad told stories about his service that were quite harrowing, about having to shoot at the Germans on the ground who were shooting at them (the paratroopers) in the sky,” his daughter Eleanor recalled. “Also about carrying wounded soldiers10 miles through the snow who wound up dying after all.”
She also recalled her father telling a story about a concentration camp where he saw children’s shoes “…piled high and stacked neatly against the wall,” she wrote to the Project.
“Knowing that they were all put to death because of who they were,” she wrote, “but these innocent lives were just a horrible tragedy of war. He would never speak of this too often and would never elaborate any further.”
But not all of his stories were heartbreaking – Eleanor also recalled her father talking about an Italian man named Giuseppe, whom her father met while in Germany.
A barber by trade, Giuseppe would keep the men well-groomed, and would play songs on his accordion and sing in Italian for the men in the evenings.
When McDonnell and others came across a motorcycle stashed away, they decided to give it to Giuseppe, along with a map and money, so he would be able to make his way home.
“His World War II stories would bring him to laughter and tears,” Eleanor wrote. “These are those stories that I remember most.”
The loss of his brother, though, was not something Henry shared with his children.
“He never spoke once about his brother Bernard,” Eleanor said.
Henry was discharged June 7, 1946, at the rank of Technician 5th grade. He returned to the U.S. and became a citizen, and later married Consuelo Salazar in June 1948. The two had met while students at Brackenridge.
Consuelo worked as a stenographer in the Civil Service at Kelly Air Force Base. The couple had six children: Frances, Bernard, Henry Jr., Elizabeth, Mark and Eleanor.
Henry worked for Swift and Co., a meat-packing plant in San Antonio, until his retirement. His children all said their father wanted the best for them, adding that he paid for a private, Catholic education for all of them.
His son, Mark, recalled his father’s sense of humor.
“Once, on Halloween, dad played a huge practical joke on us younger kids and scared us to death with his antics,” Mark said. “I remember this because I was a victim!”
He also said anyone listening to his father spinning a story could tell he was a happy person. But most of all, he remembered his father’s sense of duty.
“But the most important thing was that he always did the right thing,” Mark said.
This tribute was written by Raquel C. Garza and compiled from information provided by the McDonnell family.