Chapter 16
A Community of Tennessee Writers, Readers & Passersby

Under the Guns

Sixty-six years after its composition, Christopher S. Donner’s WWII memoir has finally made it into print

In 1946, soon after returning from the Pacific, Marine lieutenant Christopher S. Donner wrote a memoir about his experiences as an artillery officer in the battle for New Georgia in the Solomon Islands, Guam, and finally, Okinawa. In Okinawa, during some of the most intense fighting of the Pacific war, he served as a Forward Observer, spotting where the shells hit and calling in adjustments to the battery behind. FO duty was notoriously dangerous, and Lt. Donner witnessed unimaginable death and carnage all around him, somehow surviving with only minor injuries. His memoir documents what he experienced in graphic—though mostly unemotional—detail.

Donner wrote his account as a way of preserving his own memories; he did not intend to publish it. While he was seldom critical of others in the story, he sometimes referred to characteristics of people he served with or described their deaths in ways that might disturb relatives. He also felt that profiting from the book’s publication would be inappropriate. More than fifty years later, however, Jack H. McCall, an attorney for TVA in Knoxville and a former Army officer, met the elderly Donner and got permission to publish his manuscript. McCall has added a sixteen-page introduction, extensive appendices, and many pages of photographs and maps. Now in print, Pacific Time on Target provides valuable insight on what wartime life was like as the American and allied forces pushed the Japanese off the Pacific islands. Jack McCall recently answered questions from Chapter 16 via email about Donner and his memoirs.

Chapter 16: Donner certainly experienced the kind of extreme danger, violence, and carnage that often results in post-traumatic stress disorder, but there’s no hint of it in the memoir he wrote the year after his return to civilian life. When you met him in his eighties, did he mention anything like PTSD? Was that something that old Marines just don’t talk about or admit to?

McCall : I do not recall Chris Donner ever remarking to me about PTSD or similar conditions, but I suppose that should come as no surprise. From my discussions with other American veterans of the Second World War, as well as my other readings and studies, there was such a general preexisting distrust of things that touched on matters of psychiatry and psychology—“head shrinks” being a common derogatory term for those professionals back in the day—that few veterans were willing to talk openly about those kinds of concerns. It was also certainly a big part of the prevailing Marine ethos not to “gripe” about one’s issues or fears. “Knock it off, buddy; you volunteered for this” was a standard retort often directed by one “Leatherneck” to another who was perceived as complaining about his lot in life.

In Chris Donner’s case, in particular, I have come to think that his writing-down of these memoirs in 1946 may have been not merely to capture his combat experiences for himself, his family, and maybe others. It also seems incidentally to have served as a form of “self-help” catharsis that allowed him, by revisiting and getting the horrors and tragedies out on paper, to help move past what he had personally seen and experienced. Whether that was a conscious goal or not on Donner’s part, neither I nor his surviving family members can say, but if so it seems to have been good therapy.

Chapter 16: Donner was clearly a brave Marine who never shirked his duty or any assignment and often displayed leadership under difficult circumstances. Yet he was not what you might call gung-ho. (About his training, for instance, he wrote: “I obtained very little from it beside the conviction that actual combat could never be much worse.”) When you met him at the Fightin’ Ninth’s reunion in 1999, did he say how he felt about the Marine Corps of his time?

McCall : One sensed that he always took the greatest pride in having served as a Marine. The fact that he stayed on voluntarily in the Marine Reserves for many years after war’s end is one sign of that, as well as the fact that he took an active role in the “Fightin’ Ninth’s” and the 1st Marine Division’s reunion activities. When I first met him in 1999, he was already an octogenarian, and he had made the trip by himself—although largely deaf, and beginning to feel more of the frailties of his age—to the 9th Defense and AAA Battalion’s reunion. He also served as editor of a short and largely humorous account of the Ninth’s early years that was written by one of its enlisted men. His son, whom Donner called “Toph” in his memoirs, agrees that the Marine Corps service was a formative part of his father’s life.

Chapter 16: You suggest that the Third Battalion’s commanding officer, Lt. Col. Roe, “formed an almost immediate dislike of Donner,” and imply that his animosity influenced Donner’s assignment to notoriously dangerous Forward Observer duty. What could have been behind that dislike?

McCall : A few months ago, I finally located a copy of Colonel Roe’s obituary from 1985. It appears that he was almost exactly the same age as Chris; further, he was a Naval Academy graduate. My hunch—and it is only a hunch—is this: as a member of the officer cadre of the 11th Marines, which had already seen severe combat at Cape Gloucester and Peleliu as the 1st Marine Division’s artillery unit, Colonel Roe undoubtedly was (to use the expression you used earlier) a “gung-ho” type and deadly earnest. The colonel may also have misjudged Chris’ own seriousness and sense of professionalism due to the latter’s academic outlook and low-key demeanor.

