It would be something of an exaggeration to say that Col. Charles H. MacDonald has been slighted by history. He is, after all, the highest-scoring P-38 pilot to survive World War II. Among AAF aces, his 27 confirmed victories are exceeded only by Richard I. Bong, Thomas McGuire, and Francis “Gabby” Gabreski. Nevertheless, he has been somewhat overshadowed by Bong and McGuire in the Pacific and by several aces in Europe–a favorite stomping ground for World War II journalists. A quiet, thoughtful man, he was (and is) concerned less with personal glory than are some of his contemporaries.
“Mac” MacDonald completed pilot training in 1939, after graduating in three and a half years from Louisiana State University, where he studied philosophy. He was in Hawaii with the 20th Pursuit Group when the Japanese struck on Dec. 7, 1941. MacDonald led the remaining P-36s and P-40s of his squadron in patrol of Oahu until shortage of fuel forced them to return to Wheeler Field. They were greeted by a hail of flak thrown up by friendly forces, nearly ending MacDonald’s combat career before it was well started.
USAAF assignments kept MacDonald in Hawaii for two years before he returned to the mainland as commander of the 340th Fighter Squadron, 348th Group–a newly formed unit earmarked for the southwest Pacific. The 348th moved to New Guinea in June 1943, where MacDonald spent three months flying uneventful patrols. His chance for air-to-air combat finally came in October, when he was assigned as executive officer of the P-38-equipped 475th Fighter Group, then based at Dobodura.
Before he was thoroughly acquainted with the P-38, MacDonald had his first opportunity for combat when a large, well-escorted formation of enemy bombers attacked allied shipping in Oro Bay. Separated from his wingman, MacDonald was the first to attack the enemy armada. In a wild melee, he shot down two fighters and was lining up on a third when he was hit hard from the rear, damaging the hydraulics and knocking out one engine, his electrical systems, and most of his coolant. Everything held together for a wave-top return to land over 40 miles of uninviting water, ending in a belly landing.
Ten days later, MacDonald led a force of P-38s from four groups that were to cover a B-24 attack on Rabaul. The weather turned sour, and all the P-38s except MacDonald’s flight turned back, but for him the mission was the thing. He took his men high to cover the lead bomb squadron, and for the next 45 minutes the eight P-38s stayed with the bombers, chasing off many attacking enemy fighters. MacDonald shot down one Zeke. After the mission, he quietly filled out his report and said little about the mission, for which he was awarded the first of his two Distinguished Service Crosses.
In November 1943, Lt. Col. Charles MacDonald was named commander of the 475th when George Prentice returned to the States. By the following summer, MacDonald, who believed that a group commander’s job was to lead, not to administer, had become a double ace with his 10th victory. That summer, the 475th had a distinguished visitor, Charles A. Lindbergh, who was in the Pacific to study fighter tactics–and to show P-38 pilots how to extend the range of their fighters. Fifth Air Force Commander Lt. Gen. George Kenney gave Lindbergh permission to fly missions in safe areas. The Lone Eagle spent most of the next six weeks with MacDonald’s 475th Group at Hollandia, flying often with its commanding officer. MacDonald and Lindbergh, who were much alike in intellect and temperament, became close friends.
On one mission, a solitary reconnaissance plane showed up directly ahead of Lindbergh’s P-38 and was shot down by the famous pilot. Later, a flight of P-38s led by Colonel “Mac” was unexpectedly attacked by several enemy fighters, one of which latched onto Lindbergh’s tail and was shot down by MacDonald. That ended civilian Lindbergh’s combat career. He was asked by General Kenney to go home. For allowing him to fly in actual combat, Colonel MacDonald was ordered home on “punitive leave,” administered by headquarters with tongue in cheek.
Colonel MacDonald returned to command of the 475th Group in October 1944. Before he relinquished command in July 1945, he shot down 14 more enemy planes for a total of 27. According to pilots who flew with him, he was an outstanding pilot, an exceptional marksman, and a combat tactician who had few equals. This quiet, unassuming man who rarely betrayed anger was respected and loved by the officers and enlisted men who served under him. He was, in short, one of the great air combat leaders of World War II.
Charles MacDonald retired as a colonel in 1966.Thanks to Lt. Col. Joe Forster (nine confirmed), who flew with Colonel MacDonald, and to Col. Ward Boyce, Executive Director, American Fighter Aces Museum.
Published March 1993. For presentation on this web site, some Valor articles have been amended for accuracy.