Prairie Hill is a community so small that the residents mow a section of the town bridge’s right of way themselves. The school that once served students has long been closed, and the landscape forever changed when Highway 84 came through.
This is area where Donald J. McFarland, 83, grew up. Born during the Great Depression, he was raised on a cotton farm. “It was a typical country town,” he said.
But McFarland wasn’t typical. He ended up making a lifetime career as a pilot in the U.S. Air Force, retiring as a lieutenant colonel with 26 years of service and 9,760 flight hours — 400 during combat over Vietnam.
McFarland attended the Prairie Hill School, with all grades under one roof. After graduating, he went to Tarleton State College in Stephenville, where he studied industrial arts. Like many schools at the time, there was a mandatory ROTC program, which meant uniforms.
“Everyone was in uniform. It wasn’t bad,” McFarland said. “You didn’t have to worry about what to wear.”
McFarland transferred to North Texas State Teachers College (now the University of North Texas) and earned his bachelor’s degree. When he graduated, he was commissioned as a 2nd lieutenant in the summer of 1955. Then he was off to Lackland and Hondo air bases for training on the PA-18 and T6 Texan.
Finished with primary, he went to Goodfellow AFB in San Angelo to train on the B-25 (a twin-engine WWII bomber), earning his wings. McFarland, who’d never traveled anywhere, suddenly had the world open to him.
Flying over, around Japan
His first assignment was with the 21st Troop Carrier Squadron, a C-119 squadron sent to the Tachikawa Airfield in Japan. There he flew scheduled flights, hauling people and cargo around Japan, Korea and Okinawa. “I got to see lot of things and go a lot of places,” he said. He also went to the Philippines, Guam and Iwo Jima.
He was at Tachikawa for two years before transferring to Naha Air Base on Okinawa, doing a similar job on the C-130, a four-engine turboprop.
“Everybody called us trash haulers,” McFarland said. It was sort of an inside joke as to the variety of cargo they carried. He spent a year on Okinawa before returning to Randolph AFB in San Antonio.
Now a captain, McFarland joined the 8th Weather Group, “which only lasted a short time because they took our airplanes away from us,” he said. He went to Air Force Communication Services, conducting flight checks of navigation aids for three years. He then transferred to the Continental Air Command at Robins AFB in Georgia, responsible mostly for administering the Air National Guard and Air Force Reserve. McFarland flew a T-29, hauling passengers while serving as a base pilot.
But in late 1965, it was his turn to go to Vietnam. He wasn’t apprehensive. “It was just another job,” he said.
He trained at Hurlburt Field in Florida on the 0-1 “Bird Dog” before serving with the Republic of Korea Unit as a forward air controller with the 21st Tactical Air Support Squadron. McFarland was stationed outside of Quy Nhan where he flew reconnaissance missions and, when needed, called in air strikes.
McFarland spent more than eight months there before moving to Quang Ngai, where he flew visual reconnaissance and directed air strikes. “Lots of air strikes,” he said, with smoke rockets to mark targets for fighter pilots.
Return to the States
After a year in Vietnam, he returned to Robins and was assigned as base flight pilot, transporting people wherever they needed to go. Because he didn’t get promoted, he got out of active duty and remained in the Air Force Reserves, where he received the rank of major.
McFarland flew in the reserves from 1970 to Dec. 1, 1981. During that time, he went all over the world, with stops that included Guam, Berlin, Vietnam, Germany, Argentina, Brazil and Iran.
He got to know the Golden Knights, transporting them to air shows. His most interesting assignment, he said, was dropping sterile screwworm flies in Puerto Rico to help eradicate the invasive species affecting livestock.
McFarland earned many medals, including the Bronze Star and the Distinguished Flying Cross. He flew dozens of aircraft, including the De Havilland Canada C-7 Caribou.
Today, he has a daughter (his son died years ago) and two grandchildren. He’s been involved with the community for years until recently, as it’s hard for him to get around.
He doesn’t make a big deal of his service, talk about being shot at (which happened) or any accidents. He doesn’t talk about his medals or why he received them. He’s content with the choices he made.
“I had a good career. I enjoyed it,” McFarland said. “In fact, I think I’m lucky.”