Story by Laurie (McDonald) Maley

My father, Medic Cpl. Ambrose "Hank" McDonald, was born February 8, 1922  in Tremont, Pennsylvania -  the Anthracite "hard coal" regions of Central Pennsylvania.

Tremont is a small town of 1800 people and during the era of the Depression, my dad’s father, Bill, worked as a traveling auditor for one of the larger coal companies in the county, going from colliery to colliery taking inventory. Having a steady job, there was always food on the table and Dad and his younger brother always had the clothes they needed, unlike some of his best buddies whose fathers could be out of work at the time or not doing as well.

A story Dad told me about this time ripped at my heartstrings. He told me how some of his friends didn’t have jackets and here was this jacket - a LEATHER jacket his parents had bought for him, and he didn’t want to be any better than they were. So, when he came out of his house, he threw the jacket up on the porch of his house and went off with his buddies on their exploits, in the cold. Years later, I came across a photograph of my dad as a young handsome man wearing what else, but the "Leather Jacket".  There he was, beaming from ear to ear with that wonderful smile and a million freckles  - with his whole life ahead of him.

It told me what kind of a man he would become. And what kind of a boy he had been, and what he thought of his peers - how even as a child the "empathy" he felt. And how unusual for someone his age to feel that kind of "humanity" for others.  I thought of my grandmother, who would have given him what we called when I was growing up: "a good talking to", if she had spotted him without wearing that jacket after spending the money for it.  She would have had her " Irish up" -  as my dad’s whole family were Irish.  I think there must be a reason my father told me that story. I asked my brother concerning it, who said our father had not disclosed it to him.  And my father was never a braggart and only shared "snapshots" of his childhood with us. I just knew that I was so proud of what he had done and that he had decided to share it with me.

I guess this telling sounds like small town humor. My dad and his friends got together to build a club house and they decided it needed wallpaper. So they all went home and asked their parents to order a book of wallpaper samples, out of a catalog presumably. Then when these books came in, all the kids took the wallpaper out of the books and wallpapered the club house with the samples. Talk about ingenuity! Must have looked like a patchwork quilt when you walked in the door and made you dizzy!

Evidently, my father also had his mischievous side as well. He told us how one Sunday the local Lutheran Church was leaving out of their service and they were all heading to the "The Bea Shop" - a local teenage hangout/ice cream shop afterwards to cool off with some ice cream that summer.  My dad threw what was then called a "stink bomb" in the establishment and was "banned" from coming in again. ….. Well, Dad was so "beloved" for the likeable, amiable, warm, fun-loving young man that he was that he was missed by the patrons who came in  and two weeks later the owners called up my grandmother on the phone and sheepishly asked : "Can Hank come back?? …….  Needless to say, my father was once again an "attraction" soon at the "Bea Shop" and his days of tossing paraphernalia where it didn't belong for excitement was over after my grandmother heard about it.    

My dad graduated from Tremont High School quite early - at 16 years of age. With the years leading up to the Depression,  one year while he was still in Catholic grade school, before moving onto public high school, all the other children in his class had moved away - so they moved dad up to the next grade. He was the youngest member in his graduating class and looked it too. His father wanted him to become a doctor, and dad took a year of Pre-Med classes at the Schuylkill Campus of Penn State University.

16 years old is very young to go to college and after a year, my dad decided to not return. Instead, he worked as a Presser at a local manufacturing company.  Baseball was my dad’s love, as he played it in high school and also after high school in a local team called the "Tremont Blue Jays". In fact, baseball is where my dad got his nickname "Hank". My father hated the formal name "Ambrose", as he was named after his maternal grandfather, and his aunts and relatives might call him the shorter version, 'Brose', but he wanted a "regular name".  At the time, there was a baseball player for the Philadelphia Phillies, named "Hank McDonald". So, my dad with his love for the game was reborn - he was now known as "HANK" McDonald by his friends. 

