TAPS: Captain (Ret) Richard R. McDonald Passes Away at Age 92

Richard McDonaldRichard Reese McDonald—"Dick" to his many friends and "Richard" to his beloved wife of 53 years, Millie—passed away on 11 March 2023 at age 92. He served over 30 years in the U.S. Navy as an intelligence officer. 

Dick was born in Clarksburg, West Virginia on 28 November 1930, and attended the Carlyle School in Clarksburg until his father—a lawyer and part time judge—passed away in 1939. Dick then moved with his mother, Nelle, a retired high school principal, to Lexington, Virginia, where his older brother Bob attended Washington and Lee University. A strong student, Dick skipped a year in grade school and again in high school, graduating when he was 16 from Lexington High School in 1947.

As a young boy, Dick recalled seeing Civil War veterans in town and was told by an elderly neighbor how Robert E. Lee, at that time President of Washington College, would give rides to local children on his horse, Traveler. In the summers as a young lad during World War II, while Virginia Military Institute cadets were at war, Dick made extra money exercising the horses at VMI, which at that time still had a cavalry. Dick attended the other local school, by then named Washington and Lee University. At W & L he became lifelong friends with fellow students Tom Wolf, author (‘51), John Warner, Senator and Secretary of the Navy (‘51), and Cy Twombly, painter, sculptor, and photographer (‘50).

In February 1950 Dick was elected to Phi Beta Kappa, the National Scholastic Fraternity. He graduated Magna Cum Laude from W&L in 1951 with a Bachelor of Science degree in Geology and Mathematics and was third in his graduating class. Following graduation, Dick received a fellowship to study at Harvard University where he studied geophysics and started smoking a pipe. 

Dick left Harvard without taking a degree when his then-dream job opened up with the U.S. Geological Survey. He was sent to Adak, Alaska from November 1952 to 1953 where he monitored earthquakes in the Aleutian Islands. In 1954 he lived in a trailer on the Navajo reservation in the four corners area of Utah, where he did survey work. In June of 1954, Dick went to Camaguey, Cuba, and remained in Cuba for several years. In 1957, perhaps reconsidering life as a geophysicist, he began what ultimately became a 30-year career in the U.S. Navy when he entered the Officer Candidate School (OCS) in Newport, Rhode Island. 

In 1957, after commissioning as a Navy ensign, Dick was assigned to the Office of Naval Intelligence as an intelligence officer. On completion of active duty in 1960, he was released to Drilling Reserve status, and for a time returned to the life of a geologist. Dick then took an adventurous trip to the west coast with his young nephew, Bob, stopping in Dallas and Denver for training by Texas Instruments on the use of sounding equipment used for geological survey work. If he’d only bought TI stock in 1960 this might be a story with a slightly different ending…. Dick eventually made his way to the Big Island of Hawaii, where he worked at the U.S Volcano Observatory at Kilauea under Dr. Gordon McDonald (no relation).

As a Reservist, Dick did his annual ACDUTRA as well as his drill requirements on the staff at CINCPACFLT (N2) at Makalapa on Oahu. During this time, some fellow junior officers on the staff double-teamed him and coerced him to come back to the fold of active duty. It might also be noted that he was surrounded by the likes of Captain Wyman Packard and then-Captain Mac Showers, who were both quite influential.

Dick returned to active duty in the Navy in 1961 but retained his lifelong love of Hawaii’s volcanos. While visiting Kilauea, Dick became seriously ill and recuperated at the Army infirmary at Kilauea Military Camp, where he met the love of his life, then-Army nurse Lieutenant Mildred Lewis Fullaway. After a whirlwind courtship, Dick and Millie married in June 1961 in a scenario similar to a peacetime version of the classic wedding scene in the movie South Pacific.

After Hawaii, Dick was assigned to the Naval Investigative Service office in Sasebo, Japan, followed by duty on the Seventh Fleet staff in Yokosuka. Upon completing his back-to-back tours in Japan, Dick attended the National Senior Intelligence course and then served at the Navy Field Operational Intelligence Office (NFOIO).  

Dick attended the Defense Language Institute in Monterey, California to study German before an assignment to CTF-157. He then reported to the staff of COMCRUDESGRU EIGHT, followed by a tour at ONI. He returned to Hawaii to serve on the staff of CINCPACFLT, after which Dick served as Commander of the Intelligence Center Pacific (IPAC, the predecessor of JICPAC). His twilight tour in the Navy was as executive officer of the Naval Intelligence Support Center.

Dick earned several military decorations during his career: Defense Superior Service Medal, Meritorious Service Medal plus Star, Navy Commendation Medal (with Combat Distinguishing Device "V"), Combat Action Ribbon, Navy Unit Citation, Presidential Unit Citation, Vietnamese Cross of Gallantry.

After retiring from the Navy in 1987, Dick worked at Johns Hopkins University Applied Physics Laboratory (APL), where he served as a liaison between APL and the military intelligence community. After full retirement, Dick and Millie began their dream retirement, splitting time equally between the mountains of Virginia and the beaches of Hawaii.  

Dick submitted a two-part article ("A Footnote to the Gulf of Tonkin Affair") for the NIP Quarterly in the Spring and Summer 1998 editions, which generated some excellent commentary. His treatment of the Tonkin Gulf Incident is indicative of his abilities as an operational intelligence officer and his keen, honest work ethic.

Notably, Dick also served as a three-term member of the NIP Board of Directors as well as NIP Director of Recruitment and Chapters.

A Celebration of Life will be held on Lanikai Beach, Honolulu, Hawaii, at a date to be determined.

Donations in Captain Richard R. McDonald’s name can be made to the Gary Sinise Foundation honoring America’s defenders, veterans, first responders, their families, and those in need.