Medal of Honor recipient encourages peace
November 23, 2003
Retired Col. Roger H.C. Donlon was an Army captain leading a 12-man Special Forces detachment in Vietnam in 1964.
He was in a camp near Nam Dong, in Central Vietnam near the Laotian border, on July 6 when a Viet Cong contingent ambushed the training camp.
The bloody five hours that followed left Donlon with multiple war wounds and earned him the Medal of Honor.
Almost 40 years later, Donlon lives in Leavenworth, Kan., and has been back to Vietnam a few times.
“I didn’t intend to go back and wasn’t searching for anything,” Donlon, 69, said during a recent visit to Camp Zama, Japan.
But to his surprise, he found returning helped him begin the process of reconciling his past.
He chronicled those experiences in a 1998 autobiography, “Beyond Nam Dong,” which he self-published.
Donlon returned to Vietnam in 1993 to lead a U.S. civilian delegation. Then, he found his former camp — and, buried near it, the cemetery of his Vietnamese allies who died in the ambush.
“I wanted … to pay my personal respects to over 50 Vietnamese soldiers who lost their lives there,” Donlon said.
But there he also encountered some of his former adversaries — who helped him clean and preserve the cemetery. Donlon found he was taking the first step toward forgiveness.
He returned to Vietnam again in 1995. He published his book three years later.
“Anytime there’s open warfare, we have an inherent responsibility to examine how we solved or failed to solve problems in our path,” he said. “Those who fight in war have great responsibility to help heal wounds of war.”
Donlon said it is the national character of Americans to forgive. He formed his beliefs in part by watching Japan and Germany develop into prosperous nations — and allies — in the decades following World War II.
Donlon’s ideas also were influenced by his career in Asia.
After two tours to Vietnam — and earning that war’s first Medal of Honor — Donlon served along Korea’s Demilitarized Zone during the 1960s with the Second Infantry Division; from 1983 to 1987, he commanded the United Nations Rear Headquarters in Japan.
He retired the following year after a 32-year military career.
Donlon said U.S. leaders should keep several lessons from Vietnam in mind as they plan a future Iraq. Vietnam was a shameful period in U.S. history, the career soldier said, because of its outcome: “We abandoned an ally. We told them we would support their efforts.”
His book conveys one central message: As time levels out hard feelings in Vietnam, Americans should appreciate the power of forgiveness.
For more information about Donlon’s book, e-mail: RogerDonlon@aol.com.
Citation shows bravery, heroism
The official citation is as follows:
DONLON, ROGER HUGH C. Captain, U.S. Army. Near Nam Dong, Republic of Vietnam, 6 July 1964.
Citation: For conspicuous gallantry and intrepidity at the risk of his life above and beyond the call of duty while defending a U.S. military installation against a fierce attack by hostile forces.
Capt. Donlon was serving as the commanding officer of the U.S. Army Special Forces Detachment A-726 at Camp Nam Dong when a reinforced Viet Cong battalion suddenly launched a full-scale, predawn attack on the camp.
During the violent battle that ensued, lasting five hours and resulting in heavy casualties on both sides, Capt. Donlon directed the defense operations in the midst of an enemy barrage of mortar shells, falling grenades, and extremely heavy gunfire. Upon the initial onslaught, he swiftly marshaled his forces and ordered the removal of the needed ammunition from a blazing building. He then dashed through a hail of small arms and exploding hand grenades to abort a breach of the main gate. En route to this position, he detected an enemy demolition team of three in the proximity of the main gate and quickly annihilated them.
Although exposed to the intense grenade attack, he then succeeded in reaching a 60mm mortar position despite sustaining a severe stomach wound as he was within 5 yards of the gun pit. When he discovered that most of the men in this gun pit were also wounded, he completely disregarded his own injury, directed their withdrawal to a location 30 meters away, and again risked his life by remaining behind and covering the movement with the utmost effectiveness.
Noticing that his team sergeant was unable to evacuate the gun pit, he crawled toward him and, while dragging the fallen soldier out of the gun pit, an enemy mortar exploded and inflicted a wound in Capt. Donlon’s left shoulder. Although suffering from multiple wounds, he carried the abandoned 60mm mortar weapon to a new location 30 meters away, where he found three wounded defenders.
After administering first aid and encouragement to these men, he left the weapon with them, headed toward another position, and retrieved a 57mm recoilless rifle. Then with great courage and coolness under fire, he returned to the abandoned gun pit, evacuated ammunition for the two weapons, and while crawling and dragging the urgently needed ammunition, received a third wound on his leg by an enemy hand grenade.
Despite his critical physical condition, he again crawled 175 meters to an 81mm mortar position and directed firing operations, which protected the seriously threatened east sector of the camp. He then moved to an eastern 60mm mortar position and, upon determining that the vicious enemy assault had weakened, crawled back to the gun pit with the 60mm mortar, set it up for defensive operations, and turned it over to two defenders with minor wounds. Without hesitation, he left this sheltered position, and moved from position to position around the beleaguered perimeter while hurling hand grenades at the enemy and inspiring his men to superhuman effort.
As he bravely continued to move around the perimeter, a mortar shell exploded, wounding him in the face and body. As the long awaited daylight brought defeat to the enemy forces and their retreat back to the jungle leaving behind 54 of their dead, many weapons, and grenades, Capt. Donlon immediately reorganized his defenses and administered first aid to the wounded. 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.
Capt. Donlon’s extraordinary heroism, at the risk of his life above and beyond the call of duty, is in the highest traditions of the U.S. Army and reflect great credit upon himself and the Armed Forces of his country.