On August 22, 1942,  Dad went to the South Ward School Building in Schuylkill Haven, PA for his physical after receiving a post card from the Selective Service; then was inducted into the Army on September 30, 1942, with entry into Active Service on October 14, 1942. Everyone gets made "something" - given a job -  when they enter the service. It seems, the Army took one look at the background of my father and saw his year of “Pre-Med” listed there and decided to make him, what else but the sensible thing in the eye of the U.S. Army …a medic? I’m sure my father never had one “medical” class in that one year of college, being his first year there. It always dumbfounded Dad that they decided “medic” made so much sense. Since my dad’s passing, I have thought, well, my grandfather got the closest thing to his wish, ……..he got his “doctor son”…. sort of

Dad came home from the war…… . He was released from the Army at Fort Indiantown Gap Military Reservation on November 16, 1945 - about a half-hour from Tremont . He "thumbed" his way home, as you could do so safely in those days -especially in your military uniform. He was good friends with Les Harner, the band leader of the Tremont High School (though Dad never played in the band ) and the whole Tremont High School Band was gotten out for my dad the day he came home from the war ….

My father met my mother, Meriam Alice Klinger, a school teacher from Reading, PA,not long after the war, as one of his friends from town had a girlfriend that had a visiting cousin my dad might be interested in……..

The two met and they married July 10, 1948. A day before the nuptials, my dad lost his job - a very unfortunate situation.

On the GI Bill, he attended Ford Business School, Pottsville, PA and took up Accounting. My parents lived with Dad’s parents in Tremont and then had my brother, Bill in January of 1950. The same year, dad’s father Bill died, and my father was offered the job of Head Accountant at the main office of Reading Anthracite Company, Pottsville, PA, that was held by his father.  I, Laurie, came along in 1953. While the American Legion still marched in the Memorial Day Parade in Tremont, our dad marched - and we have home movies of him passing our house when I was a small child. Dad would help on Monday nights with the church bingo for a number of years. He took up the hobby of golf in the 60s, which became a passion for my dad - getting out in the fresh air open countryside with his friends and he helped form the Tremont Clubsters.  Dad retired on April 30, 1985 and my mother passed away on July 19, 1985 -  making my father a widower just as my parents were to spend their "golden years" together.

When it came to talking about "the War", my father casually mentioned a few things: the Battle of the Bulge, the Hurtgen Forest, the hedgerows in France being tough to get through…. that as a medic he wasn't allowed to carry a gun, and that in England - evidently while training and before D-Day - he slept on a golf course,  and that he saw Bob Hope.  No more detail than that. We never knew why ??? 
My brother and I were always fascinated about the war, as the mention of those places made them sound "important". And in the 60s, there were all those WWII dramas on TV that made the WWII seem more palatable than it really was.  And Dad wasn't talking. We were still kids then and we didn’t press him for details. You always think there is more time then.

So Dad told us a few things, that were only of the light hearted variety: how there was someone he knew called  "Big Moose" and he was designated "Little Moose". Big Moose always looked out for Little Moose and no trouble better befall Little Moose because Big Moose was his protector and some way they were pals. We never knew who Big Moose really was or how my dad knew him. But now that I think of it, my dad, "Little Moose"? Good Lord.

Dad drove a jeep with being a medic and sometimes, an officer would jump in as well and Dad would give him a ride. Evidently, something in my dad would come over him to break the monotony while driving his vehicle. As this would occur while following behind the troops on foot, one would presume, my father would use the situation to “sneak” up in back of them  and bump them with the front of his jeep. I can hear my father’s usual laughter now as he was making "contact" with a fellow infantryman ….I hope they laughed too.

I remember hearing countless times my dad say as he drove us somewhere in the family car - "I drove all over Europe" whenever anyone wanted to be a backseat drive - less anyone think “they” had better expertise. Well, who can top that one?  I mean "Europe"?

