A Link to the Past
By Staff Sgt. Ryan Campbell, 107th Attack Wing
/ Published November 21, 2017
NIAGARA FALLS AIR RESERVE STATION, N.Y. -- A former commander of the 107th Attack Wing here returns to the unit to swear in his great-grandson during an enlistment ceremony at the Niagara Falls Air Reserve Station, Nov. 20, 2017.
Retired Col. Laverne Donner was the third commander of the 107th from 1969 to 1972, serving while the wing was organized as a tactical fighter group as well as a fighter-interceptor group. Having flown combat missions in World War II and Vietnam, he saw the first family member to join the unit he once commanded at the end of a storied career.
“It was World War II and I was drafted but I’d already gone through all the paperwork for the cadet program,” said Donner. “So they said ‘We’ll ship your paperwork over to Ft. Niagara, just go down there.’”
Reporting to Ft. Niagara, the next phase was to simply wait for a cadet class to open up that he could attend. Things though would soon be underway for the future colonel.
“We were shipped out to Mitchell Field in Long Island and one day we would do guard duty and another we would do kitchen patrol,” said Donner. “That went on for about a month before there was a class assigned to us.”
Being a newly commissioned pilot, the war would send Donner to all parts of the world as one of the Army Air Corps’ newest fighter pilots. His first assignment though didn’t quite get him into the thick of it just yet.
“We got sent to Panama to get more time since in cadet training we only had 10 hours in the P-40,” said Donner. “We checked out the P-39s down there and we were doing submarine patrol so I got a battle star on my American Service Medal.”
Donner then found himself in a new unit that would later become one of the Air Force’s elite special operations wings. The 2nd Air Commando Group was formed in 1944, and would ship out for its first assignment.
“We trained in Florida for seven months or so, we were flying P-51s then,” said Donner. “I think I’ve flown every model ever made of the P-51 which was a grand airplane and it kept getting better.”
The China-Burma-India theater would be the next stop for the 2nd ACG and the rest of the Tenth Air Force. 31 days on a troop ship and Donner would finally be at their rear-most air base in Kalaikunda, India.
“I got more sea time than a lot of the Navy guys,” joked Donner. “We moved from the rear base in India to right on the border of Burma in Bangladesh which was India at that time.”
Finally in position, the combat missions would begin for the 2nd ACG. Donner would take his P-51 Mustang, “Tombstone Jake,” into action.
“Our missions were all the air bases that the Flying Tigers had been operating out of and had been taken over by the Japanese after they left,” said Donner. “So we had fighter strikes on those bases and some close air support.”
With the immense flying range of the P-51, Donner and his fellow pilots were able to carry out strikes over great distances. For a time during the war, nothing could match it.
“We flew all the way over to Bangkok and there was a strike on that airfield,” said Donner. “At that time we would all just spread out and because I was in the tail end of everything, well the guys that went down the runway or the parking ramp they got the glory. I think I strafed the outhouse, maybe it was the dining hall, I don’t know.”
Soon the war in the pacific ended and Donner returned home. At this point, a career as a fighter pilot seemed to be over.
I went into crop dusting for a couple years with Stearman biplanes that had been converted, said Donner. Then the opportunity came when they moved some P-47s to Niagara Falls and started the 107th, said Donner.
The 107th Fighter Group was activated in December of 1948. The chance was there to get back into the cockpit of a fighter.
“It was the chance to fly again so I signed up,” said Donner. “We were sent to Hawaii to do live bombing with the 25th Infantry Division to expose them to live fire. It was good training for us because not too long after that we got activated for the Vietnam conflict.”
This would be the second time going to war for Donner. This time he would be flying “Marilyn,” his F-100C Super Sabre, into action.
“We went to Vietnam, I led the flight over and back and it was, well, we had hundreds and hundreds of missions there,” said Donner. “Went through a year over there, and between World War II and Vietnam I had 315 combat missions.”
Donner still gives thanks to the fact he managed to stay safe after seeing so much. Especially with his daughter being born on the day he landed in Vietnam.
“Thank you somebody up there looking out for me I made it back,” said Donner. “But we enjoyed what we did.”
Serving as commander of the 107th left an impression on Donner. As he reflects, he has choice words for his three years in command.
“It was terrible,” said Donner with a laugh. “As you can imagine they were always getting into trouble which got me into trouble.”
With the joking aside, Donner is quick to say that they had a lot of good times. Now, he is seeing his great-grandson join his old unit.
“It feels pretty good, feels like a big family,” said Daniel Hertel, Donner’s great-grandson who will be an intelligence specialist. “I’m looking forward to growing as a person and going from a teenager to an adult.”
Although it has been many years since Donner was in command, there is still a great appreciation for him throughout the wing. It is something that has made the 107th ATKW all the more inviting.
“It feels like he really belongs here, and his belonging here makes me feel more welcomed,” said Hertel. “I hope to see where it takes me and hope that it leads me down a very good path the way I expect it to.”
The retired commander leaves feeling sentimental about the event. Wing members themselves felt honored to bring in another generation to the unit.
“It hits you right in the old heart,” said Donner. “I just hope that he has one half of the good times that I had with the outfit. I’m sure he will.”