Roger Donlon has the old war medal in his shirt pocket.
The pale blue ribbon looks a little faded as he pulls it out, but the green enameled laurel wreath around the star is still bright, and the word “VALOR” is clear.
“That’s it,” he says: The medal that President Lyndon Johnson placed around his neck a half-century ago this month. The one he was given for his bravery at a place called Nam Dong. The first Medal of Honor of the Vietnam War.
As the United States marks the 50th anniversary of the start of the war that had no official start, Donlon’s medal is a milestone.
By war’s end, 258 Medals of Honor – the nation’s highest award for gallantry – would be presented, most posthumously.
“Capt. Roger H.C. Donlon,” his says on the back. Company C, seventh “SFG,” for special forces group. A golden image of Minerva, the Roman goddess of wisdom and war, appears on the front.
On Dec. 5, 1964, as Donlon and his family gathered at the White House, there were about 21,000 American troops in Vietnam. Eventually there would be more than 500,000.
They were fighting in a vague, semi-war that had required a federal law the year before to enable them to receive such medals.
Donlon, who now lives in Leavenworth, and his 11 fellow Green Berets were technically advisors in Vietnam and not authorized to fly the American flag, “which always irked me a little bit,” he said.
A few hundred Americans had been killed by the time he received his medal – out of a final toll of more than 58,000.
And although the United States was not formally at war, what took place in the pre-dawn hours of July 6, 1964, seemed like it.
Donlon, then a 30-year-old Army captain, was wounded multiple times as about 800 Viet Cong and North Vietnamese soldiers stormed his 300-man South Vietnamese government outpost in a valley near the border with Laos, he said.
For five hours, the combatants exchanged mortar, grenade and machine-gun fire, often at point-blank range, across a darkened battlefield illuminated by burning huts, explosions and flares.
At one stage, the enemy soldiers used a loudspeaker to demand surrender, saying they wanted to kill only the Americans, Donlon recalled. The Green Berets fired mortars in the direction of the speaker.
In the end, two of his men and an Australian advisor were killed, along with about 50 South Vietnamese government defenders. At least 65 enemy soldiers died.
Five months later, Donlon, then of Saugerties, N.Y., found himself in the White House East Room as Defense Secretary Robert McNamara read aloud the medal citation: “For conspicuous gallantry … at the risk of his life above and beyond the call of duty … ”
Donlon’s mother, Marion, was there, along with his seven siblings and his aunt Ruth, a Roman Catholic nun. His father, Paul, a World War I veteran, had died 17 years before.
‘It got spicy’
Donlon, who spent 32 years in the service and retired as an Army colonel, is now 80. He is a tall, commanding figure and retains his military bearing, despite a touch of Parkinson’s disease.
He spoke about his medal, and his times, while he was in the Washington area for a memorial service last month and by telephone.
Donlon was one of 10 children, two of whom died in infancy. His father had lost his coal, lumber and feed business during the Depression. His mother did “a lot of cooking, a lot of laundry and a lot of praying,” he said.
“Daddy always insisted that we never be afraid of hard work and it is no disgrace to be poor,” he said. “He would remind us that it becomes mighty darn inconvenient at times.”
Donlon said he wanted to quit high school to join the military and serve in the Korean War. But his brother, Paul, a World War II combat veteran, “came home, beat me up,” he said. Finish school, he said his brother told him, “your time will come.”
At 2:30 a.m. on July 6, 1964, Donlon had just walked the fenced perimeter of the Nam Dong outpost and was getting ready to go off duty. He had been in Vietnam since May.
“Our job was to train . . . and assist the Vietnamese irregulars” and be a problem for the enemy, he said.
The post was northwest of Da Nang, in northern South Vietnam, and only a few miles from the border with Laos. Donlon knew it was dangerous.
“We prepared for the worst,” he said. “We said if we ever got in the worst situation, we would never allow ourselves to be captured. We’d go down fighting.”
In the days before the battle, he said, he had little intelligence about the 800 enemy soldiers who had assembled but sensed that something might be up.
That night, he was in the mess hall, unlacing his boots and checking his roster, when a white phosphorus mortar round hit the structure, setting it afire.
“They pounced on us,” he said. “They were well prepared and well organized and fully confident that they were going to win the night.”
Enemy mortars and grenades rained on the camp. Donlon’s men fought back with mortars, rifles and even a shotgun, he wrote in a memoir and recounted in the interviews.
He dashed around the camp encouraging his soldiers and directing the defense while other thatched structures were hit and burned. The defenders fired flares, which illuminated scores of approaching enemy soldiers, he said.
Some tried to climb over the barbed wire fencing in their bare feet.
“It got spicy,” he said. “Then you take casualties and it hits you in the gut, in your heart.”
Two of his men, John Houston, 22, whose wife was pregnant with twins, and Gabriel “Pop” Alamo, 46, a World War II and Korean War veteran, were killed, as was the Australian advisor, Kevin Conway.
Donlon, who killed a team of three enemy soldiers near the main gate, said he suffered seven wounds: in a shoulder, a leg and the stomach. “Mine were all shrapnel” from mortars and hand grenades, he said.
He also was knocked out, suffered a concussion and was blown out of his unlaced boots by an explosion.
Toward dawn, the battle died down with the arrival of helicopters, which, the enemy didn’t realize, were unarmed. The attackers “skedaddled back into the mountains and disappeared,” Donlon said.
The battle at Nam Dong was front-page news in the United States and was seen as a major victory for South Vietnamese forces. Donlon was quickly singled out for his role and wound up on the cover of the Saturday Evening Post.
The year before, President John Kennedy had signed a law expanding the rules for presentation of the Medal of Honor.
Donlon remembers perspiring at the White House ceremony with Johnson.
“Let any who suggest that we cannot honor our commitment in Vietnam find new strength and new resolution in the actions of this brave man and his comrades,” the president said.
Johnson asked Donlon whether he wanted to say anything. “No, sir. No thank you, sir,” Donlon replied.
Donlon was in New Orleans last week to attend a function at the World War II museum there. Reached by telephone, he reflected on the passage of 50 years.
“I can hardly believe it,” he said.
Asked whether he was planning anything special to mark the anniversary, he said he planned to go to church “and thank God once again for all my blessings.”