Bluefield Daily Telegraph, Bluefield, WV

Local News

May 24, 2013

Community gathers to honor private first class who gave life to save others

BRADSHAW — Brigadier General David T. Buckalew referred to Pfc. Phill McDonald as “a gentleman’s warrior,” but his nephew, Billy Ray Waldron of Avondale knew his Uncle Phill Gene McDonald as a man who harbored no ill will to anyone.

“From what I knew of him, he never even shot a BB gun in his life before he went into the Army,” Waldron said. Waldron is the son of Pfc. McDonald’s twin sister, Phyllis (McDonald) Waldron who died in 1993. “They were as close as a brother and sister could be,” Waldron said. “That last time before he went to Vietnam, he gave me a little guitar and a French harp that he played. He always stayed with us when he came back home.”

On June 7, 1968, Pfc. McDonald and his platoon came under heavy fire near Kontum City. McDonald volunteered to escort two wounded comrades to an evacuation point, and on his way to the point, used grenades to eliminate an enemy position that was threatening the evacuation.

When he returned to his unit, he provided covering fire so his platoon could reposition itself out of the line of fire. The enemy concentrated fire on McDonald’s position and wounded him. Despite his wounds, McDonald kept the fire up while another comrade could be evacuated.

McDonald was mortally wounded when he crawled toward the enemy position in an attempt to destroy it with grenades. Congress approved awarding the Medal of Honor to McDonald posthumously, and on April 7, 1970, President Richard M. Nixon presented her brother’s medal to his twin sister during a ceremony at the White House on April 7, 1970.

“The men he served with called him Preacher,” Buckalew said. “He was a man of outstanding character.” Buckalew said that he was a Sunday school teacher before he was drafted. He imagined that McDonald “turned to his God for strength, hope and optimism.” He said that, like McDonald, “every American serviceman has a story,” and added that, “every family who has received a flag on behalf of a grateful nation has a story.

“The story of Phill McDonald has a sad ending, but let us think of the stories of all the soldiers who lived because of what he did that day,” Buckalew said.

The entire student body of Riverview High School attended the ceremony on Thursday morning held to formally dedicate State Route 80 from U.S. Route 52 in Iaeger to Route 83 in Bradshaw, the P.F.C. Phill G. McDonald Highway. State Senator H. Truman Chafin, D-Mingo and State Delegate Clif Moore, D-McDowell pushed the joint resolution through the state legislature earlier this year.

Several local and state dignitaries attended the event. Iaeger Post 1144 of the Veterans of Foreign Wars, posted colors, fired a three-volley rifle salute and performed “Taps,” at the conclusion of the ceremony. Chafin served as master of ceremonies, Moore introduced the dignitaries, Judge Rudolph J. “Rick” Murensky II, read a letter sent by U.S. Rep. Nick Rahall, D-W.Va., Billy Wayne Bailey, director of Veteran’s Affairs for the state spoke briefly.

Ed Rotenberry, a Mercer County lawyer who has worked several years to draw attention to a need for recognition for McDonald in his native county, read from a speech he gave in 2009 at the McDowell County courthouse during a dedication of a photo and framed copy of the McDonald’s medal citation. Bill Conyers, quartermaster of VFW Post 1144 also shared his thoughts about McDonald.

RVHS Principal Michael Tye welcomed the audience. Johnna Addair gave an opening prayer and Cody DeLong provided a closing prayer. Billy Ray Waldron’s daughter and son, Phyllis Waldron and Billy Ryan Waldron led the “Pledge of Allegiance to the Flag.”

Phyllis Waldron, 18, a RVHS senior, said that as she grew older, she learned about her great uncle. “It in a nice recognition for him,” she said. Billy Ryan Waldron, 16, a sophomore at RVHS also said it was a nice ceremony. “It means a lot to me that I got to be a part of it,” he said.

Dean Burroughs of Bluefield, along with two of her sisters, Eunice Jones of White Sulphur Springs and Darlene Christian of Richlands, Va., and their brother, Gail McDonald of North Carolina attended the ceremony. Burroughs spoke on behalf of the family.

“I want to thank all of these people sitting behind me,” she said. “I’m just so proud of all of my family. We’re proud. We’re proud of the moment and this day.”

While the crowd was still gathered outside the high school, Gail McDonald walked back to his vehicle to put the replica of the sign he received at the ceremony.

“I was in Vietnam when Phill got killed,” Gail McDonald said. “They sent me to Okinawa after that.” He walked quietly and spoke briefly about that time in his life. “I do miss my brother,” he said.

— Contact Bill Archer at barcher@bdtonline.com

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