U.S. Army 7th Special Forces Group Captain Roger Donlon arrived in South Vietnam in May 1964, to lead detachment A–726, assigned to a small camp called Nam Dong, in the northern part of the country designated as I Corps. Under his command were 11 fellow Green Berets, and one Australian Army advisor, in addition to two Civilian Irregular Defense Groups (311 men), which were part of a program to recruit peasants, and Chinese descendants called Nungs (60 men).
Though barely an imprint on the land, Nam Dong typified the state of the war, as similar camps were springing up all over the country as part of the United States’ attempt to raise resistance groups to fight the Communists. So far, though, the method was meeting with mixed success, as some units fought heroically while others showed little interest in risking their lives for a cause they had trouble understanding, a form of government called “Democracy.”
The men of A-726 believed that most of those at Nam Dong fell into the former category. Especially the Chinese Nungs, who hated Communism and the Vietnamese in general. Ferocious fighters, they often ran to the sound of the guns. The CIDG, for the most part, did the same, but often with less enthusiasm. As long as the Green Berets were fighting alongside both parties, however, they often stung the Vietcong and the ever-increasing North Vietnamese Army with enough casualties enough to warrant some respect.
How they had achieved this involved reams of patience and encouragement, but most importantly, a willingness to stand by the men they trained. In the end, all the effort seemed to be paying off and getting better. Soon, that perception would change.
As the guerrilla war continued unabated into the summer, American involvement was inexorably increasing both in men and materiel being sent to the South. That didn’t concern the advisors at Nam Dong, for there was something else, a sense trouble was stirring just beyond the wire in that green jungle that if not imminent, was no more than a few days away, as July 1 came and went.
The camp had been relatively quiet for weeks, which made everything more suspicious. An incident involving one of the CIDG that revealed he was a Viet Cong sympathizer unknowingly set the stage for what Donlon and the rest of A-726 worried about. A calamity was gathering far greater than any one of them could ever conceive, both outside and within the camp itself, one which would try its young captain in ways that would consume most men.
As the hot days rolled by and the Fourth passed, with the Americans wondering about the celebrations back in the States, and their families, a sense of foreboding began to place its hand over the camp. Its location, just 24 kilometers from the Laotian border and surrounded by infiltration routes from the Ho Chi Minh trail, made it an opportune target, not just for assaulting, but overrunning and destroying.
As the last patrols came in before sunset on July 5, one of the Green Berets settled on his cot within a sandbagged bunker, and to the soft glow of a light penned a letter to his wife as the sounds of insects and wildlife began their nocturnal song. “All hell is going to break loose here before the night is over.”
Somehow, Donlon felt it, too. He kept all the men on alert and made rounds after 2:00 A.M.to check defenses. He found that the perimeter of concertina wire remained uncut and the Claymore mines emplaced as he headed back to the mess hall to run down the guard roster. The time was 2:26.
He never heard the whistle of the enemy mortar round which slammed into the roof, tossing him asunder and destroying the structure. Rolling to a stop on the ground, he gathered his senses in time to see the command post also take a direct hit, sending huge clods of earth and sandbags whirling through the air to mark its quick demise.
Then the strangest thing happened. Secure in their foxholes and trenches, over half of the CIDG began stripping their clothes off to where they donned only a bright colored loin cloth to match the hidden sappers approaching the wire. To the horror of the Green Berets, Nam Dong had been infiltrated by far more sympathizers than previously thought. Now that the traitors revealed themselves and were ready to join their communist brothers, they began carrying out their own plans – to kill the man next to them. Firing soon erupted in the positions, as well as hand-to-hand struggles against the loyal Vietnamese and Nungs.
Then the jungle erupted with the chatter and flash of AK-47s. Nam Dong’s few men not busy battling the traitors returned fire with their M1 carbines, .30 caliber light machine guns and 60mm mortars. The Americans added to the mix with their M16’s and 60mm’s. Tracers nipped the humid air as shells whooshed upward.
Donlon rose and raced for one of the mortar pits. He had to rally the men. Another round landed near him, flinging him through the air again. He slammed hard into the ground, with one of his boots torn off and dizziness enveloping him. He gathered himself up and started off a second time, and heard the words, “They’re over here!” from fellow Green Beret Sergeant John Houston.
