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Roger Donlon

  Vietnam War Congressional Medal of Honor Recipient

Captain Roger H. C. Donlon, US Army


Captain Donlan is the first Medal of Honor recipient in the Vietnam War.


Rank and organization: Captain, U.S. Army. Place and date: Near Nam Dong, Republic of Vietnam, 6 July 1964. Entered service at: Fort Chaffee, Ark. Born: 30 January 1934, Saugerties, N.Y. G.O. No.: 41, 17 December 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 5 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 3 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 gunpit 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 gunpit, 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 3 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 2 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 2 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 are in the highest traditions of the U.S. Army and reflect great credit upon himself and the Armed Forces of his country.

Camp Sitman, South Korea, November 1, 1967: Maj. Roger Donlon, the first Medal of Honor recipient in the Vietnam War, outside his headquarters tent at the Advanced Combat Training Academy. With him is the camp's mascot, "Lieutenant." Donlon was serving as commander of the academy, which trained NCOs and small-unit leaders in scouting and patrolling techniques. "We work all our students pretty hard," he said, "but nobody ever died from overwork. You can die from not being worked hard enough." Peter MacQueen Stars and Stripes

Roger Donlans book about his experiences, Beyond Nam Dong was published in 1998.

Medal of Honor recipient Donlon heads training academy in Korea

By Hal Drake, S&S staff writer
Pacific edition, January 14, 1968

Peter MacQueen / S&S
1st Lt. Paul Wolstenholme, left, and Maj. Roger Donlon examine a Russian PPS-4 automatic weapon at the Advanced Combat Training Academy at Camp Sitman, South Korea, in 1967.

WITH THE U.S. 2ND INF. DIV., Korea TV Maj. Roger Donlon looked with both bitterness and admiration at the mangled and blasted remains of what had been two large barracks.

It had been a fast, neat job of sabotage and killing this Donlon had to admit. The North Korean commando team came in after dusk and went out before dawn, May 22, 1967. They had done their work with lethal efficiency and two American soldiers were dead in a heap of shattered rubble.

"At first," said Donlon, "you admire a professional job. Then it makes you mad."

The death and sabotage was one of the first sights to greet Donlon when he came into the U.S. 2nd Inf. Div. in May, a major for only two months.

You could spot him as a soldier anywhere. The close-cropped blond hair, the steady blue eyes, the set and determined features, the erect posture it's all there, to mark Donlon's profession and trade.

But when Donlon came to Korea, he did not wear two distinctive marks of the career he chose several years ago. He left his green beret back in Vietnam when he left in 1964 as a severely-wounded casualty. And the blue, white-starred ribbon that marks him as a Medal of Honor winner is not worn on his plain, no-frills uniform. An all-business soldier, Donlon only wears his Combat Infantryman Badge.

Donlon, the first soldier to win America's highest award in the Vietnam War, is now in Korea. But the infiltration, terrorism and sudden death Donlon knew in another land are still part of his life. As a Special Forces man, he appraised the bombing with a coldly professional eye. As an American and a soldier, he felt grief and anger.

Where once the enemy was a stealthy little man named Charlie, who wore black pajamas and fought from waist-deep paddy slime, now Donlon must deal with an expertly silent intruder named Joe. Joe breaches barbed wire and creeps over dead, winter-browned farmland to blast sleeping men and attack frontline guard posts along the 18-mile sector of the Demilitarized Zone manned by Americans.

Joe deserves a very respectful kind of enmity and Donlon knows it. But Donlon feels that Joe has a long way to go before he can match the Vietnamese farmer who turns into a death-dealing guerrilla at dusk.

"They (the North Koreans) are well trained, and no doubt they're very professional. But they're not as good as the Viet Cong not yet. If you look at that one incident, yes, they did a job. They're just not as tough and smart as Charlie, though. And there's not as many of them, thank God."

Donlon is commander of the division's Advanced Combat Training Academy at Camp Sitman. The name might stir visions of Belvoir or Benning. But the campus is just a colony of tents on a bare and rugged rise, a short distance from the armed frontier facing North Korea. Around it are hills and flatlands stripped of cover. The area reminded Donlon of the Special Forces camp at Nam Dong, 370 miles northeast of Saigon. While remote and isolated, it was so seldom bothered by the Viet Cong that fellow Green Beret wearers ribbed Donlon and his A-team about being assigned to a "vacation land."

On June 6, 1964, some 500 Viet Cong regulars hit it in force. Donlon, despite wounds in the stomach, leg, shoulder and face, blasted the attackers with his M16 rifle and moved among his American-South Vietnamese garrison, directing a costly hand-to-hand defense.

Finally, the Communists broke off the attack and retreated. Six months later, Donlon stood at stiff and nervous attention as the President of the United States draped the Medal of Honor around his neck.

