On this day in 1934, a future army captain and Medal of Honor recipient is born. Would you believe that Roger Donlon almost wasn’t in the Army at all? He’d originally signed up to be an Air Force pilot, but then ended up in the Army instead.
The Air Force’s loss was the Army’s gain!
During the Vietnam War, Donlon found himself in command of a 12-man Special Forces unit at a post near Nam Dong. Several hundred South Vietnamese and anti-Communist Chinese were at this “outpost of freedom,” along with Donlon’s men, in early July 1964.
Everyone knew that something was coming!
“The villagers are scared,” one of Donlon’s patrols radioed back on July 3, “but they won’t tell us why.” Don’t you know that tensions mounted still more when two locals were found dead? The (presumably murdered) village chiefs had been friendly to the Americans.
Donlon wanted to be prepared. On the night of July 5, he reportedly told his team sergeant: “Get everyone buttoned up tight tonight, Pop. The VC are coming. I can feel it. I want everyone ready.”
He was soon proven right when roughly 900 Viet Cong fighters attacked during the wee morning hours. For hours, Donlon and his men defended their post. Donlon was seemingly everywhere! You have to wonder how he even survived the experience.
Donlon’s medal citation describes the “enemy barrage of mortar shells, falling grenades, and extremely heavy gunfire” that immediately rained down on the outpost. Despite the barrage, Donlon kept his men supplied, tended to their wounds, and directed defense operations. He evacuated much-needed ammunition from a burning building. He ran through a shower of hand grenades so he could abort a breach of the main gate and kill three enemy combatants who had been trying to come through. He pulled wounded men to safety, and he dragged weapons to new locations when needed.
He kept this up for five hours. Amazingly, he did all this while suffering from his own serious wounds. At one point, he stuffed a shirt into a gaping stomach wound so he could keep the bleeding at bay while he continued his efforts.
Finally, U.S. aircraft arrived, dropping flares and helping to bring the battle to a close. Donlon’s men had successfully held their position until they could be evacuated, although two members of the team had been killed.
In December 1964, Donlon was awarded the Medal of Honor for his actions during the Battle of Nam Dong. He was the first to receive the medal during the Vietnam War, and he was the first Special Forces member to ever receive the medal.
“Capt. Donlon’s extraordinary heroism,” his medal citation concludes, “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.”
Another American hero who deserves to be remembered.
Edward F. Murphy, Vietnam Medal of Honor Heroes (rev. ed. 2005)
Medal of Honor citation (Roger Hugh C. Donlon; Vietnam)
Medal of Honor oral histories (Roger Donlon, Vietnam War)
Peter Collier, Medal of Honor: Portraits of Valor Beyond the Call of Duty (2d ed. 2006)
Roger H. C. Donlon, Outpost of Freedom (1965)
The Encyclopedia of the Vietnam War: A Political, Social, and Military History (Spencer C. Tucker ed., 2d ed. 2011)