Billie K. MacDonald joined the Army in 1940 because there was no work in his rural Michigan farming community, and ended up making the military his life's work - in three branches of the service.
MacDonald joined the army two months after he graduated from high school, and became what he calls a "cog in the machine," a soldier who did what he was told, where he was told to do it. For several years, that consisted largely of training in the U.S., Iceland and England, until he landed on Omaha Beach, two days into the D-Day invasion.
An expert rifleman, MacDonald was on duty on the nights the men were shuttled to the beaches, "to shoot at anything that was flying over." But there was nothing to shoot at. Just as well, "I thought it was kind of silly, trying to shoot a bomb in the middle of the night."
When they landed, "it was chaos, there were ships all over that the Navy had scuttled to act as breakwaters."
Serving in the 61st Coast Artillery, Battery F, 2nd Battalion, MacDonald was a truck driver carrying ammunition to the front, and POWs to the rear. The German soldiers were crammed into the open truck bed, standing packed "like cordwood," with no guard. They needed none, according to MacDonald, because "the war was over for them. I think they were relieved."
Drivers were given instructions, and shown maps they had to memorize, but were never allowed to write anything down, because they were in enemy territory, and could be captured. His main campaign battles included Normandy, Ardennes, Rhineland, Northern France and Central Europe. He returned to the United States in July of 1945.
But there was still no work at home, so in August 1946 he joined the Navy. "I thought, well, I'll join the Navy, and I'll learn photography. I thought that would be a good thing to get into. But after 10 years in the Navy, I never even saw a camera."
In the personnel and accounting office, MacDonald worked at the Great Lakes Naval Training Center, in San Diego, Hawaii and Norfolk, until 1956. It was during this stint he met his wife, Mary Gilbert, who was also in the service, an intern reporter working on a newsreel made about his office. "Before my enlistment was up, I was married and had three kids." He left the Navy because "I'd seen all those people."
The day after he left, he enlisted in the Air Force, still in personnel and accounting. "I guess middle age came over me, there was a lot of talk about the Air Force," he said, and spent nine years in the U.S. and Wiesbaden, Germany. They had no money, but the family traveled Europe on a shoe string, until he retired in 1965 with 25 years of service.
"I enjoyed it. I liked it. I certainly didn't get rich. It was a job. You knew where you were going to sleep, where you were going to get your next meal. You met a lot of people and traveled a certain amount."