Being raised by a father who served in World War I and having four brothers who later enlisted in either the Army or Air Force, Roger Hugh Charles Donlan always felt his life’s destiny would be found somewhere in the United States military.
Donlan’s first desire was to receive an appointment to the United States Air Force Academy, in an effort to fulfill his dreams of becoming a pilot. His dream was grounded, however, when an eye examination detected the early stages of a cataract. Instead of the Air Force Academy, Donlon graduated from the U. S. Military Academy Preparatory School and went on to West Point. He completed two years at the Point, then resigned to join the Army. He graduated from Officer Candidate School (OCS) and in 1963 was assigned to the 7th Special Forces Group.
In the spring of 1964, Captain Donlon became the commander of Special Forces Team A-726. This twelve-man team was assigned to train, advise and assist a civil defense force which would help improve living conditions for approximately 5,000 Vietnamese peasants living in the Nam Dong Valley, not far from the Laotian border.
On the morning of July 6, 1964, Captain Donlon entered the camp’s mess hall around 2:00 a.m., shortly after completing his time walking guard. A moment later, a mortar round exploded on the mess hall’s roof, knocking the captain to the floor. As he quickly sprinted towards the camp’s front gates, he spotted three Vietcong sappers [a military specialist who lays/detects/disarms mines], each with a quantity of dynamite strapped to himself. Captain Donlon killed the three sappers just prior to another mortar hitting nearby, knocking him down and tearing off a boot. When the third round exploded, he lost his second boot, all his equipment and was badly injured. In an effort to stop the bleeding, he stuffed a piece of his shirt into the wound.
Captain Donlon continued to move from one position to another around the camp for the next several hours, encouraging his troops and supplying them with ammunition. A fourth mortar hit as the captain was attempting to move a wounded sergeant to safety. The mortar’s explosion killed the sergeant and injured the captain’s shoulder. Continuing in his efforts to protect his troops, he was able to withdraw them into a more secure area of the camp, and in the process received numerous shrapnel implants in his face and over his body.
When US aircraft were able to drop flares on the camp, the illumination from them revealed to Captain Donlon just how deep into the camp the enemy had reached with upwards of 900 Vietcong involved in the attack. He and his forces were able to keep the enemy at bay until the following morning when Marine reinforcements arrived to evacuate the captain and his men by helicopter. The defensive battle seen during the second half of the movie, The Green Berets (1968) starring John Wayne, is very loosely based on the Battle of Nam Dong.
On November 20, 1964, Captain Donlon left Vietnam and returned to the United States. On December 5, Secretary of Defense Robert McNamara read the citation as Captain Donlon became the first recipient of the Medal of Honor during the Vietnam War. The presentation ceremony took place in the East Ballroom of the White House. After receiving the medal from President Lyndon Johnson, in the presence of the nine surviving members of Team A-726, Captain Donlon humbly stated the Medal of Honor belonged to all of them just as much, referring to himself as merely ‘the designated leader.’
Captain Donlon sought the opportunity to return to Vietnam, but the Pentagon denied the request until 1972, due to the fact the Vietcong had put a price on his head.
In 1988, Roger Donlon retired, having achieved the rank of colonel and devoting thirty-two years of service to the United States Army.
Beyond Nam Dong, Colonel Donlon’s biography which chronicles his life from his Boy Scout years in New York to the present was published in 1998. A copy of the book can be ordered through his website – www.homeofheroes.com/donlon