The “Beer Run” is probably the most executed mission in the U.S. military. Operationally, some are as easy a walk to the PX or Commissary on base while others require going off base in a car with a loose wad of money collected from your buddies. There was one Beer Run that is considered the most legendary of all. It was pulled off by a former Marine during the height of the Vietnam War. Service members are willing to go to considerable lengths to have a beer, but what John “Chick” Donohue did here just about defies belief.
One night in November 1967, John “Chick” Donohue hatched a scheme that became known as “The Greatest Beer Run Ever.”
It all began when the then 26-year-old Chick was at Doc Fiddler’s, a neighborhood bar somewhere in the Inwood section of Manhattan. The bartender, known as “the Colonel”, Chick and a few other regulars were watching the TV and getting mighty pissed off about anti-Vietnam war protesters demonstrating in Central Park. The Colonel turned to Chick and said somebody ought to go to Vietnam and buy all those troops serving over there a beer. At that time, most of his neighborhood friends had been either sent to Vietnam or were going to be sent to Vietnam. Chick, who was a former Marine, had been over there twice as a Merchant Seaman and knew the country pretty well. And having something of a reputation for being a bit crazy and doing things that nobody else would think, a wild idea took hold in his head. He would go back to Vietnam and see his friends deployed 8,000 miles away and bring them some beer.
The next day, he went to the bar to pick up the addresses of his friends and announced his plan. He would sign on as crew aboard the SS Drake Victory a WWII Victory-class transport that was delivering ammunition to Vietnam. Among his gear was a duffle bag full of beer, mostly Pabst Blue Ribbon. Two months later he arrived in-country at the port Qui Nhon and got himself to Saigon right in the midst of the bloody Tet Offensive that saw North Vietnamese forces trying to overrun the entire south.
In the chaos of this event, Donohue ran a sob story of trying to find his stepbrother because their mom had died. This scam was successful enough for him to catch rides in military truck convoys, airplanes, and helicopters. There were a lot of CIA guys running around in Vietnam in civilian clothes and he may or may not have tried to impersonate one of them as well. Having only a vague idea of where his friends might be with a major offensive going on, he still found his friend Tom Collins(No relation to the cocktail) who remembered Chick was “walking around looking like he’s going on a golf outing or wherever the hell he’s going,” and warm beers appeared from Chick’s duffel bag.
The next guy on his To-Be-Found list was Ricky Dugan. Chick befriended a Texan with the First Air Cavalry who bought his cover story about finding his imaginary stepbrother(Dugan) he asked if he could fly him out to find him. Chick found the utterly astonished Dugan and were about to enjoy their beer when Dugan’s unit was attacked by the Viet Cong. Chick took up arms in the form of an M97 grenade launcher and helped beat back the enemy so they could finally enjoy that drink together. Being read in on the plan, Dugan found someone to fly Chick back to Saigon where he found out that SS Drake Victory had sailed without him, stranding him in the middle of a major battle.
Chickie then caught a lift going to Long Binh, where his friend Bobby was. By that time, Bobby already knew that Chick was tooling around the country in and out of active combat zones on a beer run. Returning again to Saigon, Chick found himself an unarmed civilian in the middle of the firefight between U.S. and North Vietnamese troops trying to overrun the U.S. Embassy. He got out of that unharmed. Chick later managed to get himself on a flight to Manilla where he caught up to the SS Drake Victory again and returned to the states.