This week, the world lost a legend.
Bomber Command lost one of its last remaining veterans.
An extraordinarily tight-knit family lost its much-loved patriarch.
And I, and a lot of other people, lost a friend.
On Sunday morning, at the age of one hundred and one, Don McDonald took off on his final flight.
I last spoke with him on the phone on his birthday, a little over a week previously. His voice, in hindsight, might have been wavering just a bit more than usual, but his mind was still sharp and we chatted about lots of things. He was positive, upbeat and, as always, anxious to know how everyone else was handling the pandemic.
But that was Don: always caring about other people. “Life’s kind, Adam,” he’d invariably say when you asked him how he was going. “Life’s kind.” Then he’d change the subject back to you.
Over the last few years – before COVID restrictions put a stop to visits, and even one time in between two of Melbourne’s frequent lockdowns – Rachel and I occasionally organised to go and pick Don up from his unit at the ‘Fossil Farm’ or, later, from his aged care home, to drive him the short distance to the Box Hill RSL for lunch. On one of those outings, we asked him what he’d been up to lately and he admitted so many people wanted to catch up with him that ours was his third visit to the RSL that week. His calendar was always so full with social visits and lunches and excursions, so we knew what a privilege it was to be able to enjoy his company, just him and us, for such extended periods of time over those long lunches.
You don’t get to 101 without gathering at least a few stories, and you certainly don’t survive one-and-a-bit tours on Halifax bombers during WWII without amassing a reasonable collection, either. He told his stories well, often in a slightly self-deprecating fashion. In 2015 I managed to sit Don down with my laptop and a pair of microphones to record some of those stories for the IBCC’s Digital Archive. Those who knew Don will not be surprised that, at more than two hours, this was close to the longest interview I recorded with any veteran!
There are plenty of memorable pieces in the interview – descriptions of several engine failures in Wellingtons, seeing the D-Day invasion fleet from the air, and what he called “a magnificent bloody ground-loop” after crashing a Whitley while instructing between his tours, to mention but a few – but perhaps my favourite ‘behind the scenes’ moment came when Don was telling me about a ‘second dickey’ operation that he flew on, with an experienced crew before he took his own out for their first raid. They were attacked by a night fighter on the way home, and Don was impressed with the violence of the evasive action that the pilot carried out to get away. Don was in the middle of demonstrating this supremely violent corkscrew – complete with hands doing the actions on an imaginary control column – when he suddenly broke off, looked at me, and asked…
I’m not boring you, am I?”
I could only look at him, eyes wide, and shake my head. Absolutely no chance of boredom here, sir! It showed the measure of the man, again: here we were, sitting down for the express purpose of talking about his war story, and all he could do was think about my welfare.
I could fill a book with my memories of Don (and I suspect I’m not the only one who could). Like the first time I met him, with his wife Ailsa, in the shadows of the great Lancaster G for George in Canberra. The riotous evening that followed at their retirement unit at the ‘Fossil Farm’ a few weeks later. Telling me about the circumstances of how, during one of his wartime leave periods, he came to be in possession of a crystal glass from an exclusive London hotel – and then going to a cabinet in the living room and producing said glass for me to inspect. And holding court at a lunch at the Toorak RSL in late 2019, telling a story or two.
Don was, for so long, so fit that I was genuinely convinced that he would be the last Bomber Command man standing in Melbourne. But it was not to be.
I’m going to miss Don. I’ll miss his company. I’ll miss his quiet humour. I’ll miss his stories.
But most of all I’ll miss the man himself: a genuine old-school gentleman, the likes of which they just don’t make anymore.
Don McDonald DFC LdH died at a care home in Box Hill Victoria, on 17 October 2021 at the age of 101.
© 2021 Adam Purcell