The fact that they were both of almost equal age, but of highly divergent ranks—after all, one was a lieutenant colonel, the other a mere “looie” —may have played a part as well. On meeting Donner, Roe may have decided that he would never be perceived as having showing a peer any special favoritism or treatment—and, certainly not a peer in age who was only a junior-ranking officer and who had not yet seen the same intensity of combat that Roe’s unit had already faced. It is equally as possible that, for reasons known only to him, when it came to Donner, Colonel Roe just did not like “the cut of his jib.”

In any event, several episodes recounted by Donner indicate that Colonel Roe did not deviate much from his initial reactions to Chris. At one point, in front of all the other officers of their battalion, Roe loudly threatened to court-martial Chris for purportedly challenging Roe’s authority when Chris was trying to break up tensions during a particularly out-of-control officers’ party shortly before the invasion of Okinawa.

Chapter 16: Donner’s stated purpose in writing the memoir was to have a record of what he had experienced, in case his memory let some things go. Yet he leaves a lot out: his reactions to the hideous destruction and inhumanity he witnesses, his possible spiritual life, or his wife and young son at home. As you note, his writing style “may come across as rather controlled.” What’s your view of why he left out so much material that might normally be included in a memoir?

McCall : From what he told me and from what his son has shared, I think we can take Donner at his word that this was something that he intended to be only a private document, and not something that he intended to be published. (He did, however, send one copy to the Marine Corps’ historical division, so that it could be available to researchers; several authors have published small quotations or excerpts of the copy of the memoirs on file with the Marine Corps on prior occasion.)

Since it was intended to be principally a “memory aid” of sorts—and as I noted earlier, maybe at a certain level, a tool for Chris to work out his memories and get a form of release from the horrors of war he had seen—Donner could capture enough of a mind’s eye view of what he had seen from what he recounted on paper. He did not need to remind himself of what he felt: all that was only too real and apparent to him.

As terrifying, anger-inducing and heart-wrenching as some of the experiences he faced had to have been, perhaps he also wanted to recount them dispassionately without wading too deeply into the stronger emotions. One also can suspect that his history background and officers’ training may have influenced his writing style, as well, in a goal to capture the facts, details and dates as precisely as possible without becoming overly emotive.

Chapter 16: Has any researcher ever had access to the correspondence between Donner and his wife?

McCall : Short answer: not as of yet. After moving from Philadelphia to Florida after Madge’s death and then through several subsequent moves, Donner undertook some “house-cleaning,” and I do not know that we will ever be certain that what remains is all of the correspondence that transpired between them. I am hopeful, though, that the Donner family will be able to locate and preserve some of the couple’s correspondence. If so, I have to hope that enough remains to answer some of the unanswered questions left behind in Chris’ memoirs, as well as fill in some more details and “blanks” in the account someday. One of the larger gaps in the memoirs pertains to the 9th Defense Battalion’s role in the liberation and rehabilitation of Guam; the memoirs note that much of that story was addressed by Chris in his letters home to Madge. Because the Guam campaign involved the liberation of the first American territory taken by the Japanese, there would hopefully be some fascinating materials in those letters.

One thing is clear, though: Chris Donner was a born writer as well as a born fighter. Likewise, he had an adventurous spirit to match his relentless curiosity and academic bent. Besides being an early proponent of civilian scuba diving, his family members still recall that during his days as a teacher in Philadelphia, he would think nothing of hopping a freighter and sail off to explore some new country during breaks in the school year. (There is also some suspicion in the family that some of Chris’ “scuba vacations” may have been to assist the military with classified operations involving underwater demolition training—one of the forebears to today’s Navy SEALs and Marine Corps Force Reconnaissance teams.) His son still refers to his dad as the “thinking man’s John Wayne.” Given Chris’ adventurous streak, I think I can see why.

Chapter 16: For more than fifty years, Donner refused to allow publication of his memoir. He eventually agreed that what he had written “may be good for people of this age to think about.” When he finally saw, at age ninety-nine, the results of your efforts, was he well enough to comment?

McCall : Sadly, no. During his last few years, Donner’s health worsened. Due to his hearing and vision, eventually he and I could not even communicate meaningfully via telephone or even by letter, and I had to relay my questions or updates to him via in-person visits by his son or housekeeper. By early 2012, it was just a matter of time. On May 10 of this year, however, he received his advance copy of the book at his home. His housekeeper told his son that while his vision and hearing were significantly deteriorated, “he was able to appreciate exactly what it was, and [he was] thankful for that.”

Ten days later, his son wrote me to say that his dad “was honorable discharged from life yesterday. He had a big life and a peaceful death, a pretty good way to do your time on this earth.”

It was sad, but somehow seemed entirely fitting that before he died, he was able to know and appreciate the fact that his story was now being told to a wider public than he had ever envisioned when he wrote his account sixty-six years ago.