Service Above and Beyond
Roger Donlon, the first Medal of Honor recipient in the Vietnam war, reflects on his love of God, family and country
In the early hours of July 6, 1964, hundreds of communist fighters attacked a military outpost in Nam Dong, Vietnam, where a small team of American Green Berets had been training South Vietnamese troops. The Special Forces team and its allies held out against the larger force for five exhausting hours before daylight and air support brought an end to the battle.
The 30-year-old commanding officer, Capt. Roger Donlon, had exposed himself repeatedly to gunfire, grenade attacks and mortar shells throughout the fight, as he rallied his men, responded to threats and assisted the wounded.
Five months later, in recognition for his actions at Nam Dong, Capt. Donlon was awarded the Medal of Honor — the first of the Vietnam War and the first ever bestowed on a Special Forces soldier. The citation concluded, “His dynamic leadership, fortitude, and valiant efforts inspired not only the American personnel but the friendly Vietnamese defenders as well and resulted in the successful defense of the camp.”
Donlon, a member of the Knights of Columbus since 1961, continued to serve in the Army for more than three decades, retiring as a colonel in 1988. Now 88 years old, he lives in Leavenworth, Kansas, with his wife of 54 years, Norma; together they have five children, six grandchildren and one great-grandchild.
The following text was excerpted and adapted from an interview with Donlon earlier this year.
I WAS BLESSED to be born into an Irish Catholic family in Saugerties, New York. I’m number eight out of 10 kids and grew up in an environment where service was emphasized.
Daddy said, “Don’t be afraid to work hard,” and he showed by example. I started by learning how to make kindling and build the fire for the hot-water heater. Once I mastered that, I’d qualified to stoke the fire in the furnace. So you had to earn your way to do chores.
When I was 10 years old, he gave me my best birthday present: 50 baby chicks. It was my turn to start putting food on the table. They turned into a money-making machine — selling eggs to the neighbors, bartering. You go to the dentist with a dozen eggs and you get a tooth filled. Daddy would say, “There’s no disgrace to be poor, but it’s mighty darn inconvenient at times.”
As youngsters, the first opportunity we had to serve was as acolytes in church. In those days, you had to learn another language before you could become an altar boy, so we had to learn our Latin. My mother always emphasized the importance of prayer. She said, “A family that prays together will stay together.”
But service was emphasized time and time again, and opportunities to serve were given to us.
My father and my uncle served in World War I and my older brothers Paul and Mike in World War II. Paul spent his 19th birthday on Anzio Beach in Italy. My brother, Jack, later served in Korea and Vietnam.
I had dreamt about flying since I was a kid, so I joined the Air Force. Thyy gave me a test for entrance into the Air Force Academy, which was opening up. I passed it and was on the roster for the first class. They gave us a physical, and when they dilated my eyes, they said, “I believe you may have a congenital cataract.” Blew me out of the sky right there.
Donlon transferred from the Air Force to the Army, studying at the U.S. Military Academy in West Point, N.Y., for two years and later attending Officer Candidate School. He graduated from Special Forces training in 1963. The following year, Special Forces Team A-726, led by Capt. Donlon, was sent to advise South Vietnamese soldiers in Nam Dong. Close to the Laos border and a route used by communist fighters, the camp became a target. The attack began 2 a.m. on July 6.
As a small team, we shared duties, including guard duty. I happened to be on guard duty. I was getting ready to wake the next guard up, and a round came in and hit two huge thatched roofs, setting them on fire. That was the start of it. We all scrambled like hell. They had us surrounded by a force of between 500 and 800 and pounded the hell out of us. They damn near came close to overrunning us. They hit us hard.
Out of 300 we were training, 100 of them were [communist] infiltrators. They had standing orders that when the battle started, they would break the neck or slit the throat of the guy next to them. So they had a good plan of attack. And they had the surprise element on us.
As bullets buzzed and mortar shells exploded, Donlon dashed from one position of defense to another, directing soldiers and moving guns and ammo despite sustaining multiple shrapnel wounds. At one point, he eliminated three surprise attackers, known as “sappers,” as they were preparing to blow up the main gate. Later, a voice broke through the din of battle with a message, delivered in Vietnamese and English.
Over our PA system, they told us to lay down our weapons. All they wanted was the Americans. That put a chill on things. So I went to Sgt. Brown, my best mortarman. I said, “Brown, did you hear that?” And Brown, he said, “I’ll take care of it.” I heard, “Lay down your weapons …” — and he didn’t finish it. Brownie put a mortar round in his megaphone. I’ll go to my grave with that mental picture.
The Battle of Nam Dong ended at daybreak, but not before more than 50 South Vietnamese defenders, an Australian military adviser and two Green Berets — Master Sgt. Gabriel “Pop” Alamo and Sgt. John Houston — had been killed.
We had two casualties early — Pop Alamo and John Houston. Their wives were both expecting back home. Casualties of war are not limited to the battlefield. I wear this award on behalf of Pop and John and all those who didn’t come home. Such great responsibility in the war. I’ve had many and great opportunities to share stories of their sacrifices throughout the years.
These days I find myself spending most of my time praying. Counting my blessings. Every snowflake is a blessing, every raindrop. A strong faith gives you perseverance, belief in forgiveness.
Sure, we’ve had hardships. We have a granddaughter right now who’s got a brain tumor. She just turned 24. And her husband has cancer also. All we can give them is our love and support and prayer. So there’s another way to serve. I spend a lot of time with fellow rosary warriors.
In life, it’s almost impossible to stay on course all the time. So when you’re weakened, or you’re distracted, you have to find the strength or be the strength for somebody else, to get back on course. You have God-given gifts; search and find what they are. In my case, I find where I’m able to serve and help others, I’m most gratified.
“You have God-given gifts; search and find what they are. In my case, I find where I’m able to serve and help others, I’m most gratified.”
I became a member of the Knights of Columbus when I was in South Carolina at Fort Jackson. They were always involved. Knights set an example of devotion. Individually and collectively, they are pillars of their respective communities. The strength of our nation is found in the strength of our respective communities, right down to the smallest towns and villages. And that’s where the Knights are found — serving.
Inside my wedding band is an inscription I’d like to share with all Knights of Columbus: “What we are is God’s gift to us. What we become is our gift to God.” Continue in your lives of service. Ask for God’s guidance so you can discover how you’re most equipped and best prepared to serve.