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War hero's death etched in memory
By JOHN A. HARNES
COASTAL MONMOUTH BUREAU
Retired Army Col. Roger H.C. Donlon salutes during Friday's ceremony at the N.J. Vietnam Veterans Memorial.
Master Sgt. Gabriel R. Alamo's name is inscribed on the memorial's wall.
HOLMDEL -- On the 37th anniversary of his death in battle, Master Sgt. Gabriel R. Alamo was honored yesterday by his old comrade in arms, retired Col. Roger H.C. Donlon, the first American to earn the Medal of Honor during the Vietnam War.
Already a veteran of World War II and Korea, Alamo was a grizzled 45-year-old New Jerseyan affectionately known as "Pop" by his younger colleagues at Nam Dong in the early days of the war.
"He was our leader and inspiration," Donlon told those who gathered at a ceremony at the New Jersey Vietnam Veterans Memorial off the Garden State Parkway. "He was certainly a warrior among warriors."
On July 6, 1964, Donlon was in command of Detachment A-726, 7th Special Forces Group (Airborne), 1st Special Forces, when a reinforced Viet Cong battalion launched a full-scale, pre-dawn attack on the camp.
The ensuing battle lasted five hours and resulted in heavy casualties on both sides. Donlon, then a captain, directed the defense operations in the midst of an enemy barrage of mortar shells, falling grenades and extremely heavy gunfire.
Donlon said the shape of the memorial was similar to that of the mortar pit he and Alamo were literally blown into by an explosion.
"To my dying day I will carry the memory of having Pop die in my arms," Donlon said.
The defenders at Nam Dong, outnumbered at least 3 to 1, would become one of the most highly decorated units in Army history.
In addition to Donlon's Medal of Honor, Distinguished Service Crosses -- the nation's second-most-sacred awards for military valor -- were presented posthumously to Alamo, who hailed from Lyndhurst, and Sgt. John Houston. Four team members were awarded the Silver Star, and another five each received the Bronze Star with "V" for valor.
Representing Maj. Gen. Paul J. Glazar, the state's adjutant general, during yesterday's ceremony was Col. Michael Warner, who presented Alamo's son, Michael Sr., with his father's New Jersey Distinguished Service Medal, the state's top military award. After receiving the award, he passed it to his own 16-year-old son, Michael Jr.
Michael Sr. was only 4 when his father died. He reminded onlookers that engraved on the war memorial's walls are the names of people like his father who "gave their lives for their country."
He came to the ceremony with his wife, Demy, and children, Michael Jr. and Alyssa, 10, from their home in Alabama.
Michael Sr. said Donlon, now living in Leavenworth, Kan., recruited him, and in 1983 and he earned a place in the ranks of the Special Forces and served in the Army for six years.
Donlon said Michael Alamo Sr., now a firefighter/paramedic, is "still battling fires, but this time they are at home."
Donlon quoted a message from Maj. Michael Davis O'Donnell, who on Jan. 1, 1970, in Dak To, Vietnam, crystallized the sentiments he and other veterans share concerning the loss of men such as Alamo:
"If you are able, save for them a place inside of you and save one backward glance when you are leaving for the places they can no longer go. Be not ashamed to say you loved them, though you may or may not have always. Take what they have left and what they have taught you with their dying and keep it with your own. And in that time when men decide and feel safe to call the war insane, take one moment to embrace those gentle heroes you left behind."
O'Donnell, a helicopter pilot, was killed in action March 24, 1970, during a rescue attempt.
The Medal of Honor, established early in the Civil War to "promote efficiency in the Navy," rose to prominence in American history and heritage, becoming the nation's highest military decoration. Fewer than 3,500 have been awarded, and 149 recipients survive.
Two of those survivors attended yesterday's ceremony: Nicholas Oresko of Bayonne, a World War II veteran, and Jack H. Jacobs of Tenafly, who served in Vietnam.
At 1 p.m. today, Donlon will speak at the Vietnam Era Educational Center, adjacent to the war memorial, about his experiences in Vietnam and will sign copies of his book, "Beyond Nam Dong."
Admission to the Educational Center is $4 for adults and $2 for seniors and students. Veterans, active-duty military personnel and children under 10 are admitted free. The center is at parkway Exit 116.
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