Lowell “Greg” McDonnell: A tank commander … finally

U.S. Army   Korean War   Willowbrook, IL   Flight date: 05/09/18

By Wendy Ellis, Honor Flight Chicago Veteran Interview Volunteer

His cousin was killed in World War II; his brother was wounded in Italy and hospitalized for 9 months. Those were the thoughts that spurred Lowell “Greg” McDonnell to leave law school during his first year, and sign up for the Korean War in November of 1951.  It wasn’t your typical enlistment. He walked into the U.S. Army draft office, a little storefront on 79th street on the south side of Chicago, and announced, “I want to be drafted!” The clerk called the boss out of the back room and said, “ We got a hot one! He wants to be drafted!” and that was it. He was on the list.

Getting to Korea, however, wasn’t as easy as he thought it would be.  After Basic Training, and OCS at Fort Knox, the Army sent him to Fort Bragg in 1952.  His hopes of getting into the infantry had been dashed, and he was assigned instead to the armored division.  He was doubly disappointed when he was left off the list of soldiers going to Camp Drum, New York for winter maneuvers. Three times he went to his commanding officer asking to be put on the list, and three times, he was turned down flat. The last time he was threatened with court martial if he asked again.

“That was the third time he kicked me out of his office,” says McDonnell. “But the next day this orderly comes running after me and says the captain wants to see me right away! I’m thinking, oh no, I’m going to be court martialed.  Instead he invites me in and says “sit down.” “So now I think I’m probably gonna get hung!” Instead the captain tells him he is going to winter maneuvers after all. So why the change of heart? Out of the 12 second lieutenants under the captain’s command, McDonnell was the only one who volunteered for Korea. And that’s where they finally sent him in May of 1953.

Armistice talks were already underway, but it would be a few months before the fighting came to an end. For those few months, McDonnell found himself on the front lines at White Horse Mountain as a Tank Platoon Leader.  The previous October, White Horse had been the scene of a bloody, ten day battle for position, that had the mountain top changing hands 24 times before it was over. McDonnell had five M4-A3E8 tanks under his command, and one jeep, part of the 72nd Tank Battalion, C-company.  Each day they would head out into the valley below White Mountain and fire their tank guns up at the Chinese bunkers in the mountains hoping to disrupt their view of the supply lines below.

“One day we must have done something they didn’t like because they started to bomb the heck out of us,” says McDonnell.  Just as he’s telling his tanks to get out of there, the engine of his tank starts roaring in high gear, but it’s not moving. The accelerator spring had broken and would have to be fixed before they could go anywhere. That meant climbing outside of the tank, opening the engine compartment, and fixing the spring. Under heavy fire, McDonnell got out of the turret, opened the hatch for his driver, who climbed out and ran to the back engine compartment. To the chorus of “Hurry up! Hurry up!” from his fellow crew members and the two tanks waiting for them, he worked frantically for a long three minutes to fix the spring.  In the end he succeeded, and they all got back safely although a bit shaken.

For McDonnell, knowing you have a buddy next to you, to the left or right of you at all times on the front line is a powerful memory. He recalls exiting his bunker one day just as a round exploded in front of him and threw him back into the bunker. As soon as the shelling stopped his jeep driver raced over and into the bunker and started asking if he was ok, but McDonnell could only see the driver’s mouth moving. He couldn’t hear a thing.  For a week he walked around with no hearing. “I’d be walking around on the top of our fortification and the Chinese would start shelling, but the only reason I knew is when everybody started running for the bunkers. They thought I was really brave til I told them I couldn’t hear it!”

The Korean armistice was signed on July 27th and brought an end to the fighting. Knowing it was near, McDonnell finally told his crews to stay in their bunkers. “You don’t want to go out and be the last one killed in a war.” After a few months with no fighting, McDonnell opted to take an early out and head home.  He surprised his parents one Sunday afternoon in November of 1953, and after a few hours with them, headed to the home of his longtime girlfriend, and soon to be wife, Mercedes, known as “Nippy” to her friends. Sweethearts since 4th grade, McDonnell named his tank Nippy in her honor. McDonnell never returned to law school. He worked as an electrical contractor for 45 years, eventually founding Connomac Corporation, which makes electrical cording for tunnel lighting, and where he is still President today.

He and Mercedes raised nine children, two boys and seven girls. Sadly, Mercedes passed away ten years ago.  29 grandkids and 13 great-grandchildren that make for exciting family reunions. In keeping with the military tradition of his family, two of his grandchildren graduated from West Point. His grandson was assigned to Hawaii after graduation. His granddaughter served in Afghanistan before settling in Texas to raise her own family there.

Although his hearing eventually came back, it caught up with him 20 years later when it got so bad he had to get hearing aids. His doctor confirmed the trauma his ears suffered in Korea caused significant nerve damage that only hearing aids would help.

Generally, McDonnell’s  memories of Korea are good ones. He made good friends, served his country, and came home safely.  But one of the moments that often comes to mind happened his very first night in Korea, the night before they were to be deployed to White Horse Mountain.. All alone, he walked out to the hill and looked out at the front line off in the distance. He could see the flash of lights and hear the shells exploding.  It was the moment reality set in. “I thought to myself, what the heck are you doing here? I think I was afraid.” But the moment passed. He went back to camp and went to bed. And the next morning, his war began.

Greg McDonnell, tank commander, enjoy your much deserved Honor Flight trip to Washington D.C.