He says nothing about himself and very little about the battle, except to praise the men who were with him the ones who came out, the ones who did not. But others say much of the valor shown by Donlon.

Turning aside a question about himself, Donlon instead may quietly turn your attention to a sign in front of his command post. It tells of how a 2nd Div. soldier, Sgt. William S. Sitman, stood almost alone against a charging swarm of Chinese Communists during the Korean War and saved his buddies' lives by throwing himself on an exploding grenade.

Donlon is "dean" of a tough academy, and has made it so himself. He looks upon it as a whetstone to sharpen the basic skills of an infantryman and a millstream to glean the gold of leadership where it can be found. Everything centers around operations in the DMZ the tense job of watching, snaring infiltrators, keeping disciplined nerves and warding off the attacks that have killed 21 Americans in a year.

One hundred and fifty men at a time go through the most rigorous 19 days Donlon can devise for them river crossings, mountain climbing, adjusting artillery fire, and actual patrolling along the zone.

Donlon believes in personal leadership and graphic example. His first students saw half a dozen mamushi snakes he had snared and thrown into a cage. A sign on the cage warned the wide-eyed students, "Know Your Enemy," and compared the slithering mamushi with Joe also a stealthy, short-range killer.

Donlon's students will know what an enemy weapon sounds like. He takes them out at night and fires bursts from a Russian-made PPS-1.

How did he come by the weapon? Donlon tells how one of the 43 members of his hand-picked faculty, a sergeant, led 10 students out on a patrol one night, They ran right into an infiltrating North Korean patrol.

"Their weapons went south and they went north," Donlon relates. "1 got me a whole pile of training aids."

Another of Donlon's sergeants warned his students to step carefully around the line, still seeded with landmines left over from the war days. He demonstrated his point that very night by stepping on a shrapnel-throwing Bouncing Betty, depressing one prong of a rusty detonator. The mine did not explode.

"That man volunteered to read the text at the next chaplain's call," Donlon recalls.

Donlon had one controversial policy in effect months before he went through the formality of getting permission from his battalion commander. Some of his classes, he noted, were all young lieutenants eager, fresh-faced graduates from Officers Candidate School.

For one night, they are demoted to privates. Donlon drops them into foxholes right along the line. Anything can happen during the long night harassment, contact with infiltrators, an attack by an enemy killer team.

"One youngster asked me, `Officers in foxholes?' I told him, 'Sure. When one of your men tells you he heard something out there, you'll know what he's talking about.' "

One other officer swore somebody was throwing rocks at him. Smiling thinly, Donlon replied: "You'll know when one of your privates tells you." It was a point well made; the North Koreans often throw rocks as they try to rattle men on line into opening up and exposing their positions.

"We work all our students pretty hard," Donlon says, "but nobody ever died from overwork. You can die from not being worked hard enough."

Donlon rarely relaxes. There is too much hard-learned knowledge to pass along. He can be seen most of the time striding around the campus with the academy mascot, a scruffy-looking pup named Lieutenant, trailing at his heels. There is always a class to teach, a field problem to critique, a training schedule to revise.

When Donlon does sit down for a cup of coffee, it will likely he with Sgt. 1.C. Robert L. Mahaffey, a 35-year-old veteran of two wars who is Donlon's Tactics Committee chief.

There is little relaxed, purposeless conversation. The topic is how the training can be improved how it can he made tougher and more instructive.

Donlon's attention is turned for a moment to a week-old copy of Pacific Stars and Stripes. It tells of a massive demonstration outside the Pentagon, opposing U.S. involvement in Vietnam.

"I'm glad I wasn't there," says Donlon reflectively. "I would have really been in trouble. I don't know what's the matter with those people. If someone hadn't gone with us, into Korea, Vietnam and every other war we had to fight, we wouldn't be here.

"Those students. When do they study? I know one Korean soldier I'd trade for every one of them. He had a year of college before he went in. He's a soldier now but he still studies English whenever he can. Picks it out of newspapers and off the radio listening to AFKN (American Forces Korea Network). He learned President Kennedy's whole inaugural address and can recite it to you."

Donlon is a hero in the Alvin York and Audio Murphy mold. He came from a large, poor family in upstate New York. All of his four brothers have served in the military and one, an Air Force technical sergeant, is stationed in Thailand. One of three sisters keeps an encyclopedia-sized scrapbook on Donlon.

"We never had much money but money isn't everything," he said. "We were taught pride in ourselves and our family. Defense of freedom is perpetual. This is what a lot of our young bucks don't understand. Defending your country is like defending your family. I don't understand why people won't defend their country the same way they would their family. I wonder if they have any pride either way."



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