By Elizabeth Keys
STILLWATER, Okla. — “Build me a son, O Lord, who will be strong enough to know when he is weak,
and brave enough to face himself when he is afraid.
One who will be proud and unbending in honest defeat,
and humble and gentle in victory.”
The poem written by Gen. Douglas MacArthur during the early days of World War II were building blocks in the life of a son of the Oklahoma prairie, Judge Donald L. Worthington.
After graduating in 1944 from Braman High School near Blackwell, Worthington enlisted in the Army for a rendezvous with history.
“Everyone was in the service,” he said. “The country was completely mobilized for World War II, so I volunteered.”
After induction at Camp Chaffee, Ark., and armored training at Ft. Knox, Ky., he was shipped off to New Guinea as a replacement soldier — someone who replaces those killed in action. On the way to the replacement depot, Worthington met Gene Howard, a fellow Oklahoman with whom he was destined to connect throughout life.
Worthington was assigned to the 24th infantry and encountered several skirmishes.
“I grew up pretty fast,” he said.
MacArthur’s famous words, “I shall return,” placed Worthington in the campaign to liberate the Philippines. The mission was to defeat and expel the Imperial Japanese forces occupying the Philippines during World War II. Amphibious landing began on the eastern Philippines island of Leyte and continued with the Luzon campaigns where Worthington earned two battle stars. The Battle for Luzon cost Japan some 205,535 killed and 9,050 captured. American losses were 8,310 killed and 29,560 wounded. Worthington earned the Bronze Star as a unit citation.
He was assigned to MacArthur’s headquarters where operations were established in the bombed and damaged city of Manila. Most of the soldiers assigned to MacArthur were college graduates but he and Howard were taken out of replacement soldier duty and posted to the general’s headquarters. Worthington had top secret clearance and his job was “directing where messages of all kinds were filed and maintained.”
The biggest message involved MacArthur sending directions to the Japanese on how to surrender. Worthington said there were specific instructions on which Japanese “zero” aircraft to use and where to land the aircraft. When they were waiting for the Japanese to arrive, MacArthur asked Worthington what he was going to do when the war ended. Howard was planning to study law after the war and Worthington had listened to countless stories about Howard’s father’s experiences as an attorney so he made up his mind to study law, too, and that’s what he told MacArthur.
Worthington said MacArthur was very tense before the Japanese officially surrendered but he expressed interest in the soldiers around him.
"He was always very keenly aware of casualties," he said.
Worthington was awarded the Philippine Liberation World War II Military Ribbon and Medal for his service. When MacArthur moved his headquarters to Japan, Worthington followed. They were tasked with MacArthur’s words of going “forward to preserve in peace what we won in war.”
“There was considerable interaction between MacArthur and Japanese officials,” Worthington said. “The people and the whole government were totally destitute and defeated.”
He said the country was terribly destroyed but there was “no missing the fact that they needed assistance. As we came to know and work with the people, they were very pleasant and gracious, and we did not expect that at all because confrontations in the field were very bitter,” he said.
In the Army, Worthington rose to the rank of staff sergeant. In early June 1946, he returned stateside to enroll in college. As a veteran, he said he was very fortunate compared to those who lost their lives or suffered greatly but "World War II soldiers did their duty, were glad to do it - and wanted to do it."
He made good on his reply to MacArthur’s inquiries about his life dreams and earned a law degree from the University of Oklahoma with assistance from the GI Bill, which was “an immense reward for veterans.” Howard also became an attorney and served as President Pro Tempore of the Oklahoma Senate from 1975 to 1981.
After practicing law in private firms, Worthington served as District Judge of Payne and Logan counties from January 1987 until his retirement in 2010. The Supreme Court of Oklahoma honored him with the 2013 Ralph B. Hodges - Robert L. Lavender Award of Excellence, recognizing and honoring his judicial competence and his leadership in maintaining the integrity of the Oklahoma court system. During his active judicial service, he was awarded the Oklahoma Bar Association Certificate of Judicial Excellence in 2006. When he retired on Dec. 31, 2010, the historic courtroom in the Payne County Courthouse was named the Donald L. Worthington Courtroom by the Payne County Commission.
At 87 years old, he is not fading away. He has been recalled to temporary judicial service in the Oklahoma County District Court by Chief Justice of the Supreme Court where he has heard and decided numerous cases.
On Veterans Day, Worthington will join his grandson at his school as Americans across the country pay tribute to all who have served their country. Ian Worthington, 14, will recognize his grandfather’s military service and perhaps hear the echoes of MacArthur’s verse:
“Build me a son whose heart will be clear, whose goals will be high;
a son who will master himself before he seeks to master other men;
one who will learn to laugh, yet never forget how to weep;
one who will reach into the future, yet never forget the past.”