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John B. Donato, who served in Hiroshima and sang at Chicago clubs, dies at 88

John B. Donato

John B. Donato

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Updated: August 12, 2013 11:48AM



John B. Donato lived his large life with a helping hand.

The Chicago native was a member of “MacArthur’s Jungleers,” the nickname of the South Pacific troops who garnered praise from Gen. Douglas MacArthur. Later Mr. Donato was a popular Loop optician from the 1950s through the 1970s.

During the late 1980s he followed his other passion by moonlighting and singing standards at the since-razed Andy’s Steakhouse in Oak Brook and other area nightclubs.

Mr. Donato died Saturday of complications from a gall bladder condition at Northwest Community Hospital in Arlington Heights. The longtime resident of the northwest suburbs was 88 years old.

His favorite song was “My Foolish Heart.”

Mr. Donato was a fan of Billy Eckstine, in part because his fans said his warm baritone resembled Eckstine’s. But Mr. Donato referred to himself as a “closet singer,” deferring to his eldest brother, Louis, a singer and bass player for bands that played the Green Mill and Edgewater Beach Hotel, along with other Chicago area jazz clubs.

Because Louis had been stricken with polio, Mr. Donato was pressed into service as his “valet” and would drive his older brother to gigs as a young teenager.

“He grew up in Chicago’s jazz clubs,” said his niece, Chicago writer Marla Donato.

As a staff sergeant in the 41st Infantry Division during World War II, Mr. Donato was among the first troops to land at Hiroshima after U.S. crews dropped the atomic bomb.

According to William F. McCartney’s “The Jungleers: A History of the 41st Infantry Division” (Washington Infantry Journal Press, 1948), MacArthur credited “The Jungleers” with doing a “magnificent job” in capturing the Japanese base Salamaua after a grueling seven-month campaign which was of “great importance to the Allied cause in the Southwest Pacific.”

Mr. Donato kept his handwritten memoirs in spiral notebooks. Envelopes. The backs of phone bills.

He was a singer.

He knew someone would be listening.

Mr. Donato wrote about the promise of Sept. 2, 1945, when MacArthur signed the peace treaty with Japan aboard the USS Missouri in Tokyo Bay.

According to his niece, Mr. Donato wrote that his division was elated, believing they would be headed home, but instead they were shipped off — in a typhoon — to Japan as part of the occupation forces.

“He landed at Kure, just outside of Hiroshima,” she said. “While in Kure he narrowly missed being blown up during a munitions destruction detail. He contracted malaria and was hospitalized. At his insistence he was allowed to go home against the doctor’s wishes so he could arrive in time for his brother Joe’s wedding in January 1946.”

Mr. Donato was frequently called upon by troops in the field to entertain them with jazz and Italian classics. His most popular request was “Torna a Surriento” (“Come Back to Sorrento”), generally sung on ships transporting lonely troops across the Pacific.

He enlisted in the service shortly after graduating in 1943 from Steinmetz High School, where his yearbook noted he was “wacky about Glenn Miller.”

His other older brothers, Raymond and Joseph, were also enlisted and served in the European theater. Both fought in the Battle of the Bulge.

After the war Mr. Donato graduated from the Midwest School of Optics in Chicago in 1947. As recently as the 1980s he owned and operated Donato’s Modern Optical, 6037 N. Kedzie.

By 2005 Mr. Donato had retired to the Centennial Apartments in Mt. Prospect.

The show had to go on. He was in demand to sing at functions or riff at the whim of the other residents. He sang to family members and nurses even until the day before his death.

One of the final songs Mr. Donato delivered was the 1970 Kris Kristofferson ballad “For the Good Times.”

Survivors include sister-in-law Barbara Donato; stepdaughter Diane Oltz; her husband, Dennis, and their children Heather and Justin. Siblings and spouses who proceeded him in death include Grace (Harry) Jespersen, Louis, Joseph (Dominica, “Mamie”), Raymond (Pauline) and Anthony Donato.

Visitation is from 10 a.m. until 1 p.m. Saturday, followed by a service at the Lauterburg-Oehler Funeral Home, 2000 E. Northwest Hwy., Arlington Heights.



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