WELCH – “He lived an honorable life and died a heroic death.” Because of it, Phill McDonald’s portrait and citation now hold a special place in the McDowell County Courthouse and in the hearts of all those who knew him. Some 40 years later, dozens more, who have only recently become aware of McDonald’s story because of the efforts of Princeton Attorney Ed Rotenberry, paused Thursday on the courthouse lawn to recognize McDonald’s exemplary life and to offer a late-coming, heart-felt thank you.
“We are here today to pay tribute to the late Phill G. McDonald, a hero and a true patriot who stood and did not shrink from his duty. When called, he served and because of it paid the ultimate sacrifice,” County Commission PR Director Cathy Patton said Thursday in reflecting on McDowell County’s only Congressional Medal of Honor winner during the special ceremony. “This service today is too little, too late for such an unsung hero, but it is our feeble attempt to recognize a special McDowell Countian and to say thanks for a job well done.”
Patton joined recent Concord University graduate Rocky Seay, War; Rotenberry, VFW Post 1144, Iaeger, and American Legion Post 175, Bradshaw, in paying tribute to Pfc. McDonald, who died heroically on June 7, 1968 near Kontum City, Vietnam.
Two years after his death, President Richard Nixon posthumously awarded the Congressional Medal of Honor in Phill’s name to his twin sister, Phyllis, during a special White House ceremony.
Seay’s and Rotenberry’s eloquent words, Magistrate Martin West’s moving prayers, the 21-Gun Salute and the playing of Taps combined to create a poignant tribute to a young Christian man who continues to touch lives four decades after his untimely demise.
Rotenberry, a history buff, is familiar with Phil McDonald’s story from having researched and studied it. In paying tribute to McDonald, Rotenberry related that Phil was raised in Avondale and was one of Oscar Fred and VanDora McDonald’s 14 children.
When he was about 17, Rotenberry said that McDonald moved to Greensboro, NC, where his sister Alice resided. He went to work in a cedar plant and became active in the Central Assembly Church of God. McDonald taught Sunday School, sang in the choir, played the guitar and planned to become a minister.
A draft notice from Uncle Sam received one day before McDonald’s 26th birthday altered his plans and sent him on a fateful journey from which he would return in a flag-draped box.
Said Rotenberry, “Several of Phill’s Sunday School students were so moved that they wept upon hearing this news. They took it upon themselves to write President Nixon to ask that their beloved teacher be exempted. However, this was not to be. Phill bravely accepted this notice and proudly left to serve his country.”
He was inducted into the Army in Beckley and took basic training at Ft. Benning, Georgia.
In a letter to his sister Dean, dated January 5, 1968, Phill described his Army life. “The Army is a rough life, but you what that means, you have to get rough with it.”
The physical and emotional drain of Army life did little to dampen McDonald’s faith. He continued to pay tithes to his church while in the military, and he read the Bible at every opportunity. Recognizing his benevolence and spirituality, his Army buddies soon dubbed him “Preacher”.
McDonald would preach his first and final sermon on June 7, 1968 when his altruism prompted him to crawl through intense enemy fire to rescue two comrades and take them to the safety of an evacuation point.
The citation awarding him the Congressional Medal of Honor notes that after rescuing the comrades that Phill returned to the 1st Platoon of Company A and “again volunteered to provide covering fire for the maneuver of the platoon from its exposed position. Realizing the threat that he posed, enemy gunners concentrated their fire on Pfc. McDonald’s position, seriously wounding him.
“Despite his painful wounds, Pfc. McDonald recovered the weapon of a wounded machine gunner to provide accurate covering fire for the gunner’s evacuation. When other soldiers were pinned down by a heavy volume of fire from a hostile machine gun to his front, Pfc. McDonald crawled toward the enemy position to destroy it with grenades. He was mortally wounded in this intrepid action. Pfc. McDonald’s gallantry at the risk of his life, which resulted in saving of lives of his comrades, is in keeping with the highest traditions of the military service and reflects great credit upon himself, his unit and the United States Army.”
Such heroism, Rotenberry said, prompted a letter writing campaign by McDonald’s platoon, which led to Phill being awarded the Congressional Medal of Honor, the highest award that the Army can bestow for valor in action against an enemy force.
The medal, Rotenberry explained, dates to the Civil War, with the bill that created it being signed by President Abraham Lincoln. McDonald is one of an elite group of nine West Virginians who received the Medal of Honor during the Vietnam Conflict.
Said Rotenberry, “His undaunting courage, selflessness, love of his fellowman, love for his country and love of God empowered him to sacrifice his life with acts of bravery that warranted his country to bestow upon him its highest honor for extraordinary heroism, gallantry and intrepidity at the risk of his life above and beyond the call of duty, the Congressional Medal of Honor. Phill McDonald lived an honorable life and died a heroic death.
“I hope future generations of McDowell Countians will look upon Phill’s photograph and read his citation in this (Welch) Courthouse and be inspired by his bravery and selfless act.”
SALUTE TO THE FLAG AND A HERO – Jesse McPeak, Welch, one of West Virginia’s most highly decorated Vietnam veterans; Retired Colonel Ed Kornish, McDowell County Prosecutor’s Office; Princeton Attorney Ed Rotenberry and recent Concord University graduate Rocky Seay, War, salute the flag during a special tribute Thursday to McDowell County’s only Congressional Medal of Honor winner, the late Phill G. McDonald. (Photo by Cathy Patton)
TWENTY ONE GUN SALUTE – VFW Post 1144, Iaeger, and American Legion Post 175, Bradshaw, combined to offer a 21-gun salute at the courthouse Thursday, in recognition of McDowell County’s only Congressional Medal of Honor winner, the late Phill G. McDonald, Avondale.
Raymond’s Catering and the Visitors and the Veterans Center, Kimball, provided refreshements following the ceremony. (Photo by Cathy Patton)