One of the tales that was a family favorite was my father trying to win a bet with his fellow soldiers in the heat of summer that involved a tipped bloated dead cow. It was hot and shrapnel from the Germans had killed a cow that was lying in a field. While growing up, my father used to say to us nothing turned his stomach. This story only reinforces it. So my dad bet his friends that he could eat his K-rations SITTING on top of that odious, puffed-up cow . Well, no one thought he could do it. But DAD did it! To use one of my father's favorite words, the stench was "terrific".

My father always had these hard purplish-black "elements" in his left wrist. I remember being fascinated by them as a little girl.  Whenever we went through the Philadelphia airport screening to pick up my brother Bill, arriving from England where he lives, this shrapnel from the WWll would set off all the alarms and my father would let some unmentionable words fly ….. We always got a good laugh out of it. My father was not impressed at our levity at all. He was irked that the machine caught it every time. Dad may have been a medic, but no one had taken the shrapnel out of him. And no one ever put in for a Purple Heart for my father as well. I guess whenever that airport security went off, he felt attention was drawn to the shrapnel in his arm and he would have to explain everything all over again... He went to his grave with those souvenirs from Germany in him. 

One tale which Dad relayed must have been while he was still at Camp Atterbury. This story always got me in the heart - maybe because of the time of year it takes place. He told us how he and another buddy walked into the lobby of a hotel in Indianapolis, where I supposed they had nowhere to stay or not enough money to stay there. When no one was looking, the two of them crawled underneath the huge Christmas tree in the lobby and spent the night sleeping there. I was always touched by my dad’s story. Being away from home at the holidays and being in the service.   Funny, I’ve had this urge to sleep under our Christmas tree and I didn’t know why. Maybe I do know after all ……

We never heard any tales of my father and his days as a "medic"... Except one...
That was the day my father earned the Bronze Star in the Hurtgen Forest, Germany on December 18, 1944.
As my father had always told the story, the Germans were strafing overhead and two soldiers from his artillery battalion, the 322nd Field Artillery Bn, ran to get away from the enemy fire, only to run into a mine field that the engineers had taped off - in other words, so no one would go into it. For some reason, the two found their way into the mine field while running away regardless ….  One man stepped on a mine, which blew his boot with part of his leg attached up into the air and hit the man in back of him in the face - tearing it half off. My father and another medic made two trips into the mine field to aid and retrieve each of these soldiers. As my dad drove a jeep, I presume he was the one who then drove the two soldiers on litters to 308th Medical Battalion Station in Lendendorf, as records show. He ended the story by telling us how the other medic who had accompanied him in the field  had "stepped" in my dad's footsteps as my father made his way to those wounded  - the Hurtgen notorious for deep mud as well as snow...
One day, his company was told to line up and Dad was called forward. That was when they pinned the Bronze Star on him.. Then when it was all through, they dismissed everyone and the war was back on again. The whole thing sounded, surreal to me. I’m sure it was to him.
When my dad talked about the Hurtgen mine field incident for the last time, the month before he died, he said how he never knew what happened to those two soldiers he brought out of the mine field. Two years ago, I found the son of the one soldier, who connected me with the other soldier injured, who is actually STILL alive and working! I have talked to both of these men on the phone. It was an amazing experience indeed! If only my dad was alive to experience it. And actually BOTH soldiers my father helped save OUTLIVED my father. Quite amazing ...

Some of the few stories before the war and few ones during it might lead you to think that my dad came home the same "jokester"  he went in  …..  He didn't. What I've written was all my father ever spoke of the war. With the story of his winning the Bronze Star in the Hurtgen Forest the only actual "story" of anything of his "service".  My dad was more quiet at home, with casual infrequent moments of kidding coming from him. I think his fun loving image from before the War is what the people from town expected and Dad would deliver "a quip" when he was out of the house because he thought they expected it, because that was "Hank".

