‘Colonel’ Dominick O’Donnell (1867-1949)

Brendan J O’Donnell, USA

In 1990, my parents, John and Margaret O’Donnell, visited Charlestown in County Mayo where my father’s paternal grandparents, Patrick O’Donnell and Mary Bridget McCann, originated. There my parents were introduced to a cousin, Paddy Hunt, who conducted an impromptu tour of Charlestown and neighboring Carracastle where several of my father’s ancestors and relatives are buried. During the tour, Cousin Hunt pointed out several public works projects that had been engineered by the “Colonel” – Dominick O’Donnell, younger brother of Patrick O’Donnell and my father’s great-uncle. According to Cousin Hunt, Dominick had immigrated to the United States in the 1880s, joined the American Army, and returned to Charlestown after retiring from the Army where he used his Army training to engineer public works projects. Dominick eventually married a much younger woman, returned to the U. S. when she became pregnant with his first child, and died in the U. S. after fathering two sons.

In 1994, I began to research my family history, including the intriguing story of Uncle Dominick. The National Archives in Washington D. C. had microfilm copies of Dominick’s enlistment records and many periodic reports from units to which he had been assigned, several of which had notations of special assignments for Dominick.

I learned that Dominick had entered the U. S. in 1885 and joined the Army in 1887 in the first of seven enlistments that included five years in artillery and twenty years as an Army engineer where he received training in bridging, pontooning, signaling, underwater mining, land mining, sapping, constructing field fortifications, mapmaking, surveying, road-building, target practice, infantry drill, and frequent parades (see Table 1).

At the start of the Spanish-American War, Dominick was detached to Fort Sumter, South Carolina to install underwater mines as defensive measures and he did not deploy to Cuba. However, in August 1899, he and his engineer company transferred to the Philippines to help combat the Philippine Insurrection and he remained there for thirteen months until returning sick to the U. S. in September 1900. For four months in the Philippines (September 1899 – January 1900), Dominick was detached to the staff of Major General Arthur MacArthur, commander of the Department of Northern Luzon and Medal of Honor winner in the Civil War.

In December 1903, Dominick returned to the Philippines with a different engineer company and remained there until August 1905 while constructing Fort McKinley, near Manila on Luzon Island. In October 1906, Dominick joined yet another engineer company in Cuba where he remained until April 1909 conducting mapping, surveying, and road-building activities. From May 1909 until February 1912, Dominick and his company were stationed at Fort DeRussy, Hawaii conducting topographic surveys of Oahu Island.

Dominick was a highly competitive individual and when not on one of his many overseas assignments tried out for or participated in national Army competitions in marksmanship and horsemanship. Designated an expert rifleman in 1910, he had won a bronze medal in the 1903 Department of the East Infantry Target Practice Competition and had been a competitor for the 1906 National Rifle Match. Also in 1906, he tried out for the National Cavalry Match.

Six months before Dominick retired in October 1912, Captain Douglas MacArthur joined Dominik’s engineer battalion in Fort Leavenworth, Kansas thus giving Dominick a distinction as one of the few who served with both of America’s first father-son combination of Medal of Honor winners: Arthur and Douglas MacArthur. Douglas MacArthur’s fame lay in the future as a World War I general and a World War II Medal of Honor winner and five-star general.

My biggest surprise in my research of Dominick’s eventful life was learning that the “Colonel’s” highest rank was First Sergeant, then the highest enlisted rank in the American Army but well below the rank of Colonel. Knowing that Dominick had returned to Ireland after retirement (the National Archives have annual letters from Dominick to the War Department through 1916 confirming his residency in Ireland), I concluded that “Colonel” was an honorary title conferred by the citizens of Charlestown on a home boy who had made good and returned to his birthplace to provide valued public service.

In 1996, I tracked down Dominick’s oldest son, also named Dominick, who had retired to New Bern, North Carolina. Dominick Jr. had a distinguished career in his own right: an Army infantryman in the Battle of the Bulge in World War II, he had transferred to the Air Force Reserve after the war, was called up for four years during the Korean War, and then spent thirty years as a Government civilian in Washington D. C. with the Federal Aviation Administration, the Walter Reed Institute of Research, and the Library of Congress.

As Dominick Jr. and I compared family notes, I laughingly made my observation about the honorary “Colonel”. Dominick Jr. laughed right back and said his father wasn’t called Colonel because of his American Army rank, he was called Colonel because of his Irish Republican Army (IRA) rank. At the outbreak of the Irish War of Independence in 1919, Dominick joined the IRA and, as practically the only man in the IRA with formal military engineering training and decades of practical experience, he soon achieved high rank as Colonel of Engineers.

In 1926, Dominick Sr. married a woman thirty-five years his junior and returned to the U. S. later that year when she became pregnant with Dominick Jr. According to Dominick Jr., the reason for this return was two-fold: so that Dominick Sr.’s children would be U. S. citizens; and to escape the internecine warfare that was tearing up the IRA over whether to accept the partition of Northern Ireland. Dominick Sr. had one other son in the U. S., Donald Patrick, who also lived a distinguished life. Joining the Air Force in 1947, he served as an air crewman in the Korean War, and then from April 1953 to January 1969, he served as an air crewman on Air Force One for Presidents Eisenhower, Kennedy, and Johnson. Subsequently, he served a year in Vietnam and retired in April 1971 as a Master Sergeant.

I have not been able to confirm Dominick Sr.’s IRA service but given the logic behind his engineering service, the statements of his son, and his honored reputation in his hometown, I see no reason to doubt that Dominick Sr. was an IRA Colonel of Engineers.

