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.

Special Forces A-Team A-726, prior to deployment at Ft. Bragg.

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.