Vietnam’s First MoH Recipient Dodged Mortars, Grenades to Save Many

By Katie Lange
DoD News, Defense Media Activity

This blog is part of a weekly series called “Medal of Honor Monday” in which we’ll highlight one of the nearly 3,500 Medal of Honor recipients who have earned the honor of wearing the U.S. military’s highest medal for valor.

Army Capt. Roger Donlon is a notable Medal of Honor recipient for a few reasons. Not only was he the first American to earn the medal for actions taken in Vietnam, but he was also one of the few – if not only – service members to have had a bounty on his head when he returned to the battlefield.

Army Capt. Roger Donlon. Army photo

Army Capt. Roger Donlon. Army photo

Donlon’s desire to be in the military pretty much started at birth. The Saugerties, New York, native’s father served in World War I, and all four of his brothers were military. Eye issues kept him out of the Air Force, which was his original goal. Instead, he studied for two years at West Point, but decided to drop out and enlist immediately into the Army. He eventually graduated from Officer Candidate School and was assigned to the U.S. Army 7th Special Forces Group in 1963.

Donlon was the commanding officer of the U.S. Army Special Forces Detachment A-726 at Camp Nam Dong in Vietnam on July 6, 1964, when hundreds of Vietcong (South Vietnamese supporters of communism) tried to overrun the installation.

The attack started around 2 a.m., just as Donlon was finishing a guard shift. He entered the camp’s mess hall and was knocked down by a mortar that hit the roof.  He jumped up and ran to the main gate to make sure it hadn’t been breached. Within a few minutes, he was able to kill three bomb-clad Vietcong fighters. He was also injured by two more mortar rounds that had impacts so strong they blew his boots off.

During the next five hours, Donlon’s courage was unending as he crawled from defensive position to defensive position hurling grenades at the enemy, directing firing operations and making sure parts of the camp that hadn’t been overrun were protected. Some of the highlights of his actions were:

  • Marshaling up troops to get much-need ammunition out of a bunker that caught fire.
  • Reaching a 60 mm mortar gun pit and helping nearly all of the injured men there withdraw to safety, despite suffering a severe stomach wound of his own.
  • As he dragged a team sergeant from the pit, he was hit by another mortar that wounded his left shoulder. The sergeant was killed.
  • Despite his many wounds, Donlon then carried the abandoned 60 mm mortar gun to a safer location, where he found and treated three wounded Chinese fighters who were on America’s side (known as Nungs).
  • He then went back to the gun pit to get the mortar’s ammunition. In doing so, he was hit yet again, this time in the leg by a hand grenade.

Donlon and his men were able to keep the enemy at bay until daylight, when the Vietcong retreated back to the jungle, leaving behind weapons, grenades and many of their dead. Donlon continued to help treat the wounded until Marine reinforcements arrived to evacuate his team by helicopter.

Donlon’s actions inspired not just his men, but the friendly Vietnamese defenders, as well.

Donlon received the Medal of Honor on Dec. 5, 1964, from President Lyndon Johnson. All of the survivors of his A-726 team were present, and Donlon made it clear that the medal belonged to them, too.

Donlon’s service didn’t end there, though. He had wanted to go back into combat, but for many years, the Pentagon didn’t allow him because the Vietcong had put a bounty on his head. In 1972, he was approved to return to Vietnam for a second tour of duty.

Donlon retired in 1988 as a colonel after spending 32 years in the Army. He currently lives in Kansas.

Related Stories: Highlighting History: How ‘Tet’ Began the End of Vietnam
Army Commander Leads by Example, Earns Korean War’s 1st MoH
Pearl Harbor Seaman’s Heroism Earns Him WWII’s 1st MoH
1st ‘Medal of Honor Monday’ Focuses on First-Ever Recipient

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