AKRON, Ohio — Harry Donovan Sr. stood a few feet away from one of the most important moments in the history of World War II.
As Gen. Douglas MacArthur waded ashore in the Philippines at Leyte on Oct. 20, 1944, Donovan, then 17, was walking through the waters right next to him.
The black-and-white photograph of MacArthur’s return to the country he escaped a few years earlier is one of the most iconic images of the war.
Until a few years ago, Donovan didn’t know that he might be one of the sailors framed in the pictures. There’s little information identifying who is in those photos.
“I said, ‘Who is General MacArthur?’?” Donovan recalled asking a buddy. “He said, ‘Harry, he is the big general who liberated the Philippines.’?”
“I didn’t know who MacArthur was,” said Donovan, now 85 and this year’s Summit County Veteran of the Year. He is among the nation’s 21.5 million veterans who will be honored on Veterans Day today. (The federal holiday is Monday.) He has been recognized locally for his extensive contributions to both veteran and civilian communities. A retired certified public accountant and business consultant, he splits his time between Fairlawn and Florida.
The question of whether he is in the picture first arose at a meeting of the World War II and Korean War Roundtable in Fairlawn a few years ago. A man who grew up in the Philippines and was held prisoner there came to the meeting with the photograph.
“I had never seen it,” Donovan said.
Donovan was a coxswain in the Navy who headed to the Pacific in June 1944. He had dropped out of Kenmore High School as a junior to join the Navy.
He said that on the day of the famous photo shoot, the group had landed on the island in a Higgins boat he drove.
He took part in seven invasions in the Pacific. As a coxswain on a troop ship, he was responsible for the navigation and steering on the landing craft, or Higgins boat, carrying soldiers or Marines to the shore.
On one landing, he took two successive boats of 23 Marines ashore and all 46 were killed almost immediately.
He told his commanding officer that he could not take another boat of Marines ashore only to have them all killed. He spent a night in the brig because he refused to carry out the order.
The next day, he was released and told by his commander to go back to work.
“You could have been correct,” the officer told him, he said.
Another time, after lighting smoke pots — used to create smoke to hide Navy ships — he and two sailors were left stranded in the sea for nearly four days without food and water. During another battle, he was blown against the bulkhead of his ship and landed in the water with shrapnel in his leg. He was awarded the Purple Heart.
After his injury and hospitalization, he continued to serve as a cook on a ship. His speciality was making breakfast.
“I love to cook,” he said.
He left the Navy in 1946 and went to the University of Akron, becoming a CPA.
He is married to his second wife, Fran Timlin Donovan. His first wife, Mabel Donovan, died in 2003. He has three children, five grandchildren and seven great-grandchildren.
He has donated time and money to many local and national organizations.
A life member of VFW Post 349, Donovan set up a scholarship fund for children of veterans through the Veterans Service Commission, was on the Honor Flight Board of Canton Akron, donated money to the Summit County Stand Down for Homeless Veterans and provides lunch for the Wounded Warrior fundraiser. He is also a member of the Patriot’s Circle for the National World War II Museum in New Orleans.
He has volunteered for and donated to OPEN-M and Hospice & Palliative Care of the Visiting Nurse Service, is a member of the Fairlawn Chamber of Commerce and St. Hilary Parish in Fairlawn and has donated to the under-construction Valor Home, an Akron shelter for homeless veterans.
In addition, he once served as a special economic adviser to President Richard Nixon.
Also, Donovan established the Donovan Veterans Fund, at the Akron Community Foundation, on Oct. 22 to support organizations that provide services such as rehabilitation and education to returning veterans, said Tina Boyes, vice president of marketing and communications for the foundation. It is the first fund established for that purpose, she said.
Serving in the Navy during WWII, Donovan said, “made a man out of me.”
He said he is proud to have been named Veteran of the Year, but said there are many others who suffered much more than he did.
“I have had a wonderful life,” he said. “God has been good to me.”
Beacon Journal reporter Rick Armon contributed to this report.