For much of a three-decade Navy career, Cmdr. Mark McDonald (BBA 84) was a sub hunter. As an aviator patrolling high above the world’s oceans during the Cold War, he considered it a point of pride that the U.S. knew where every Soviet sub was at any given time.
|Cmdr. Mark McDonald (BBA 84)|
Today, McDonald is retired from the Navy and lives in land-locked Meridian, but still has his sights on a submarine — this one friendly. McDonald is chairman of the Commissioning Committee for the USS Mississippi, a new, $2.6 billion attack submarine that will go into service in June.
McDonald has been traveling the state in past weeks, drumming up support and funds for the commissioning ceremony for the sub, set for June 2 in Pascagoula. His meetings included a return visit to Ole Miss, this time with the submarine’s skipper, Capt. John McGrath, in February. McGrath spoke to engineering and Navy ROTC students, and was guest of honor at a reception at The Inn at Ole Miss.
McDonald, who is active in the Meridian Area Navy League, says he found himself chairman of the sub’s Commissioning Committee after the League, the only chapter in the state, took on organizing the commissioning ceremonies for the sub.
While the actual commissioning ceremony on June 2 will be funded by the U.S. government, a series of receptions and various events surrounding it must be funded by private dollars. The Navy League is raising funds for those events.
The commissioning effort is only the latest chapter in McDonald’s long story with the Navy, and part of that tale was written at Ole Miss. McDonald completed his degree at Ole Miss and was commissioned in the Navy, graduated from flight school and became a Naval Flight Officer. Much of his flying time was spent in the P-3 Orion, a four-engine craft used to track submarines (and rain torpedoes down on them, if the need were to arise). He served time at sea aboard the USS Nimitz and the USS Roosevelt, patrolling the Atlantic and Mediterranean.
He sums up his time at sea succinctly: “Long hours, many long hours.”
“Back in those days … naval submarine warfare was a big player,” he says. “We were dealing with the Cold War. So knowing where all the Soviet submarines were was one of those things that we took great pride in.”
Still, nothing can track a submarine better than another submarine, he says.
“That’s the reason the USS Mississippi is so crucial to our national interests and our security,” McDonald says. “Of course, warfare has changed since the ’80s, and technology has allowed a lot of that to change. And with that, USS Mississippi brings all that new technology with her.”
The War on Terror has shifted the role of submarines, McDonald says. But they remain relevant, delivering Navy SEAL teams and serving roles as “the consummate stealth weapon.”
“With the technology they have now, the submarine can get closer than any other weapon we have now to monitor, exploit, and deliver SEALS, recover them and get out before anyone even knows,” he says.
Rich naval heritage
McDonald retired in 2008 at the rank of commander after 31 years in the Navy, and settled in Meridian, his hometown.
|Capt. John McGrath of the submarine USS Mississippi poses with a model of the pre-World War I era battleship USS Mississippi, on display at the Naval ROTC department at Ole Miss.|
“I didn’t think I would go back to work,” he says, but the Navy found him again, enlisting his help as a civilian training officer at the Meridian Naval Air Station. He then served the city of Meridian for two years as chief administrative officer.
He now operates a family business called McDonald Pines, managing his family timber plots and consulting with other landowners on land management.
In the process of all that, he says, “I kind of got drafted” into the USS Mississippi effort. He carves out time to help organize fund-raising for the Mississippi commissioning ceremonies. The Meridian Area Naval League is selling sponsorships and a commemorative coin. Different members of the crew, including Capt. McGrath, come to Mississippi to speak, volunteer, and promote the commissioning.
The $2.6 billion submarine, which was constructed and christened in Connecticut, is the fifth U.S. Navy ship to bear the name Mississippi, McDonald says. The first, a steam-powered paddle-wheeler, was commissioned in 1841. That ship had a storied history, among its missions ferrying Commodore Matthew Perry to Japan and enforcing a blockade on the Confederacy during the Civil War. The ship was burned by her own crew after it ran aground in the Mississippi River in 1863.
Other vessels named Mississippi include a pre-World War I battleship, a World War II-era battleship, and a nuclear-powered guided missile cruiser that was decommissioned in the 1990s.
But while five ships have been named Mississippi, a total of 37 vessels have been named after Mississippi, individuals from Mississippi, or cities and counties in the state. Among them is the new USNS Medgar Evers, commissioned in November. The USS Jackson and the USNS Choctaw County are slated to be commissioned soon.
And, there is the mighty USS John C. Stennis, named for the late Mississippi senator and one of 11 U.S. aircraft carriers.
“So when you look at all of the ships that bear the name from its counties and towns and citizens of the state of Mississippi, it’s amazing, the influence we’ve had,” McDonald says, adding that Mississippi ranks only behind Virginia and Pennsylvania in that regard.
“We should feel proud of the rich naval heritage that we have,” McDonald says. “A lot of folks from the state of Mississippi have served the Navy well, have served our country well.”
For more information on the USS Mississippi commissioning, visit ussmississippi.org.