Roger Donlon, first Vietnam War Medal of Honor recipient, dies at 89

Roger HC Donlon, an Army Green Beret who was the first Vietnam War Medal of Honor recipient in 1964 for leading the defense of a jungle outpost in a ferocious night attack despite being wounded by mortar and shell shrapnel, died on 1/25 in Leavenworth, Kan. , where he lived. He was 89 years old.

The cause was Parkinson’s disease, which his family said the result of exposure to Agent Orange, a toxic chemical that was sprayed by American planes as a defoliant in Vietnam.

Mr. Donlon was a career soldier who spent 33 years in the military, rising to the rank of colonel. Before that, he attended the US Military Academy at West Point, although he dropped out after two years, and became a Green Beret in 1963 after training at Fort Bragg, NC, now Fort Liberty.

The battle in which he earned the Medal of Honor inspired the climactic scene in “The Green Berets,” the 1968 film starring John Wayne.

Mr. Donlon was a 30-year-old Special Forces captain when he arrived in South Vietnam to command an outpost at Nam Dong, north of Da Nang not far from the Lao border. The mountainous region in the Central Highlands was populated by Montagnard villagers, who are military advisers – and before them CIA officers – tried to shape itself into a bulwark against the Viet Cong, a communist insurgency associated with North Vietnam.

Surrounded by barbed wire, Camp Nam Dong was defended by a dozen American special forces and about 300 Vietnamese. In the early hours of July 6, 1964, a force of 800 to 900 Viet Cong and North Vietnamese regulars launched a surprise attack, seeking to overrun the camp.

Years later, Mr. Donlon said that among the fighters trained by the Green Berets were many Viet Cong sympathizers. When the shooting started, he said The Congressional Medal of Honor was announced by the attackers over loudspeakers in English and Vietnamese, telling supporters: “Put down your weapons.” We only want Americans.” He estimated that there were only 75 reliable fighters to defend the camp.

Running through “a barrage of small arms fire and exploding hand grenades,” according to citation Medal of HonorCaptain Donlon was “destroying” enemy fighters trying to break through the main gate.

During the five-hour battle, he was constantly on the move: laying down covering fire as his soldiers retreated, crawling with a 60mm mortar to a new location, and pulling a wounded soldier out of his rifle. He was wounded several times in the stomach, left shoulder, leg and face.

Captain Donlon radioed for reinforcements, but when the helicopters arrived from Da Nang Air Base, they were unable to land due to intense fire and returned to base.

“Without hesitation,” said Captain Donlon’s citation, “he left this sheltered position and moved from position to position around the besieged perimeter while throwing hand grenades at the enemy and inspiring his men to superhuman effort.”

At dawn, when the enemy retreated, two Green Berets, one Australian soldier and 55 South Vietnamese defenders were killed, while the Viet Cong lost 64 men, according to official military history.

Captain Donlon was awarded the Medal of Honor by President Lyndon B. Johnson at the White House on December 5, 1964.

That year, with 23,000 US troops in Vietnam, the administration was still lying about America’s role in the war. “This is the first Medal of Honor awarded to an individual who has distinguished himself while serving with friendly forces engaged in an armed conflict in which the United States is not a belligerent,” the White House said in a statement.

Mr. Donlon’s military career began when he enlisted in the Air Force in 1953. He was accepted to West Point in 1955, but dropped out after two years, taking a job at IBM. After 10 months, he decided the corporate job wasn’t for him, and joined the Army in 1958, graduating as a second lieutenant at Fort Benning, Georgia, now Fort Moore.

After Vietnam, he earned a bachelor’s degree in general studies from the University of Nebraska at Omaha and a master’s degree in government from Campbell University, according to the Stars and Stripes. He became an instructor at the Command and General Staff College at Fort Leavenworth in Leavenworth, Kan., where he continued to live with his family after retiring in 1988.

He wrote two books, “Outpost of Freedom” (1965), about the battle for Nam Dong, and “Beyond Nam Dong” (1998), an autobiography that includes an account of his return to Nam Dong long after the war to promote reconciliation.

In retirement, he raised money for a scholarship fund for Vietnamese American and Vietnamese students, and to build a children’s library and learning center in Nam Dong Village. He led a delegation to Vietnam in 1993 for the non-profit group People to People International, where he served on the board of directors.

Roger Hugh Charles Donlon was born on January 30, 1934 in Saugerties, NY. He was the eighth of 10 children of Paul A. Donlon, who ran a lumber company, and Marion (Howard) Donlon. His father died when he was 13 years old. When Mr. Donlon returned to Saugerties in 2016 after the town hall was named in his honor, his former classmate told a local newspaper that he “always wanted to be a soldier.”

“He comes from a military family,” said Jack Bartells, a classmate, “and he and four brothers served in the military.

In 1968, he married Norma Shinno Irving, whose first husband was killed in Vietnam, after sitting next to her on a flight. She survives him, as well as his two brothers, Paul A. Donlon Jr. and Jack Donlon; daughter, Linda Danniger; and three sons, Damian, Jason and Derek; six grandchildren; and one great-grandchild.

Returning to Nam Dong in 1995. Donlon visited the overgrown graves of South Vietnamese soldiers under his command who died in battle. Next to him was Nguyen Can Thu, a former Viet Cong political officer who helped plan the attack. Mr. Thu, Mr. Donlon later said, told him that 100 of the 300 Vietnamese he was training at the camp were Viet Cong infiltrators.

Together, the two men cleared brush and straightened some of the unmarked gravestones. They were helped by Viet Cong veterans in the fight.

“There I was, kneeling down to mow the grass over the graves of my men, and all around me my former enemies were helping me,” Donlon told the Kansas City Star in 1999. “It really cemented my feelings of reconciliation.”

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