Medal of Honor: James Harper McDonald

Medal of Honor: James Harper McDonald

The Medal of Honor symbolizes the ideals of patriotism, courage, sacrifice, and integrity and is the highest award presented for military valor in action. Those recipients have shown bravery in combat, going above and beyond the call of duty, risking – and often sacrificing – their lives for the welfare of others.

First introduced for the Department of the Navy in 1861, the Medal of Honor would be created for the Department of the Army’s Medal of Honor in 1862. The Department of the Air Force, which originally used the same Medal as the Department of the Army, introduced their own Medal of Honor in 1965. Since its inception during the U.S. Civil War, more than 3500 recipients have been honored with the Medal of Honor.

This is the story of a Medal of Honor recipient.


When I arrived at Fishing Creek Cemetery I had not realized the number of interesting people who were buried in this small, sacred plot of land located in the wilds north of Roulette. Far from the hustle and bustle of the modern world, the cemetery is the final resting place of baseball player Don Hoak and has a ghost story connected to the grave of Amandon Baker. Note: Don’s story can be found here: Don Hoak and the story of Amandon Baker can found here: Amandon Baker.

As I finished paying my respects to Don Hoak my attention was drawn to the memorial next to his. It was a government issued stone with flag flapping lazily in the afternoon wind, The name on the stone was “James Harper McDonald,” with a listing of rank and the wars in which he served. However, it was the phrase near the bottom of the stone that captured my attention: “Medal of Honor.”

James McDonald was born July 15, 1900 in New Mand, Scotland. In October 1920, McDonald enlisted in the US Navy serving three years before being discharged. In February 1926 MacDonald reenlisted and focused on becoming a Chief Metalsmith and diver. His work as a diver was noted by his superiors and in 1928 and 1930 he was commended for his excellent diving work. In October 1934 MacDonald achieved the status of Master Diver.

In 1939, MacDonald was involved in the peace-time salvage of the submarine USS Squalus off the coast of New Hampshire. The USS Squalus was a diesel-electric submarine built at the Portsmouth Naval Yard. It was commissioned on March 1, 1939 and on a test run on May 23 1939, the failure of the main induction valve – the valve which allows fresh air into the submarine when on the surface – flooded the aft torpedo room, both engine rooms, and the crew’s quarters. The partially flooded submarine came to a rest keel down off the Isle of Shoals. The submarine was forty fathoms – two hundred and forty feet – beneath the surface. Due to quick thinking, thirty-two crew members and one civilian survived, but were stuck on the ocean floor. Unfortunately, twenty-six men lost their lives in the accident.

The USS Squalus was quickly discovered by its sister ship, the USS Sculpin and the following day, operations began rescue the survivors and recover the submarine. James McDonald would not only oversee the rescue of the trapped men, but he would also participate in the dives to safely bring the survivors to the surface. On September 13 the submarine was raised and towed to the Portsmouth Naval Yard for repairs. The USS Squalus was decommissioned on November 15, 1939 and on May 15, 1940 was recommissioned as the USS Sailfish.

After the USS Sailfish was decommissioned on October 27, 1945, Portsmouth, New Hampshire attempted to save the submarine to be placed as a memorial to the lost crew men. Their efforts failed and the submarine was sold as scrap. Before being sold, an agreement was reached and the conning tower was saved and in 1946 was dedicated as a memorial to the twenty-six lives lost. The memorial still stands Portsmouth Naval Yard.

As a result of his efforts to salvage the USS Squalus, James MacDonald was one of four men who received the Medal of Honor for peacetime submarine rescue and recovery. The other three men honored for their actions were: Chief Machinist’s Mate William Badders, Chief Torpedoman John Mihalowski, and Chief Boatswain’s Mate Orson L. Crandall.

Chief Metalsmith McDonald’s Medal of Honor citation reads: “For extraordinary heroism in the line of his profession as a Master Diver throughout the rescue and salvage operations following the sinking of the U.S.S. Squalus on 23 May 1939. His leadership, masterly skill, general efficiency and untiring devotion to duty in directing diving operations, and in making important and difficult dives under the most hazardous conditions, characterize conduct far above and beyond the ordinary call of duty.”

After salvaging the USS Squalus, MacDonald continued his career in the military and would become a commissioned officer in the Navy. He served during World War I, World War II, and Korea before retiring from the Navy in 1953. Before retiring, he purchased land in Potter County where he and his wife settled after he retired from the service. McDonald died at the age of seventy-three and was buried in Fishing Creek Cemetery, Roulette, Pennsylvania.

The wind paused for a moment and the land grew silent, as if nature was pausing for a moment of silence as I paid my respects to the Medal of Honor recipient and remembered the daring rescue mission he oversaw. The wind picked up as I finished paying my respects and I left him peacefully resting in the small plot of sacred land.

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