The Vietnam War’s First Medal of Honor Recipient.
Shortly before 2:30 a.m. on July 6, 1964, a Viet Cong battalion of about 900 men attacked Camp Nam Dong. The camp was defended by about 300 South Vietnamese soldiers, a small group of Chinese descendants and 12 members of U.S. Army Special Forces Detachment A-726. The Green Berets were led by 30-year-old Capt. Roger H.C. Donlon. The Medal of Honor citation reads in part (slightly edited for clarity):
He dashed through a hail of small arms and exploding hand grenades to abort a breach of the main gate.…Although exposed to the intense grenade attack, he succeeded in reaching a 60 mm mortar position despite sustaining a severe stomach wound as he was within 5 yards of the gun pit….He moved from position to position around the beleaguered perimeter while hurling hand grenades at the enemy and inspiring his men to superhuman effort.…His dynamic leadership, fortitude, and valiant efforts.…resulted in the successful defense of the camp.
Vietnam veteran James H. Willbanks, author of America’s Heroes, Medal of Honor Recipients from the Civil War to Afghanistan, interviewed Donlon.
What does it mean to you to be the first Vietnam War Medal of Honor recipient?
After I received the medal, I chatted with Maj. Gen. Keith Ware, the deputy chief of Army public affairs, who received the medal for action in World War II. He told me that I would no longer be known as “Roger,” but rather as “the first Medal of Honor recipient for Vietnam.” Naively, I didn’t believe him and said so, but he was right. Receiving the Medal was a life-changing event. As for being the first recipient for the Vietnam War, I was very conscious that I was the 3,170th person to receive the medal in a long line that dated back to the Civil War. And there were many who would follow me.
What was it like when President Lyndon Johnson presented the medal?
Before the public presentation, we met privately with the president. My wife, mother and I chatted with him for a few minutes. I was very nervous and made sure to check myself out before we went before the assembled audience. In attendance were my sisters and brothers. The other surviving members of my team were there. While the president talked, I looked at those present and thought about the ones who were not there – my father [who died when Donlon was 13] and all those who had fallen during the fight. As Secretary of Defense Robert McNamara began to read the citation, I relived each agonizing moment of the five-hour siege. I saw the actions of the men who were sitting before me and those who had fallen during the fight. I was embarrassed that I was being singled out for special recognition.
What was foremost in your mind during the Nam Dong combat?
Our Special Forces team had been together for about six months since our training at Fort Bragg [North Carolina] before deploying to Vietnam in January 1964. We knew about each other’s life stories, backgrounds and families. We agreed to never quit, to never give up. As the battle unfolded, all I could think of was to keep going, to keep the team in the fight. The close bonds we had forged in training and the teamwork that we had developed sustained us. We knew that as we took casualties, we had to take up the slack and keep going to prevail against the enemy.
How has the Medal of Honor affected your life?
The medal has opened many doors. But with it came many responsibilities. I give back where I can. I talk to young servicemen and women. I speak at schools. I am active in the Medal of Honor Foundation’s Medal of Honor Character Development Program, which has resources based on oral histories of recipients that help students examine the values of courage, commitment, service, integrity and patriotism. I have also been involved with the Westmoreland Scholar Foundation, which fosters reconciliation between the American and Vietnamese people.
First published in Vietnam Magazine’s February 2017 issue.