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Telling the Story of Billy McDonald

—by: Tom Badham


’ve known Billy McDonald III since we were in fourth grade at Birmingham University School. One of my sharpest memories was when we had to do some sort of historical report. Billy brought in a huge photo album filled with old photos that his father had taken during the years he was in China before and during WWII. The word envious does not come close to the feelings I had at the time.

From that time forward I’ve had an interest in military history, especially of the WWII era. This was helped along by my father who during his military years rubbed elbows with some of the most famous military names of that era at one time or another, although he rarely spoke of it.

I found out that Billy was going to give a presentation February 4, 2015, at the Emmet O’Neal Library on his father. I made sure to attend. Billy and I renewed our friendship and I emailed him the article I had written two years before about his father. I also suggested to Alice Williams and Tom Carruthers that Billy be invited to speak to the Jefferson County Historical Association. They were way ahead of me. Alice was taking Apple computer classes with Billy so she knew even more about his efforts to write a book about his father’s exploits.

When Billy gave his presentation at our January 2016 meeting to a full auditorium, he brought along his editor, Ms. Barbara Evenson. She and I were able to talk shop for a few minutes. I offered my services as a volunteer proof reader and general editor’s assistant which she graciously accepted.

In our meetings at Billy’s home, I found I had signed on to a huge project. Billy’s dad had kept thousands of documents with hundreds of photos from the time he entered the Army Air Corps in 1930 to 1944 when he married Peggy Spain. We had to distill Billy "Mac" McDonald’s story from those documents into one book when we had enough information to make at least three volumes. Mac, as one of the greatest pilots of his time, eye witnessed and participated in an enormous amount of important aviation, military and world historical events.

Very fortunately for us, Mac wrote regular letters to his family back in Birmingham telling of his adventures and travels. While he didn’t finish college, his school teacher mother made sure he knew his way around a typewriter and the English language on paper. Later in China he managed to buy a small Swiss portable typewriter, producing wonderful letters written front and back on thin airmail stationary. These letters became the skeleton we would build our book around.

While de-emphasizing the very real dangers Mac went through, the letters related a clear picture of what was going on around him. (In 1935 he telegraphed from Ashland, Kentucky, "Motor failed over this city jumped out, am OK no injuries, plane burned, remaining here two days. ")

From 1937 to 1940, he acted as General Claire Lee Chennault’s unofficial adjutant and second in command in China as well as being Chennault’s close confidant and friend. Chennault depended on Mac to handle the almost impossible task of trying to teach all the details and techniques of military flying to Chinese students who did not speak English and did not have any technical background.

L to R: William

L to R: William "Billy" McDonald, Claire L. Chennault, John "Luke" Williamson, 1935 Miami, Florida Air Races.

Mac, CNAC Cheif Pilot, China

Mac, CNAC Chief
Pilot, China

By 1940, the tiny Chinese Air Force had been swept from the skies by the overwhelming power of the Imperial Japanese Army Air Force. But Chennault and Mac did not give up. They had discussed and planned the formation of a volunteer group of American pilots flying American fighter planes fighting for China. Both decided that they would fight for the Chinese people. While Chennault worked with Generalissimo and Madame Chiang Kaishek to get the ear of President Franklin D. Roosevelt and his advisors, Mac had a different job.

Mac and a handful of volunteer American instructor pilots training the CAF transferred over to the China National Aviation Corporation (CNAC). This two-dozen plane airline was jointly owned by the Chinese National Government and Pan American Airways (PAA). The Japanese would eventually conquer all of China’s and Indochina’s seaports.

The only way vitally needed military supplies could get to China would be from India via an airlift over the Himalayas; something which had never been done before. Mac’s job was to try to keep that supply line open. They knew a world war was coming and did what they could to try to keep China in the fight. Even a small group of fighters could show the Chinese people that the Japanese weren’t invincible and give them the will to keep fighting.

The saga of Chennault and the Flying Tigers has been told many times. The story of flying the “Hump” has been told. But, Billy "Mac" McDonald’s story hasn’t been told until now.

Editor’s Note: Tom Badham is assisting in the editing of Billy’s McDonald’s new book on his father’s exploits in "flying the Hump" in China during World War II. The book, which was originally to have been called "the Ghost Tiger" has been changed to "the Shadow Tiger" as the word "ghost" has a bad connotation in China where the book will be published in Chinese by the Kunming Museum. The US version is expected to be available later this month.


Distilling Back in Town Legally


istilling is not a forgotten practice in the Alabama hills. Prohibition encouraged illegal bootlegging or the making of "white lighting" in out-of-the-way places. You can still see some of the evidence in ax punctured distilling pots and condensers, the work of "revenuers" who hunted them along creek banks and springs.

