BAY CITY, MI — Retired Col. Roger Donlon arrived at the USS Edson 10 minutes early, standing in a dusty, hot parking lot to chat, the U.S. Medal of Honor draped inside the collar of his striped jacket.
Just yards away, members of the Bay County Veterans Council Honor Guard’s rifle squad sat in uniform at a small pavilion, eyeing his arrival.
“I wish he would wear his medal,” murmured Gene Netkowski, a U.S. Navy veteran sitting with his rifle in hand.
“He is, he’s got it on him,” said one of his colleagues.
Netkowksi bolted out of his chair and turned to look, still holding his rifle. Donlon’s gold, blue-ribboned star – the first of its kind awarded to a Vietnam veteran – glimmered in the sun.
“Oh, wow,” Netkowski said, the awe apparent in his voice. “That’s an honor right there.”
Donlon’s appearance at the USS Edson came on Wednesday, Jun 24, midway through his weeklong visit to the Great Lakes Bay Region. The Leavenworth, Kansas, resident’s visit was originally for his appearance at a Saginaw leadership workshop for teachers but he’s kept his schedule packed with appearances, from Walleyes for Warriors to a Great Lakes Loons game.
During his visit, Donlon offered a few remarks for a small crowd of guests before taking a tour of the USS Edson, a Vietnam-era naval destroyer now moored in Bangor Township near the Independence Boat Launch. He earned a slew of gun salutes, with rounds fired by the Bay County Veterans Council Honor Guard, a local chapter of the Sons of the Union Veterans of the Civil War, and from the USS Edson itself.
“Any time I can be in the heart of America and spend time with people who have red, white and blue corpuscles, it reignites the same in me,” he said.
At 81, Donlon’s age has slowed him. His hair is thinning and tremors ran through one of his hands on Wednesday while he held a microphone in the other. His voice and his mind are still clear, though, and he carries himself straight. At the end of his remarks, he quietly and patiently took the time to acknowledge each of the men who approached him.
“People don’t understand the importance of that and the honor it is,” said Keith Markstrom, a Vietnam veteran and chairman of the Bay County Veterans Foundation, noting Donlon’s Medal of Honor. “It’s hard for me to put in words. I’m tearing up inside a little bit; (recipients) have gone above and beyond their duty to serve.”
Donlon grew up in New York state, joining the U.S. Army in 1958. His Medal of Honor citation stems from a July 1964 battle in Vietnam. He was a green beret then, commanding a special forces detachment based in Nam Dong, when his base was attacked.
The U.S. Army archives record of his citation reads like an action movie.
“Upon the initial onslaught, (Donlon) quickly marshaled his forces and ordered the removal of the needed ammunition from a blazing building,” records read. “He then dashed through a hail of small arms and exploding hand grenades to abort a breach of the main gate. En route to this position he detected an enemy demolition team of three in the proximity of the main gate and quickly annihilated them.”
The record goes on to describe wounds suffered to his stomach, shoulder, leg and face, all through which Donlon continued to move through his base, administer first aid to fellow soldiers and direct a defense.
“Capt. Donlon’s extraordinary heroism, at the risk of his life above and beyond the call of duty are in the highest traditions of the U.S. Army and reflect great credit upon himself and the Armed Forces of his country,” the record concludes.
Speaking to a reporter from The Bay City Times, Donlon humbly joked that the battle was “a busy night.” All he was thinking about, he said, was saving the guy next to him.
“We promised each other we would go down fighting, and that’s what we thought we were going to do,” he said.
For Mike Kegley, president of the Saginaw Valley Naval Ship Museum — which curates the USS Edson — Donlon’s visit was an honor. During his remarks to the crowd, he mentioned the ship’s namesake, U.S. Marine Corps Maj. Gen. Merritt Austin Edson, who was awarded the Medal of Honor for actions in World War II.
“It’s beyond flattering,” Kegley said of Donlon’s visit. “These are things that make this ship come alive.”
Donlon mentioned how pleased he was to be there, too. During his time in Vietnam, he said, the American flag wasn’t flown except on the U.S. Embassy. When he was healing up after his brush with the enemy, he remembers first spotting the flag when he went down to the beach.
“I looked out on the horizon and there was a Navy ship with Old Glory flying off the aft,” he said. “That was better than any medicine that I had at the hospital. I went about 6 feet, 4 feet, 5 feet into the water, and Old Glory just touched my soul. This setting here couldn’t be any better.”
The USS Edson’s staff welcomed Donlon with open arms, insisting he board the ship first for his tour. They invoked an old Navy tradition by piping him aboard, sounding a whistle and announcing his arrival via loudspeaker.
Donlon carefully plodded up the long, narrow gangway alone — the crowd gathered behind him watching as Old Glory flapped in the breeze beyond.
The Bay City Times
June 25, 2015 at 7:15 AM, updated June 26, 2015 at 4:55 PM