As he raced for Houston’s mortar, another round landed next to him, sending shrapnel into his body and ripping off the other boot. He managed to crawl to another pit and could see the main gate and the outlines of two sappers approaching it. He left the position and raised his M-16 to cut them down. He pulled the trigger. Click. The weapon would not fire. He called for more ammunition as he jettisoned the faulty magazine. A small cardboard box landed at his feet. He picked through the rounds, loaded them into a fresh mag and inserted it into the rifle. He aimed again and with three shots brought both men down.
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Donlon crawled over to Sgt. Houston’s pit and found him lying on his back being worked on, but it was too late. For Donlon, it was especially hard to take, for Houston had shared a letter with him a few days before when his wife announced that she had given birth to twins. All Donlon could do was swallow his grief and leave the position to help the others as the enemy continued to try and break through the wire.
Then he heard words echo through a speaker hidden in the jungle, first in English, then in Vietnamese: “Lay Down Your Arms. All We Want Is The Americans!”
More sympathizers stopped firing. For others it fell on deaf ears, as Donlon moved from position to position exhorting the indigenous troops, finding and issuing badly needed ammunition and tending to their wounded. In A-726’s mortar pits, he found most of the men already hit. He ordered them to fall back 30 meters and he would cover them as he lay his rifle upon the sandbags and began popping away at the flashes highlighting shadows moving out of the jungle.
One of the men who had decided to remain with him, Master Sergeant Gabriel ‘Pop’ Alamo fell to the ground severely wounded. Donlon grabbed the man and tried to drag him out. At that moment, another round hit near him tearing flesh from his shoulder, but he refused to quit. He continued dragging Alamo back to the withdrawal point. There he left him and returned to another mortar pit, where he found four of the Chinese Nungs badly wounded. He pulled off a sock and commenced wrapping it around the gaping wound on one of the men. Once he finished, he took off his shirt, and cut it into pieces to use it as bandages for the others. The remainder he stuffed into one of his own wounds, which had split open his stomach.
Before he moved off, he propped the four men up against the sandbag wall with their weapons and encouraged them to open fire, which they did. He made it to the other positions tending to their wounded and encouraged them, if they were able, to continue fighting. He learned a distress call was sent. If they could hold out until morning, help would arrive.
For the next five hours, against a force of nearly 900 Vietcong, Donlon rallied his men at every opportunity to seal any breach. He called artillery down on narrow valleys astride the camp against the VC, trying to marshal for a push. As for those who had infiltrated the camp as part of the CIDG, they were shattered and eventually killed, or sent scurrying back into the jungle over bodies of an unknown number of their VC comrades stopped before reaching the perimeter. Any stragglers that remained still trying to breach the wire were quickly killed under the direction of Donlon, who, by morning, had less than 100 men left under his command, and most of them were wounded. Yet, once he started to see the sun peak over the horizon, he knew they would make it.
Soon, the heavy beating of helicopter rotors sounded over the camp whose fires thickened the morning haze settling over the jungle. A Marine relief force arrived, leaping off the choppers and commencing a sweep with hundreds of men around the camp. Donlon, weak from blood loss, was helped with others aboard MEDEVACS and whisked to a hospital.
Behind them, as they disappeared into the sky, and still being gathered in the camp, were the bodies of 55 South Vietnamese and Chinese, Sergeants Gabriel Alamo and John Houston, along with the Australian Army advisor, Warrant Officer Kevin Conway. For those on the choppers, it felt like a hollow victory.
Donlon, despite his bloodied and spent body, survived surgery to recover and be sent home by Autumn. As he sat with his family enjoying Thanksgiving dinner, the phone rang. The voice at the other end said something he couldn’t quite believe, “They want you at the White House on December 5,” it said. President Lyndon Johnson was going to award him the Medal of Honor for actions at the camp a General had come to call ‘The Outpost Of Freedom.’ Donlon’s medal became the first of 248 of the nation’s highest honor to be issued over the coming years from a battlefield called Vietnam
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