John “Mac” MacDonald can still remember the morning of July 15, 1942, like it was yesterday.
A rifle with a fixed bayonet suddenly appearing in your room creates a memory that doesn’t just go away.
MacDonald was the 14-year-old son of a missionary living in the Philippines when the Japanese invaded during WWII. For months, his family moved from place to place just one step ahead of soldiers searching for them.
“I was slowly dressing at six-thirty when I heard someone say, ‘The Japs are here,’” MacDonald writes in his new book “A Normal Life: Mish Kid and Prisoner of War.”
“The outside door was shoved to the side and a short, black-eyed Japanese soldier, carrying a rifle with a fixed bayonet, climbed the step into the room.”
A few minutes later, MacDonald’s family and others were assembled in an open area where they learned they had been captured by a patrol of about a dozen Japanese soldiers and a half-dozen Philippine Constabulary men.
With their backs to the rising sun, they stared forward into the sights of a light machine gun positioned on a bi-pod and aimed directly toward them.
“I was convinced that we were going to be massacred right then and there,” McDonald said last week from his Missoula home. “I wasn’t sure if we were going to be used for bayonet practice or machine gunned, but I was certain this was it. … We had heard the reports of what the Japanese had done in China.”
But other than being shorted on rations, it turned out the family and other civilians captured by the Japanese were treated relatively well until their rescue two years later.
"Civilians were treated quite a lot better than military prisoners of war," he said.
For decades following that day, MacDonald had written down memories of his life as the child of a missionary during a tumultuous time.
“It was an interesting life,” MacDonald said. “But it was a normal life for me. Whatever was going on, I just thought it was normal. I found out later that it wasn’t.”
MacDonald’s missionary family was serving in Legazpi, 325 miles southeast of Manila, when the Japanese invaded the Philippines in December, 1941. In his book, he details the challenges his family faced as they took to the hills with the help of friendly Philippine residents to evade capture.
After being discovered in a well-hidden home, they were imprisoned first in Manila and then later in the infamous Los Banos Internment Camp roughly 30 miles south of Manila.
On the same day the flag was raised over Iwo Jima by U.S. Marines, members of the U.S. Army Scouts and Philippine guerillas made a daring rescue of the nearly 700 civilians housed at the prison miles behind enemy lines.
“That was a very exciting day,” MacDonald said. “It’s when the shooting started. The guerillas and Army Scout troops killed all the guards. Paratroopers landed about a quarter of a mile away.”
At other military prisoner of war camps, the Japanese killed all the prisoners before they could be rescued. MacDonald said there were concerns that may have been in the plans for their camp, as well, which resulted in the rescue mission.
MacDonald pieced his book together from his recollections and accounts from both his and his father’s diaries.
“My dad always kept a diary, but at times had to keep it hidden away,” he said. “He felt there might be danger to us if the Japanese found it. When I was in camp, I started my own … ”
He lost a good deal of it when an American censor accidentally spilled water on it after MacDonald came to the United States following the war.
“I grew up as a missionary and the Philippines was home for me,” MacDonald said. “I considered that I had immigrated when I came to the states in ’45.”
A few years after the war ended, MacDonald joined the Air Force, where he served as a pilot. He flew 130 combat missions over communist lines in Korea, followed by an intelligence assignment in Virginia where he met and married his wife. He then flew B-47 bombers for the Strategic Air Command for a decade before finishing his career flying C-130s in Japan and Vietnam.
MacDonald returned to Missoula, his mother’s hometown, and earned a bachelor’s degree from the University of Montana that led to a two-year stint of teaching at a Missoula high school.
In 1975, he moved his family to a place on Burnt Fork and opened a video rental store in Stevensville in 1992. After his wife died in a car accident in 1996, he sold the video shop, remarried in 1998 and moved to Missoula, where he now lives.
At 90, MacDonald remains active in a Christian prison ministry that takes him to prisons in Deer Lodge and Shelby and another in Washington state.
“I believe the 40 years of prison ministry is the most important thing that I’ve done in my life,” MacDonald said. “My dad was a missionary for 42 years. I’m shooting to break that record.”
Throughout the years, people have always encouraged him to write a book about his life. Dale Burk of Stoneydale Press in Stevensville finally pushed him over the edge.
“I’ve known Dale for a long time,” he said. “I had most of it written, I just needed to organize it. Dale encouraged me to get that done.
“People have heard bits and pieces of the story,” MacDonald said. “Now they can read the whole thing. I wrote it for my kids, but it seems like there are a lot of others interested in reading it too. I think I might end up getting writer’s cramp signing all these books.”
There will be a book signing on Friday, Feb. 8 from 4 to 7 p.m. at Valley Drug in Stevensville. Another signing is in the works for Hamilton’s Chapter One Book Store.