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January 30, 2024

Profiles of Valor: COL Roger Donlon (USA)

Goodbye to the first Medal of Honor recipient for actions in Vietnam.

Some farewells are more than personal, they are national. A week ago, there were 65 living Medal of Honor recipients. Today, there are 63 recipients.

We said goodbye to the most recent recipient, Larry Taylor, on 28 January. I previously profiled his actions on Veterans Day several years ago.

I met Larry two decades ago and will never forget our first conversation when he described one of the more than 2,700 missions he flew as a Cobra pilot in Vietnam. He received a Silver Star for that daring mission, and when I inquired about a Medal of Honor nomination, Larry smiled and said, “That died on the vine because in the midst of that mission, after I denied an order to retreat, I accused my commanding officer of having ‘unnatural relations with his mother’ — on an open mic.”

Thanks to the efforts of the men Larry and his co-pilot CWO2 J.O. Ratliff rescued, and the relentless efforts of Gen. B.B. Bell (USA, Ret.), chairman of the National Medal of Honor Heritage Center advisory board, they prevailed, ensuring Larry received due recognition for his heroic actions. It was a privilege to attend his Medal of Honor ceremony at the White House four months ago. I will always remember Larry with that mischievous smile he sported, just before saying something irreverent. Larry was 81, and had a warrior’s heart until his last breath. I ask your prayers for his wife, Toni, and their family.

Three days earlier, our nation’s first Medal of Honor recipient for actions in Vietnam, Col. Roger Donlon, died just short of his 90th birthday.

Roger was a native of Saugerties, New York, the eighth child of 10. He began his military career in the Air Force for four years, then reenlisted in the Army. After completing Officer Candidate School, he earned his Green Beret and deployed with the 7th Special Forces Group (Airborne).

In July 1964, then-CPT Donlon was at Camp Nam Dong with 12 members of his Team A-726 detachment, a CIDG indigenous training base for Vietnamese soldiers. At 0245 on July 6, their outpost was attacked. Donlon awoke as he was hurled against a door by an enemy mortar round. They were surrounded and under attack by an overwhelming force of two Viet Cong battalions, about 800 NVA soldiers.

Donlon recalled his initial reaction: “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.”

He instructed his men to get flares up in order to see the approaching enemy: “Illuminate the main gate.” He and his men opened fire on the enemy, and he killed two before realizing he had a significant shrapnel wound, “But nothing hurt too much, and my legs were okay.” Maneuvering to a different position, he was wounded again, recounting, “For the first time, I felt real pain.” He said, “The bedlam of bursting grenades was too much.”

The fighting went on for hours, an eternity when under fire, and when dawn finally arrived, the Air Force was finally able to get in with airstrikes to end the attack. Donlon recalls, “Except for sporadic small-arms fire, the battle for Nam Dong was over.” More than 57 South Vietnamese soldiers perished along with at least 60 North Vietnamese soldiers.

Donlon’s leadership during the attack is credited with saving the lives of many of his own men and their Vietnam trainees.

Accordingly his Medal of Honor citation note:

During the violent battle that ensued, lasting five hours and resulting in heavy casualties on both sides, Capt. Donlon directed the defense operations in the midst of an enemy barrage of mortar shells, falling grenades, and extremely heavy gunfire. Upon the initial onslaught, he swiftly marshaled his forces and ordered the removal of the needed ammunition from a blazing building. He then dashed through a hail of small arms and exploding hand grenades to abort a breach of the main gate. En route to this position he detected an enemy demolition team of three in the proximity of the main gate and quickly annihilated them. Although exposed to the intense grenade attack, he then succeeded in reaching a 60-mm mortar position despite sustaining a severe stomach wound as he was within five yards of the gun pit. When he discovered that most of the men in this gun pit were also wounded, he completely disregarded his own injury, directed their withdrawal to a location 30 meters away, and again risked his life by remaining behind and covering the movement with the utmost effectiveness. Noticing that his team sergeant was unable to evacuate the gun pit he crawled toward him and, while dragging the fallen soldier out of the gun pit, an enemy mortar exploded and inflicted a wound in Capt. Donlon’s left shoulder. Although suffering from multiple wounds, he carried the abandoned 60-mm mortar weapon to a new location 30 meters away where he found three wounded defenders. After administering first aid and encouragement to these men, he left the weapon with them, headed toward another position, and retrieved a 57-mm recoilless rifle. Then with great courage and coolness under fire, he returned to the abandoned gun pit, evacuated ammunition for the two weapons, and while crawling and dragging the urgently needed ammunition, received a third wound in his leg by an enemy hand grenade. Despite his critical physical condition, he again crawled 175 meters to an 81-mm mortar position and directed firing operations which protected the seriously threatened east sector of the camp. He then moved to an eastern 60-mm mortar position and upon determining that the vicious enemy assault had weakened, crawled back to the gun pit with the 60-mm mortar, set it up for defensive operations, and turned it over to two defenders with minor wounds. Without hesitation, he left this sheltered position, and moved from position to position around the beleaguered perimeter while hurling hand grenades at the enemy and inspiring his men to superhuman effort. As he bravely continued to move around the perimeter, a mortar shell exploded, wounding him in the face and body. As the long awaited daylight brought defeat to the enemy forces and their retreat back to the jungle leaving behind 54 of their dead, many weapons, and grenades, Capt. Donlon immediately reorganized his defenses and administered first aid to the wounded. His dynamic leadership, fortitude, and valiant efforts inspired not only the American personnel but the friendly Vietnamese defenders as well and resulted in the successful defense of the camp.

His citation concludes, “Capt. Donlon’s extraordinary heroism, at the risk of his life above and beyond the call of duty, are in the highest traditions of the U.S. Army and reflect great credit upon himself and the Armed Forces of his country.”

Donlon was presented with the Medal of Honor on December 5, 1964. He was the first of 268 Vietnam War recipients. Typical of all recipients, he said: “I wear this award on behalf of those who didn’t come home. I’ve had many great opportunities to share their sacrifices.” He spent 30 years as an Army officer until his retirement.

We ask your prayers for his family.

Col. Roger Donlon: Your example of valor — a humble American Patriot defending your fellow warriors and Liberty for all — above and beyond the call of duty, and in disregard for the peril to your own life, is eternal. “Greater love has no one than this, to lay down one’s life for his friends.” (John 15:13)

Semper Vigilans Fortis Paratus et Fidelis
Pro Deo et Libertate — 1776

Join us in daily prayer for our Patriots in uniform — Soldiers, Sailors, Airmen, Marines and Coast Guardsmen — standing in harm’s way in defense of American Liberty, and for Veterans, First Responders, and their families. Please consider a designated gift to support the National Medal of Honor Sustaining Fund through Patriot Foundation Trust, or make a check payable to “NMoH Sustaining Fund” and mail it to Patriot Foundation Trust, PO Box 407, Chattanooga, TN 37401-0407.

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