A Brief Biography of Col. Alexander Jesse MacNab
By Dr. Jane Macnab Christian
Maggie Macnab, graphic designer extraordinaire, and I, Dr. Jane Macnab Christian, are the last named Macnabs of his line, but he did have two children, six grandchildren, eleven great grandchildren and eight great-great grandchildren…so far. Colonel Alexander Jesse MacNab (1893-1957, U.S. Infantry 08275) was definitely worth remembering.
He was born without the Jesse, which name he took at ten years from an idolized uncle. He was next to youngest of five surviving children (of eight) born to Alexander MacNab and Jane Amanda Slocum MacNab. His father was a railroad engineer who lived with this family in a big home on the Delaware River in Morrisville, Pennsylvania, just across from Trenton, New Jersey, and all the Slocums and Bownes. Grandparents John and Martha (Slain) MacNab had a farm nearby in Buche County, though most of their children settled elsewhere. They kept closely to their Scottish Highland traditions, being but a generation or two removed from Loch Tay and the River Dochart.
Young Alec, a sports loving and adventuresome child, graduated high school at fifteen, wanting to follow his elder brother Enos into professional football (Philadelphia Eagles), but his father sternly forbade such, setting the boy to work at a tree nursery, until at just turned eighteen, he could study forestry at Syracuse University. Alec developed a lifelong deep love of forests and all of nature, which he carefully bequeathed to his descendents. After summers in New York State Forestry Camp spent working, learning and teaching, he graduated Syracuse with an honors B.S., then M.S. with honors in Entomology in 1917, just after the United States entered World War I.
The summer of 1916 was spent at Vermont Forestry under H.H. (Harry) Squire, who became his best friend. There Alec met his future wife, Maude Gordon, a Canadian whose Scottish family had migrated from Vermont. She was sister to Ella Gordon, Harry’s fiancée. Alec fell deeply in love and for life; he and Maude were married in August, 1917. Like many young college grads, Alec had volunteered and had emerged from Officers’ Training with a first Lieutenancy (most were Second Lts.). All too soon, after a short camping out honeymoon, he left his bride in care of his parents and was summarily shipped off to trench warfare in France. There in 1918 he fought out of trench stalemates into swift but hard-earned advances, sometimes in hand to hand fighting. In battle he was promoted to Captain. After the Armistice of 11 November he stayed on the Rhine with the Army of Occupation until mid 1919, when he finally was shipped back to the U.S. and his Maude.
Good forestry positions being very scarce in a bad economy, Alec gladly accepted the Army’s rare offer of a regular commission as Captain. He truly was also a Scottish warrior. He and Maude were posted to San Diego. Their first child died there at birth, but they had a second healthy one, christened Alexander Jesse MacNab, Jr., born in July 1921 at Fort Sam Houston in Texas. (Alec, Jr., later called Sandy, after participating in World War II, became a Texas architect and father to Maggie Macnab. He lived until December 2003.)
Captain Alec then spent 1922-3 as a hardworking student—and sports enthusiast—at the Infantry School, Fort Benning, Georgia, leaving little Alec and Maude with his parents. Maude longed for New England and family, so Alec requested a six-year posting at his alma mater Syracuse to teach ROTC as Professor of Military Science and Tactics (PMS&T). But during that time his young son developed serious asthma, so in 1929 Captain Alec sought to be stationed in a healthier climate, the dry and bracing Southwest.
He was stationed at Fort Huachuca, Arizona, on the Mexican frontier. In that rugged desert/mountain land he trained his company of African American Buffalo Soldiers to be some of the Army’s crack marksmen in rifle and small arms. On hunting trips into Old México he developed lasting friendships with México’s Army officers, and grew to love the desert. And in the officer’s ward at Fort Huachuca I was born in 1930, his last child, taught to enjoy a bit of cold beer at three months, they say.
In 1931, Captain Alec, yet again for family reasons, chose another six-year ROTC posting at New Mexico A&M in Las Cruces. In addition to military duties he taught math and physics, and coached football, swimming and track in what became his favorite of all places. ‘Cruces and A&M reciprocated, the students naming him their favorite professor. Some students, rancher’s sons, lived with us. Newly promoted Major Alec’s kids loved the place. Maude was ill much of the time.
In 1937 he was posted for two years at Schofield Barracks, Oahu, Territory of Hawaii, as Division Athletic Officer—a huge and time consuming job since the peacetime Army very heavily depended on sports for both hardihood and morale. We loved that beautiful setting with its melting pot of nationalities. But in September 1939 when war in Europe erupted fully, we were sailing back to the “mainland” for Lt. Col. Alec’s third ROTC posting at Oklahoma A&M in Stillwater.
Pearl Harbor interrupted his post in December 1941, and Lt. Col. Alec immediately was sent to Fort Leavenworth’s Command and General Staff school. From a tiny organization the U.S. Army had almost instantly become a formidable giant.
Then, fast driving to Vermont and leaving wife and daughter in care of relatives, he shipped out to war in the Pacific—first Australia to speedily train his raw Wisconsin National Guard troops, then to two and a half years of terrible jungle warfare in New Guinea’s swamps. Many say the conditions were the worst the U.S. (and Aussie) troops encountered in all of World War II. Promoted to full Colonel in battle and given his beloved 128th Regiment in 32nd Red Arrow Division, Alec won the Distinguished Service Cross with two oak leaf cluster (repeats) for valor in hand to hand fighting with determined and solidly dug-in Japanese troops. He and his men bonded for life. Their casualties in the Buna Campaign were 90%; they suffered near starvation, malaria, dengue (breakbone) fever and bush typhus with very little medical care, in addition to festering wounds. Few supplies and very little ammunition got through to them, much less heavy arms to blast the Japanese strongholds—only rifles, grenades and a few mortars. Top commander MacArthur, safe back in Australia, considered them expendable. Despite the odds, they were victorious.
In late 1944, ill Col. Alec was sent back to the U.S. to collect his family and proceed to the Infantry School at Fort Benning to teach the new jungle warfare. He collected his surviving battle-hardened officers and formed an effective team. As a fly on the wall I listened to their stories.
In May, 1945, with VE (Victory in Europe) and the need to retrain U.S. Veterans there to fight in the Pacific, Col. Alec was shipped off to Germany. After Hiroshima and the War’s end, he was kept in Frankfurt until late 1947 in the Army of Occupation.
Returning to the U.S., he requested posting in Austin, Texas, where his veteran son attended UT, to reunite his family after six years. There, based at Camp Mabry, he instructed Texas’ National Guard until required to serve in the Korean War, his third, from 1951 to 1953. He trained the Republic of Korea Army on the island Cheju-Do, winning love and respect from the Koreans and returning it full measure. He sponsored the widowed Mrs. Whang’s war orphanage, spending all the time he could with the children, saying as usual, “Kids are great in any language.” For his Korean service (which General Omar Bradley said was a major general’s job) he received the Legion of Merit—and Korean gifts of family heirlooms. They renamed that ROK training center “Camp MacNab”. It closed in 2005. (https://www.stripes.com/news/usfk-camp-macnab-resort-to-close-1.30447)
War over, he was sent home, and after thirty-six years of service, was allowed to retire. At last he could play with his grandchildren. But stressed by all that he had endured, he died of a heart attack at age 63 in January 1957.
With full military honors and a twenty-one gun salute, he was buried at Fort Sam Houston’s National Cemetery. In 1985 Maude was laid beside him.