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Family ends 40-year search for missing Vietnam War captain

Capt. George Macdonald 12 other crew members were declared missing after their AC-130 gunship was shot down.  |

Capt. George Macdonald and 12 other crew members were declared missing after their AC-130 gunship was shot down. | AP

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Updated: July 3, 2012 10:28AM

In December 1972, three weeks before the end of American fighting in the Vietnam War, anti-aircraft fire ripped through the fuselage of Capt. George Macdonald’s gunship during a nighttime mission over Laos.

As the hulking plane went down, fuel flooded the cargo hold. Two airmen bailed out before the gunship slammed into a mountainous jungle and exploded. Macdonald, a 24-year-old Evanston Township High School graduate, was declared missing in action, along with 12 other crew members.

For the next 12 years, Macdonald’s mother refused to believe her youngest child had died. She challenged government reports that said so, traveled to Mexico City to meet with shady characters claiming to have proof her boy was still alive, and — on her deathbed — she begged her children to keep searching.

On Tuesday, 40 years after the crash and the day after Memorial Day, the Macdonald family will bring that search to an end. They will gather at Arlington National Cemetery in Virginia for a memorial service with full military honors. A horse-drawn carriage will carry a folded American flag, but no casket — because there remains nothing to bury.

Jeanette Macdonald Frye, Macdonald’s sister and a Park Ridge resident, says it’s time — even though she knows it’s not what her mother, Jean Macdonald, would have wanted.

“It’s been 40 years, and I’ve already lost two brothers besides George,” said Frye, who arranged for the service. “We’re getting older. We had to honor him in some way. I’m looking at providing some closure.”

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George Duncan Macdonald grew up with eight siblings — including a twin brother — in one of Evanston’s oldest homes, a chaotic, happy place filled with kids sliding down banisters and racing up its many staircases.

“It was a big playhouse — it was wonderful,” said George Macdonald’s twin brother, Christopher Macdonald, 63.

Their father, James Macdonald, made his money in real estate. Jean Macdonald was a conservative activist who fought against political corruption. She loved her children but believed in letting them learn from their mistakes, Christopher Macdonald said.

In a household full of athletic boys, George Macdonald was probably the most gifted. He ran track at Ohio State University. He was a handsome, popular lad who joined the ROTC to help pay for college. He dreamed of becoming an Air Force pilot, but a broken tailbone — from a sports fall — ruled that out. George Macdonald didn’t dwell on it, his twin said. He decided to become an Air Force navigator instead. He entered the Air Force in June of 1971, and his tour of duty in Vietnam began a year later. In a letter he wrote to his mother in August 1972, he gushed about his work — tracking enemy troop and truck movements during low-flying, nighttime missions in the behemoth AC-130 gunship.

“The enemy on the ground can’t see us, but can hear the engines,” Macdonald wrote. “We usually hit what we are aiming at. The gunship mission was to destroy [enemy] supply routes. In one month, we destroyed 2,000 trucks.”

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On Christmas Eve 1972, the Macdonald clan gathered at the family home in Evanston. There was turkey and stuffing, plum pudding, a crackling blaze in one of the home’s eight fireplaces, a family sing-along.

And then, the doorbell rang. Two men dressed in Air Force uniforms delivered the news: Capt. George D. Macdonald’s airplane had been shot down over Laos. He was considered missing in action.

“You could have heard a pin drop,” Jeanette Frye recalled.

The whole family was in shock, including Jean Macdonald, Frye said. It couldn’t possibly be true, the family thought, because George Macdonald had been overseas for only five months.

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Shock soon turned to frustration, and then anger, when the Macdonalds sought more details about the circumstances of the plane crash. George Macdonald’s AC-130 had been hit by anti-aircraft fire as it attacked three enemy trucks, the government told them. The plane exploded while trying to limp back to base in Thailand. Two of the 16 crew survived. The remains of a third airman were recovered the next day. The others — including George Macdonald — were missing, presumed to have been killed.

Jean Macdonald refused to accept the government’s tidy, brief synopsis of her son’s final moments.

With an obsessive persistence, she pursued every lead, every tip. She quit her job as CEO of Rally Round Game Company. And she forged ahead, even though she had a weak heart.

She demanded documents through the Freedom of Information Act. As the years passed, thousands of pages — much of the material blacked out — arrived at her Evanston home.

What she learned raised her hopes that her son might still be alive. While the Air Force said all crewmen were at their stations when the plane exploded, the survivors told investigators that at least five crewmen were poised with them to parachute out an open ramp when the plane exploded. Intelligence reports revealed that five deployed parachutes were found the on the ground, together with a pile of “bloody bandages.”

In 1974, Jean Macdonald traveled to Mexico City, where she met with two mysterious Asian agents who tried to sell her a grainy photograph that they said showed three American POWs, including George Macdonald.

Jeanette Frye said the men probably were con artists.

“But when you’ve got a missing son, you’ll latch onto anything that will help,” Frye said.

Jean Macdonald became convinced that the U.S. government was hiding the truth — because it wanted to restore diplomatic relations with Vietnam, according to newspaper reports.

“The U.S. government is engaged in a cover-up of this episode, and perhaps other similar incidents,” Macdonald told reporters in 1982. “I believe the government has lied about the status of my son.”

Macdonald continued the fight, even as her health began to fail.

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In early 1985, about 12 years after the crash, the Laos government gave permission for U.S. officials to excavate the crash site. The team finished their work in late February. About the same time, Macdonald was on an operating table at St. Francis Hospital in Evanston, undergoing open-heart surgery. She never made it out of the hospital. But before she died, Macdonald begged her children to keep up the battle to learn the truth about their brother.

Later that year, the White House announced Macdonald’s body had been positively identified based on some teeth and tiny bone fragments. Two years later, the government reversed itself, with the Pentagon saying it could no longer be certain the bones and teeth were those belonging to Macdonald. To this day, Macdonald’s official status remains: killed in action.

There are more than 1,660 Americans still listed as missing from the Vietnam War, which ended in 1973.

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For the Macdonald family, Capt. George Macdonald remains missing, but not forgotten.

Bittersweet memories surface every time his twin celebrates a birthday, Frye said.

But since Jean Macdonald’s death, the family has stopped seeking answers.

“My mom was the fighter,” Frye said. “We didn’t pursue anything because of all the frustration my mother went through. We just couldn’t go on with it.”

Frye said she knows Tuesday will be difficult. She has seen a YouTube video of the ceremony her brother will receive — the gun salute, the caisson carrying the crisply folded American flag to a small, white marble headstone — and it made her weep.

“I don’t know if this is saying goodbye to George,” Frye said. “I don’t know what it means. This is making us feel the loss, but I don’t want us to be going out sobbing. I want it to be a celebration.”

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