In 1964, the United States involvement in Vietnam was a much smaller undertaking than it would become just a year later. The total number of U.S. troops in Vietnam in 1964 was 23,000. They were still considered technically advisors to the South Vietnamese Army. Nevertheless, 216 Americans would die in combat that year against the Viet Cong (VC) and the North Vietnamese Army (NVA).
Political chaos and constant regime change severely hampered the South. The Viet Cong communist guerrillas controlled about 40 percent of the countryside. The United States sent Green Berets from Ft. Bragg and they, with CIA assistance, began the Civilian Irregular Defense Group (CIDG).
The original design of CIDG was to prevent the Viet Cong from recruiting the Montagnards (an indigenous mountain people of Vietnam). This was done by, among other measures, building fortified camps that were manned by the Montagnards. Later, though, CIDG’s mission was changed to include the construction of outposts that monitored the major NVA infiltration routes from North Vietnam.
One of these CIDG camps was the camp at Nam Dong. The commander of the U.S. SF troops was Captain Roger Donlon, and the A-Team was A-726 from the 7th Special Forces Group. Nam Dong was situated 32 miles west of Da Nang along the border with Laos.
In early July that camp would see a pitched battle as American and South Vietnamese forces turned back a major Viet Cong attack. And Donlon would become the first of many Americans to be awarded the Medal of Honor in Vietnam.
Nam Dong was on a major infiltration route for the North Vietnamese along what became known as the Ho Chi Minh trail. Donlon’s A-team consisted of 12 Americans and included an Australian advisor, Warrant Officer Kevin Conway, as well as an American anthropologist, Gerald Hickey, who was studying Vietnam’s indigenous tribes. The Green Berets were assigned to train and advise 311 Katu Tribesman along with a South Vietnamese SF team and 60 Nungs (ethnic Chinese mercenaries that served as bodyguards for the members of the Special Forces in South Vietnam). All of them were stationed in the camp. The Nungs were fiercely loyal to the SF troops and would be extremely trusted in the fighting to come.
The SF troops had sensed that an attack from the VC was coming. A three-day patrol returned with the news that the Viet Cong had executed two village chiefs that had been friendly to the Americans. “Get everyone buttoned-up tight tonight, the VC are coming. I can feel it,” Donlon told his team sergeant MSG “Pop” Alamo.
Tensions ran high in the basecamp, culminating in a confrontation between members of the Vietnamese strike force and the Nungs. Donlon later said that the confrontation was started by VC sympathizers inside the camp’s strike force.
Donlon was checking the camp’s defenses at 02:30 a.m. and getting ready to relieve Conway, who had been on duty. As he reached the door of the mess hall to get some coffee, the roof exploded in a blinding flash. VC mortar gunners had expertly targeted the mess hall and the command post with white phosphorous rounds. The VC used the fires as a beacon for the incoming fire that would pepper the camp.
As accurate mortar fire bracketed all of the compound, the camp dispensary was hit; but the medic, SGT Thomas Gregg made it out safely with his pump-action shotgun. He blasted three VC who tried rushing in from the gate area.
Many of the Vietnamese, including the South Vietnamese camp commander and the Intelligence Officer, were VC sympathizers. Many of them in the strike force killed their Vietnamese counterparts while they slept or once the battle commenced.
The team’s radio operator, SSG Keith Daniels was radioing Da Nang when the Commo Bunker was hit. “They had superb planning,” Donlon said after the battle. Machine gun fire and grenades raked the camp as the Viet Cong force of at least 800 troops (a reinforced battalion) was beginning its assault of the camp.
It was then that Conway was killed. Trying to bolster the confidence of the men, he tried to act nonchalantly by slowly descending into the mortar pit when he was shot between the eyes. He lingered unconscious for a half-hour, but died despite being given what little first aid was available. He was the first Australian soldier to die in Vietnam.
SGT John Houston saw more Viet Cong inside the inner perimeter and rushed to meet them headlong. He was behind a berm that the SF called “The Pool.” Donlon was going to help him when he was hit by shrapnel from a mortar round. The blast took off all of his equipment, leaving him with no boots and just his AR-15. He was wounded in three places.
Houston kept the VC troops at bay for over two hours, while they were lobbing grenades at him, before his ammunition began to run out. Even then, he still refused to leave his position telling other soldiers to throw him ammo. He was then mortally wounded as the VC continued their advance across the camp.
In the mortar pit, the tube was glowing red-hot from the constant use of shells and illumination rounds that were being fired. Pop Alamo with an AR-15 and 1LT Jay Olejniczak, the XO of the team with an M-79 grenade launcher, also kept up a steady rate of fire.
Alamo saw the VC attempting to breach the main gate. He rushed from the pit under heavy automatic weapons fire and bolstered the defense there, despite suffering a serious wound. The team’s situation was rapidly becoming untenable.
Donlon and Alamo covered the rest of the men in the pit as Donlon ordered them back to another position. When it was their turn to leave, Donlon helped Alamo to his feet just as a VC mortar round hit the edge of the pit. The blast killed Alamo and wounded Donlon a fourth time. He had wounds to his face, arm, leg, and a quarter-sized hole in his stomach. His fingers were numb, but this didn’t stop him from carrying the 60mm mortar and ammunition back to the men in the ditch.
He made three trips, while treating the Nungs who were badly wounded, distributing ammunition and rallying the men. Donlon was seemingly everywhere. He made his way to SSG Woods who manned the other 81mm mortar pit. Woods was nearly knee-deep in brass and empty ammunition tubes. He was wounded in his feet and had a perforated eardrum.
At just after 04:00 a.m., Donlon heard the drone of an approaching aircraft that dropped flares to illuminate the airstrikes that would follow. He expected the VC to make a final all-out attempt to take the camp. The VC, having sustained major casualties took to a loudspeaker to urge in Vietnamese and English that the defenders surrender or that they’d all be killed. The SF troops silenced it with mortar rounds.
The arrival of air support turned the tide. By 07:00 a.m., the Viet Cong quietly slipped away, defeated. They left behind 154 dead and probably carried many more with them. The camp suffered three dead: two Americans, Alamo and Houston, who had left pregnant wives at home, and an Australian, Conway. Nine other Americans were wounded. The South Vietnamese had lost 62 men.
On December 5, President Lyndon Johnson awarded Donlon the Medal of Honor, the first of the Vietnam War. Secretary of Defense Robert McNamara read the citation. All nine survivors of Team A-726 were present. Introducing them to the President, Donlon said, “The medal belongs to them, too.”
Alamo and Houston were posthumously awarded the Distinguished Service Cross for their bravery, while Olejniczak, Brown, Disser, and Terrin received Silver Stars. Bronze Stars for Valor were awarded to Beeson, Daniels, Gregg, Whitsell, and Woods.
A footnote to the story is that two months later in September 1964, the Montagnards would revolt against the horrible treatment they’d suffered from the lowland South Vietnamese. It was the U.S. Green Berets who acted as mediators and calmed the situation down. The Military Assistance Command, Vietnam (MACV) would eventually lament that “the Montagnards show more loyalty to the SF, than they do to their own government.” This would begin a slow erosion of trust between the MACV and the SF.