In 1942 Donald Emerson was a 19-year-old North Dakota boy who chose military service over farming. One year after graduating from high school in Karlstad, Minnesota, he enlisted in the U.S. Army Air Corps. Just as he was finishing up training as an armorer, the age and education requirements for aviation cadets were lowered; he immediately filed his application and was soon classified cadet/pilot. By the end of 1943 he was ready for combat flying as a fighter pilot in a P-51 Mustang.
In January, 1944, he sailed on the Ile de France to England where he was assigned to the Eighth Air Force's elite Fourth Fighter Group on March 9. (This premier fighting unit had been formed around the earlier "Eagle Squadrons" of American pilots who voluntarily fought with the British before the U.S. entered the war. When Donald joined the group it was under the skilled leadership of 26-year-old Col. Donald J.M. Blakeslee--one of the finiest air commanders in WWII. These men were about to make history as the highest scoring group in the war. Two of its top aces--John Godfrey and Don Gentile--were fast becoming stars in the media, with PR tours looming; another--Jim Goodson--the commanding officer of Donald's 336 squadron was being dubbed "King of the Strafers" by the press.)
During his eight months of active duty with the 4th FG, Donald completed at least 89 combat missions, including D-Day operations and the Russia Shuttle missions. He most often flew into battle in his P-51 Mustang VF-B #413317, emblazoned with the whimsical but fearless image of Donald Duck--dukes, up and fighting mad.
Donald said he was fighting so dreams could come true, and he said he had a few dreams of his own. (He looked forward to postwar life when he hoped to make a career of flying, and he dreamed of going back home, of marriage and family, and of owning a house with a fireplace.)
On Christmas Day, 1944, while flying another P-51 during the Battle of the Bulge, he was heading back to his base after a mission when he encountered six enemy planes. He managed to shoot down two of them, but as he crossed enemy lines flying close to the ground, he was struck by flak from anti-aircraft guns. His plane crashed in British-occupied territory in Belgium; it is believed that he died before his plane landed. He was buried the next day in a temporary military cemetery near Margraten, Holland, where his body is now permanently interred in the American Military Cemetery.
Donald was never a famous or highly decorated ace; his name is familiar only to family and friends; and if he is destined to become known or remembered by others, the reason will not be that he was special, but because he epitomized so many of the lesser known patriots who put their lives and their dreams on hold to fight for freedom.
Capt. Donald R. Emerson earned the Distinguished Flying Cross and the Air Medal, with additional clusters awarded to both, and posthumously, the Purple Heart. He was 21.