One other fascinating story is attached to Dominick Sr.’s name. In the late 1940s, as his health failed, he was visited by some Army comrades who told his sons that Camp O’Donnell on Luzon Island in the Philippines, destination of the infamous ‘Bataan Death March’ in 1942, was named for Dominick.

In 1997, I attempted to verify this with the U. S. Army’s Chief of Military History who provided a form with pertinent historical data that lists Camp O’Donnell as a sub-post of Fort Stotsenberg but does not include the source of the name nor the date when the Camp was established. The earliest entry is for 8-31 December 1941.

At the same time, I contacted the National Archives and received a letter from the National Archives at College Park, Maryland on October 24, 1997 that stated:

“Despite examining several secondary sources as well as a variety of archival material in our custody, I have been unable to determine the source of the name of the camp. Prior to December 8, 1941, there had been a Camp O’Donnell which was a Philippine Army installation that housed, in part, the 71st Division of the Philippine Army. Also in that vicinity (ca., 10 miles north of Clark Field, Luzon) was an O’Donnell Field, under construction as an auxiliary airfield for US Army Air Corps units. A Major Emmitt O’Donnell (US Army Air Corps) led the first flight of B-17s from Hawaii to the Philippines (September 5-12, 1941) to reinforce the air strength of the islands. Unfortunately, I have been unable to determine if there is any connection between these several facts.”

I did find a book in the Library of Congress that offered some information: O’Donnell – Andersonville of the Pacific by Colonel John E. Olson, US Army (Retired). Colonel Olson served with the Philippine Scouts, was captured on Bataan, survived the Death March, and was confined at Camp O’Donnell. The title’s reference to Andersonville is to a Civil War prison camp for Union Army soldiers that was so notorious for its high death rate that the Confederate commandant was court-martialed and executed after the war.

Colonel Olson identified the probable source of the camp’s name as a barrio or neighborhood named O’Donnell that was only five kilometers away. He found several historical references to the barrio including:

A night raid during the Philippine Insurrection as described in “The History of the Twenty-Fifth Regiment, United States Infantry, 1869-1926″

Maps in Harper’s 1900 “History of the War in the Philippines”

The official history of Clark Air Force Base (AFB). Clark Field was originally part of Fort Stotsenberg but “Clark” eventually replaced “Stotsenberg” as the name for the entire military complex.

According to Colonel Olson, Fort Stotsenberg was established in 1902 or 1903 and was designated a permanent post in 1919 while the O’Donnell area of the fort was a bombing and artillery zone until construction began in September 1941 to house the 71st Philippine Infantry Division which arrived in late November 1941.

From the preceding, we can state as facts that a barrio named O’Donnell was near the site of the camp and in existence before 1900; that U. S. Army forces had been stationed in the vicinity of the camp for about forty years before World War II; and that Camp O’Donnell had been established before the Japanese invasion. However, we do not know the origin of the name of the barrio; when the name “O’Donnell” was first applied to that part of the fort; or if there were any considerations besides the name of the barrio in choosing the name “O’Donnell” for the camp.

Barrio Name. The history of Clark AFB speculates that the name of the barrio may have come from a member of the British engineering team that built a nearby railroad in the 19th century.

Alternatively, since Spain ruled the Philippines in the 19th century, the barrio of O’Donnell may have been named for a prominent Spanish figure such as Leopoldo O’Donnell who served as Spanish premier in the 1850s and 1860s.

First Military Use of the Name. Camp O’Donnell was not built until the fall of 1941 and there is no information on whether that part of Fort Stotsenberg was called “O’Donnell” at an earlier date.

Other Considerations. The Clark AFB history rejects the possibility that the camp was named for Major Emmitt [Emmett] O’Donnell who commanded B-17s in the area beginning in September 1941 but does not provide an explanation of that verdict. Major O’Donnell’s late arrival makes it unlikely he was the source of the camp’s name although O’Donnell Field (mentioned by the National Archives) may have been named, in part, for him. Major O’Donnell compiled a distinguished combat record in World War II and Korea and retired in 1963 as a four-star general.

As far as Dominick O’Donnell is concerned, the US Army was not in the habit of naming forts and camps after enlisted personnel but, given Dominick’s multiple tours of duty in the Philippines, enlisted seniority, and temporary service on the commanding general of North Luzon’s staff, an appreciative leadership may have taken advantage of the coincidence of his name and that of the barrio to choose the name O’Donnell for a sub-post of the larger Fort Stotsenberg. Much depends on when “O’Donnell” was first applied to that part of the fort. If the name had been in use for many years, then this story gains credence; if the name did not appear until shortly before the Japanese invasion, then the story is apocryphal.

In any event, it seems certain that Camp O’Donnell was named for a nearby barrio of that name. Whether there was a simultaneous intent to honor a respected Army engineer or an Air Corps squadron commander is lost to history.

Table 1. Record of Enlistments

Date Place Unit Rank Rating
20 OCT 1887 New York City1 2 Arty, Co. D
26 OCT 1892 Willets Point, NY2 Eng, Co. B Corp Exclt3
26 OCT 1897 Willets Point, NY Eng, Co. B Corp Exclt
26 OCT 1900 Presidio, CA Batl Eng, Co. B Sgt Exclt
8 SEP 1903 Washington DC Bks4 Eng, Co. L 1st Sgt Exclt
10 OCT 1906 Washington DC Bks Eng, Co. L 1st Sgt Exclt
10 Oct 1909 Fort DeRussy, HI Eng, Co. G 1st Sgt Exclt

(1)          Finished tour at Fort Warren, MA

(2)          Renamed Ft. Totten in 1897

(3)          Ratings were: fair, good, very good, excellent

(4)          Finished tour at Fort Leavenworth KS; Washington Barracks renamed Ft. McNair after WWII


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