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

The first round of incoming fire set a roof ablaze at Camp Nam Dong, an outpost of South Vietnamese forces along with a 12-member U.S. Special Forces detachment near the Laotian border. Within minutes, North Vietnamese fighters were hitting hard with mortars, grenades and machine guns.

The commanding officer of Team A-726, an Army captain named Roger Donlon, was hurled through a door by a blast just after 2:45 a.m. A staff sergeant raced to the communications room and radioed the air base in Danang, about 30 miles to the east.

“Roger. Roger. Go ahead, Nam Dong,” came the reply.

“Request flare ship and an airstrike. … We are under heavy mortar fire.”

The base was surrounded. North Vietnamese soldiers and allied guerrillas, known to U.S. forces as Viet Cong or V.C., pressed closer through the jungle.

“The burning mess hall cast an eerie, dancing light over the camp, spectacular now with swirling smoke and the flashes of exploding shells. The V.C. mortars were zeroed in on us,” recalled Capt. Donlon, who was wounded four times during the battle and became the first Medal of Honor recipient from the Vietnam War for his defense of Nam Dong. He died Jan. 25 in Leavenworth, Kan., at 89, more than 35 years after retiring from the military with the rank of colonel.

For days before the attack on July 6, 1964, expectations grew that the North Vietnamese would attempt to overrun the camp — defended by more than 300 South Vietnamese soldiers and local militiamen, the American unit and an Australian military adviser. Vietnamese villagers nearby had become nervous, likely picking up clues of the North Vietnamese plans, Capt. Donlon recalled.

The camp was not a major military site but its location, in a valley near Laos, offered a critical vantage point to monitor and disrupt movements of North Vietnamese guerrillas.

Capt. Donlon was checking the guard roster when the first attack wave hit. A shell slammed into a wall. Soon, the command post was on fire. Capt. Donlon and Master Sgt. Gabriel Ralph Alamo raced inside to save as much ammunition and weapons as they could haul out.

A few yards away, a Vietnamese interpreter was hit by a blast. Both his legs were blown off just below the knees. “In 30 seconds he was dead,” wrote Capt. Donlon in his 1965 book, “Outpost of Freedom,” co-authored with journalist Warren Rogers.

Two Viet Cong battalions — totaling at least 800 fighters — moved forward. They reached the camp’s last line of defense. U.S. helicopters tried to bring in reinforcements but turned back to Danang because of heavy fire.

“Illuminate the main gate,” Capt. Donlon yelled for a flare, he recounted. In the blaze of light, he fired at three North Vietnamese fighters, killing two and hitting the third with a grenade blast as he tried to reach the cover of high grass. Capt. Donlon noticed he, too, had been hit. His left forearm was bleeding. A piece of shrapnel had ripped open a coin-sized wound in his stomach.

“But nothing hurt too much,” he recalled, “and my legs were okay.”

Capt. Donlon began crawling between defensive pits dug into the camp to check on his team and others. The Australian adviser, Warrant Officer Kevin Conway, was fatally wounded. Capt. Donlon was hit again. Shrapnel tore into his left leg. “For the first time,” he recounted, “I felt real pain … The bedlam of bursting grenades was too much.”

A few minutes later, a mortar exploded just yards from Capt. Donlon and a group of others. “I am going to die, I thought,” he wrote. He was knocked unconscious, laying halfway into the ammunition bunker with wounds to his left shoulder and another in his stomach. Alamo was dead. So was another member of Capt. Donlon’s team, Sgt. John L. Houston.

Capt. Donlon used strips of his T-shirt and one of his socks as bandages and tourniquets. The North Vietnamese, on loudspeakers, told the base to surrender or face being overrun. The mortar barrages kept hammering the camp.

Finally, at daybreak, came the sound of approaching aircraft. Airstrikes blasted the North Vietnam positions. “Except for sporadic small-arms fire,” he recalled, “the battle for Nam Dong was over.”

The dead included at least 57 South Vietnamese fighters, the two Americans, Conway and more than 60 North Vietnamese attackers. Capt. Donlon was presented with the Medal of Honor, the military’s highest award for valor, by President Lyndon B. Johnson in December 1964. (There are currently 64 Medal of Honor recipients alive.)

Roger Hugh Charles Donlon was born in Saugerties, N.Y., on Jan. 30, 1934. His father worked at a coal and lumber yard; his mother was a homemaker.

He left Air Force pilot training in 1955 after failing eye tests. He then stayed two years at the U.S. Military Academy at West Point, N.Y., withdrawing because of personal reasons that included his age difference with other cadets.

He enlisted in the Army in 1958 and earned the green beret of the Special Forces at the U.S. Army Special Warfare School at Fort Bragg, N.C. (now Fort Liberty).

During a second tour in Vietnam, he severely injured his retina in 1972 while diving to the ground while under fire. He returned to the United States as antiwar marches and protests were near their peak. “Nobody likes being on the team not supported by the fans,” he told the Associated Press.

But he remained in the Army and served in command and training roles around the world including U.S. military adviser to the Royal Thai Army and battalion commander with U.S. Special Forces in Panama.

He received a bachelor’s degree at the University of Nebraska at Omaha in 1967 and a master’s degree in government in 1983 from Campbell University in Buies Creek, N.C. He retired from military service in 1988.

Col. Dolon’s first marriage ended in divorce. In 1965, he met a widow whose husband had been killed in the Vietnam War. Three years later, he married the former Norma Shinno Irving, who confirmed the death. Col. Donlon had Parkinson’s disease linked to exposure to the military defoliant Agent Orange, she said.

Other survivors include a daughter from his first marriage; three sons from his second marriage; six grandchildren; one great-granddaughter, and two brothers. His son from his second marriage, Justin, died in 2022.

In 1998, Col. Dolon published a memoir, “Beyond Nam Dong.” He and his wife also worked with veterans’ groups including Wreaths Across America.

“The casualties of war,” he said in an interview in 2022, “are not limited to the battlefield.”

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