I had graduated from college in 1975 and that summer following graduation, a friend of my father’s from childhood had just passed away during an operation. As it would happen, I overheard my father muttering something in the kitchen to himself from where I was in the living room - something  I knew had more reference than just this friend’s passing …. It was this: "All my friends are dying". My father hadn’t seen me or known I had overheard him -  and I never forgot those words either. I wondered at first whom he was talking about - the "all my friends"?  And then it kicked in. You see, I just knew my dad was speaking about the War as well…..  Like it had never ended and his boyhood friend was joining the "list" of the dying from WWll …..  Like Dad's war had never "ended" for him. I let Dad have that private moment. As he had never come forward before, I couldn’t force him to now….
Dad received the THUNDERBOLT issues, kept up his dues, put the 83rd decals on the back of his car with pride, and even thought of going on one of their returning to Europe trips in the early 80's with the division. But he couldn't bring himself to go. One year, the 83rd Reunion was as close as Hershey, Pennsylvania - 45 minutes away, but, again, he just couldn't bring himself to go. He used to exchange Christmas cards with two of the medics - but that was the most contact he made. One passed away before he did and his last Christmas - a month before he died - he wrote out cards in his weakened condition and was determined  that the last cards he ever would send would get to those he cared about.

Dad never said it, but I can imagine that being a medic must have been an awesome responsibility. Taking care of and trying to save those injured . At times, passing the ones who are calling you because you know they are fatally wounded and can't be helped and there are others out there you surely can. I recently saw a photograph of a medic's helmet with a bullet hole in it - one from a "sniper’s bullet".  I had heard that sometimes the enemy would purposely aim at the medic's helmet - so easily identifiable by the Red Cross on it -  to shoot them. Actually seeing a photograph like that startled me, as this sniper happened to be a German one and that medic could have been my father. So being a medic did have its disadvantages: my father being a medic, wasn‘t allowed to carry a gun to even defend himself. I sit here and think:  I may not be writing this now had that been my father’s helmet whose aim was met by that German sniper.

In the mid '60s, my father was offered a job with a national corporation - Fruit of the Loom, and we would have had to move down to Tennessee. My mother wanted my dad to take the job, as she was from the city and would have welcomed city-life once again instead of living in such a small town. But then - my father declined the job.  It would have meant a larger salary increase and benefits - as there were none with his job. It wasn't till after my mother was gone and a recent conversation with others who knew my dad that things all started to make sense.

It wasn’t that "Tremont" was this wonderful little hideaway in America to live and no one would ever want to leave it.   My dad took his job in the Army so seriously and there was a lot of pain that he internalized when he came home - afraid to let it out, afraid to talk about it. With the job came a lot of gruesome things and a lot of death. Dad left a lot of men behind on the battlefield - some he knew, many he didn't. All he came upon became "his friends" when he tried to help them….that's the kind of guy my dad was. He always made friends so easily.  And trying to save someone's life - how much more intimate can one get that that? So my dad did not want to leave Tremont, again, where his friends he knew since boyhood had been - this time would be voluntarily and he couldn’t bring himself to go - As he was still dealing with those he pulled the dog tags from that he couldn't let go of and couldn't talk about….not even to his family…..and the ones from “home” he wanted to remain near, as if he is a shepherd watching over his "flock", so that hopefully nothing would happen to them ...

When my daughter, Courtney, was in 2nd grade, it was one of the anniversaries of D-Day and she had heard the story of how her grandfather had earned the Bronze Star. She took in to school all my father's medals, including his Bronze Star, and told her class how he had attained it. My dad came down to see us that afternoon and when Courtney came home, she was excited and proud of telling her class all about her grandfather. She told Dad that he was her hero. My father told us he "never thought {he} had done anything"….  So hard to fathom. It took a child for my father to understand that bringing those two men out of a mine field was indeed "heroic".  And yes, he did do something. And he was a "hero".

But then again, I once knew a boy, who wanted to be no better than his friends who had nothing to keep them warm in the cold -  of those who had no jackets, and left his jacket behind. I already thought that was heroic.


Ambrose "Hank" McDonald died January 19, 1997 of complications of Myleofibrosis - bone marrow cancer. We have a timeless bond as father and a daughter - I think of him and miss him everyday. Everyday.

Thanks to Laurie McDonald Maley for the story and the photos about her dad.