Retired Leavenworth colonel recalls Vietnam battle for survival and humbling honor

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KANSAS CITY, Mo. --  A 30-year-old Army captain finished up his watch duty and checked the call sheet in the hut to see who's next.

"I was gonna make sure I woke the right guy up," he recalled of that moment, frozen in time.

In a split-second, just six weeks into his first tour of duty in Vietnam, Roger Donlon's world changed. Forever. With a flash of light.

It was 2:26 a.m on July 6, 1964.

"And I opened the door, and about that time a white phosphorous mortar round hit the roof and blew that thing apart and that started it," Donlon recalled.

That started a five-hour battle for survival at Camp Nam Dong, just a few miles from the Laos/Vietnamese border. The Viet Cong had staged a surprise attack.

It was a date with destiny Donlon had grown up with. The son of a World War II veteran, he grew up in a family of 10 siblings, with brothers who went off to war, too.

"And the rest of us were just waiting in the wings," said the native of Saugerties, New York, nestled along the Hudson River.

So he played soldier as a child, became active in the Boy Scouts, and eventually enlisted in the Air Force. When the Air Force Academy didn't work out, Donlon tried the Army and West Point. He got in, but after two years got out altogether and tried civilian life, working for IBM.

That didn't last long.

"I had the ache to go back and be in uniform and be where the action was," he said.

After re-enlisting and completing officer's training, he was definitely where the action was. In a battle for his life and the life of his men and others fighting the enemy that morning.

Donlon and 11 other on his special forces team led the way. The first blast wounded Donlon but he fought on. In all, he would suffer four wounds, and watch one of his men die in his harms as he tried to rescue him from a mortar pit.

"When I was picking up Pop Alamo when we got blasted back in that mortar (pit), I thought that was it," he said.

He survived with more wounds, though another of his team would not. John Houston was killed too.

"And that's all I could think of when I got word that John was killed, was why John and not me," he said.

Both Houston and Alamo's wives had recently learned they were pregnant. Alamo's wife miscarried, as did Houston's, when they got word of their husband's death.

"She gave premature birth to the twins when she got the news that John was killed, and John Houston, Jr. is buried in Arlington with his father," he explained.

Marine reinforcements would arrive later, and after five hours, the Battle of Nam Dong was over. Capt. Donlon survived with multiple wounds, and marveled at how the camp, out-manned three to one, had been able to hold its position and vanquish the enemy.

"We never thought about quittin'," he said.

And neither did Donlon. He became the recipient of the Vietnam War's first Medal of Honor for his leadership and bravery that day. President Lyndon B. Johnson placed it around his neck in December of 1964. He eventually rose to the rank of Colonel after numerous other stops in the Army, including a visit back to Vietnam nearly 20 years later, where the man who was once his enemy, the man who planned the attack was staring back at him.

"It was tough to reach out the first time to shake hands. But once you shook hands and looked 'em in the eye, you saw another warrior," he said.

He made numerous other trips, and his reconciliation clock, as he calls it, began to tick. He and others helped raise money to build schools in Vietnam, named in honor of his fallen comrades.

"All killed in action here," he said, pointing to a painting of war in his Leavenworth den, "now rebuilding bridges of understanding between countries, and cultures, and generations, through education."

He and his wife Norma had been at Fort Leavenworth during his career, and he allowed her to choose a home for retirement. Without hesitation he smiles, she chose Leavenworth, "because of the people." They raised five children, including two sons who served in the Army and one in the Navy.

Recently Col. Donlon and his wife traveled to Florida to commemorate the 50th Anniversary of the Battle of Nam Dong at the 7th Special Forces Headquarters. He was joined by three of the surviving five members of his special forces unit. There, Donlon was surprised with another honor: The headquarters of his unit now bears a new name: Donlon Hall.

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