When World War II broke out in 1939, William H. McDougall, Jr. was a flashy young reporter for the Salt Lake Telegram and a rising star in Utah journalism. Anxious as always to be where the action was, he quit his job and sailed to Japan, where he went to work for an English language newspaper in Tokyo. His talents did not go unrecognized, and he soon joined the United Press International bureau in Shanghai. Amazingly naïve to the building hostilities between Japan and the United States, he was surprised by the Pearl Harbor attack that resulted in a state of war. When the lightning Japanese advance down the coast of China reached Shanghai, McDougall found himself fleeing for his life, first into the nationalist sector of China, then to Calcutta.
His reporter’s instinct overcame his good judgment, and he rushed back into the theater of war to cover the fall of Java. He escaped on a Dutch ship just ahead of the Japanese invasion, but warplanes sank the ship in the Indian Ocean. After floating on the sea for hours, he was miraculously picked up by a lifeboat. Although the boat reached the coast of Sumatra, its occupants were apprehended by Japanese soldiers and McDougall spent the rest of the war in increasingly brutal prison camps.
Despite the efforts of the Red Cross, McDougall and the other inmates were completely cut off from communication with the outside world, but his thoughts returned often to Salt Lake City, to his family, and to his mother’s deep Catholic faith as a stalwart member of Our Lady of Lourdes Parish. On November 19, 1942, his mother’s birthday, he penned a beautiful letter to her that reached her only when he hand-delivered it in 1945. I can think of no more beautiful Mother’s Day tribute:
“Today is your birthday. A little while ago I heard a Mass which was said especially for you. I hope that, across the thousands of miles of distance which separate us today, you feel the love in my heart for you and know, somehow, that my prayers are being offered for you.”
He goes on to assure her that he is getting enough food and being treated reasonably well. (That would shortly change, when he was transferred to the hellish prison on Muntok Island, where people died of malnutrition almost daily and McDougall himself almost lost his life to malaria.)
“Many and poignant are the thoughts which well into my mind this morning – all thoughts of you and Papa and the family. One of my memories goes back a long way – to a summer night you and I sat on the porch and talked until late. It was during my high school days. I told you how I wanted to travel and see the world. You agreed that traveling was a good thing, but that sometimes it was hard on mothers whose sons were on the other side of the world. I said I didn’t see what difference the distance made – whether they were only a few hundred miles apart or several thousand, that in either case the fact of separation was the same. But you told me some day I would understand. And now the day has come when I do.
“My one wish is that you are happy and well. And my one hope today is that when all this war is over we will sit on the front porch of a summer evening and talk. What stores of subjects will we have to discuss!”
They did indeed reunite after the war. His mother’s profound faith and example, together with his gratefulness for having been spared through his desperate wartime experiences, led him to the seminary and ordination to the priesthood. As rector of the Cathedral of the Madeleine, Monsignor William H. McDougall, Jr. became one of Utah history’s most effective and beloved priests.
Gary Topping is the archivist for the Diocese of Salt Lake City.