The product, which may have been over 100 proof (which is about 75 percent alcohol), was often sold in jugs or mason jars. Even the mob got in the action, but it sold mostly imported whiskey sneaked in on cargo ships. Some jugs were marked with the familiar "XXX" signage, image cartoonists like to put on moonshine illustrations. The "XXX" signifies how many times the moonshine batch had been run through the still. Three X’s indicated that it had been run through three times and that the shine was pure alcohol.

Alabama had thousands of stills during the Prohibition era, some in every county.

Legal "moonshine" is still made in the state and marketed as Conecuh Ridge Whiskey by the Conecuh Ridge Distillery in Bullock County. In 2004, it was designated the official "State Spirit" of Alabama by legislative resolution. The company uses a process practiced illegally in Alabama during the mid to late 20th century. To make their product taste better, the founders often added oven-dried apples to each batch to give it a more pleasant green apple or cinnamon taste.

A state ban, followed by a national act, ran Jack Daniels out of Birmingham in 1915, which had come here due to Tennessee’s prohibition law a year earlier. The distillery then moved to St. Louis, and later back home to Tennessee as the Progressive Era experiment ended.

Prohibition was a nationwide constitutional ban on the production, importation, transportation and sale of alcoholic beverages that remained in place from 1920 to 1933. It was mandated under the 18th Amendment to the United States Constitution. Enabling legislation, known as the Volstead Act, set down the rules for enforcing the ban and defined the types of alcoholic beverages that were prohibited. Prohibition ended with the ratification of the 21st Amendment, which repealed the 18th Amendment, on December 5, 1933.

Typical moonshine still of the 1920s (Olympic Distillers).

Typical moonshine still of the 1920s (Olympic Distillers).

Not since then has Alabama had a large scale distillery. It does now. The Redmont Distilling Company is making gin with organic Alabama cotton, 45 % alcohol by volume and gluten-free. It began making locally- produced vodka in March. Both should be available for the Sloss Fest at Sloss Furnaces, July 16‑17.

While Jack Daniels has no plans to return, it did open a new barrel manufacturing facility at the Mallard Fox West Industrial Complex in Trinity, just west of Decatur which will employ over 200 people making white oak barrels.

Sources: Birmingham News, June 3, 2016; Yellowhammer News, July 7, 2014; http://www.moonshineheritage.com/ blog/category/moonshine-history/; Wikipedia, “Prohibition in the United States”; Conecuh Ridge Whiskey.


Recent History Center Acquisitions

U. S. Government Thrift Card 1918

The History Center recently received a donation of items from Susan Prutzman which belonged to her father, Winning Anson Currie, Jr. One of the items was a thrift card from 1918. America’s involvement in World War I cost the country @ $32 billion. To help finance the war the government sold twenty-five cent Thrift Stamps at local banks or the post office. Once you had purchased twelve stamps totaling $4.00, one stamp each month, you could exchange it for a $5 War Savings Certificate Stamp. In five years on January 1, 1923, that Savings Stamp could be exchanged for $5, resulting in an interest rate of four percent. School children were also encouraged to buy stamps and were issued penny and nickel saving booklets to make it easier to save for Thrift Stamps.

History Center building


Bring any items of historical interest to our new office at 310 18th Street North, Suite 401. Our phone number and e-mail has stayed the same: 205-202- 4146    Email:

Web Site:

Theatre coupon book 1942 from the collection

This one dollar booklet contained twenty 5 cent 1942 theatre coupons good for admission to the Alabama, Ritz, Strand, Lyric or Ensley theatres. These “Tickets to Happiness” were issued by the City of Birmingham and endorsed by the City Manager Paul Kennedy. The coupons had to be used by their expiration date on March 31, 1943. (Donated by Susan Prutzman)


Spiro Agnew items

V. P. Spiro Agnew Visits Birmingham - 1972

The History Center does have a small but growing collection of political memorabilia. Dr. Dennis Pappas recently donated a bumper sticker, campaign button and ticket to a banquet that Vice-President Spiro Agnew attended in Birmingham in 1972. That year President Richard Nixon and his running mate were on their way to an overwhelming election victory.

It is interesting that the banquet ticket cost $12.50. Today, one might expect to pay $500 - $2,500, or more, for the chance to hear a Vice-President give a speech during an election year. How times have changed.


Then and Now: No. 8 Slope, Mine Portal, TCI
Red Mountain Park

Photograph of Red Mountain Iron Ore Mine No. 8 (TCI), 1938, when the slope received its new concrete entry portal. The second photo is Charles Whitson, 2010, who worked in the coop program of the Wenonah Mines when he was in engineering school. A tip of the hat to Eric McFerrin, chief ranger at Red Mountain Park, for sharing these photos.

Photograph of Red Mountain Iron Ore Mine No. 8 (TCI), 1938, when the slope received its new concrete entry portal. The second photo is Charles Whitson, 2010, who worked in the coop program of the Wenonah Mines when he was in engineering school. A tip of the hat to Eric McFerrin, chief ranger at Red Mountain Park, for sharing these photos.

Several grist mills such as this one sprang up in the Pinson area shortly after the first settlers arrived. This mill was known by several names, including the Faust Mill, and was the first to cease operations in the mid-1900s (Pinson Historical Society).

Several grist mills such as this one sprang up in the Pinson area shortly after the first settlers arrived. This mill was known by
several names, including the Faust Mill, and was the first to cease operations in the mid-1900s (Pinson Historical Society).

Jefferson County Place Names:
A Brief Look at Pinson’s Historical Heritage

—by: Stanley Moss


inson, formerly known as Hagood’s Crossroads, showcased its rich heritage in its year-long celebration of being 200 years earlier this year.

Pinson’s first inhabitants were Native Americans whose presence became a major historic find in 1969 by several teenagers who discovered of a burial cave containing perhaps 100 skeletal remains of pre-historic Indians from the Woodland Period, which spanned from 1000 BCF to 1000 CF in North America. As recently as 2015, remains of Native American life have been uncovered with the construction of the first segment of the Northern Beltline, north of Pinson Valley High School.

After the Battle of Horseshoe Bend, Pinson saw its first influx of white settlers bearing such surnames of Anderson, Hagood, Baird, Johnson, and Hanby. Descendants of these original families still reside in the community and served as Grand Marshals of Pinson’s 2015 Christmas Parade. The Anderson clan produced early sheriffs of Jefferson County. The Baird family would marry into the family of Edward Tatum, a Revolutionary War soldier buried in Pinson. Dr. Zachariah Hagood was one of the earliest physicians in the state. The Hanby family were pioneers in the Alabama coal-mining industry. Turkey Creek, which had attracted both Native Americans and the Hanby family, today serves as home to several members of an endangered species – the darter fish.

A high point in the history of the area was the formation of Company C of the 19th Regiment on August 12, 1861. Initially under General Joe Wheeler’s command, the regiment fought in numerous Civil War engagements. Ironically, Union troops, under the command of General John Croxton, swept through the community on April 19, 1865, killing coal-mining pioneer David Hanby and taking livestock from the Baird plantation. Croxton also burnt the Mt. Pinson Ironworks, a Catalan forge which shoed many of Nathan Bedford Forrest’s cavalry horses. Today the site of the Union troop overnight encampment is referred to as "Yankee Springs."

After the war Pinson slowly became a commercial outpost in the northern part of Jefferson County. General stores, a train depot, restaurant, boarding house, and hotel filled the downtown landscape. Mae Moore Flynt, mother of Alabama historian Dr. Wayne Flynt, recalls her family living in a three-room suite at the Pinson Hotel during the Great Depression – a necessity since the Moore home place was rented to secure extra income.

The Depression also saw the creation of the Palmerdale Homestead Community Project, the first in Jefferson County of the FDR New Deal housing projects. A spinoff of this project was the creation of the Palmerdale Community Credit Union, the last of its kind in Alabama.

The Palmerdale United Methodist Church housed Boy Scout Troop 14. The troop holds the distinction of being the oldest, continuously chartered Boy Scout Troop in America. Local Palmerdale resident Bettye Burson became Miss Alabama of 1951; in 2006, Melinda Toole of Pinson would win the crown.

A number of other Pinson-connected individuals have made their mark on history. Born a slave on the Baird plantation, Andrew Beard, later a freed man, would become a renowned inventor, including the automatic railway coupling device. It would make him the first African-American millionaire in Jefferson County. Another Pinson-born individual, Willie Cyrene McLaughlin, studied in New York and Paris and later exhibited in France and Italy. Upon returning to Birmingham, she was a founder of the Birmingham Art Association, the springboard to the Birmingham Museum of Art.

Though not a native, Dorsey Whittington and his family moved to Pinson in the 1940s where their spaciously designed home featured two baby grand pianos overlooking manicured grounds on Silver Lake. Founder of Birmingham-Southern’s Conservatory of Music, Whittington would become the first director of the Birmingham Symphony.

A Pinson man who never left the community except for college and military service would carve his own niche in the annals of amateur weather reporting. Pharmacist James Price would garner countless accolades, including national awards for his 60-plus years of documentation of Pinson area weather. His story is included in the new book Pinson: The Bicentennial, Including Palmerdale and Greene Station by Tom Bailey which contains a definitive quote by Mary Cochran, life-long Pinson resident and first female officer of Alabama Power:

“We cannot take the future with us always, but one can and should be given the opportunity to pass along to future generations in Pinson a great and good thing of the past.”

Sources: http://trekbirmingham.com/articles/the-hanbyenterprise- part-1/-2.

Dixieana Cole Oven ruins. The plant operated by the Imperial Coal & Coke Company beginning in the 1880s. Several JCHA members toured the site earlier this year (Tom Bradford).

Dixieana Cole Oven ruins. The plant operated by the Imperial Coal & Coke Company beginning in the 1880s. Several JCHA members
toured the site earlier this year (Tom Bradford).




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