This is the first part of a veteran’s efforts to find and recognize a special group.
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If you’re a friend of Tom Dohnke and you find yourself lost or separated, don’t worry. You won’t be forgotten or written off, even if you’re a cat.
Dohnke arrives early for a meeting. At a distance you see his cap’s 327 Infantry patch and First Brigade’s “Always First” crest. Then the Vietnam campaign award, the “No Slack” battalion insignia, paratrooper wings, Combat Infantryman Badge and the Purple Heart. And there is an odd little pin sitting higher than the others, shaped like an angel.
He saunters up, hands in pockets. Wiry gray hair pushes out around the cap and squinting hazel eyes study you from under the visor. “So what did you want to talk about?”
Note taking begins. “Why do you always wear the hat?”
“I get more names that way,” he said, maintaining eye contact.
Names are the key. A self-taught historian, Dohnke has a record of every 327th Infantry soldier killed in the decade-long Southeast Asian war. But there’s no book on the survivors, no record of the discharged, no chronicle of the Band of Brothers as civilians.
His own unit was part of the famous First Brigade of the 101st Airborne Division, “the nomads of Vietnam.”
Without a home-base for two years, they fought from An Khe to the Central Highlands, from the enemy stronghold of Hiep Duc to the notorious A Shua Valley. They took on their share of the Tet offensive. He doesn’t even try to locate those campaigns on a map.
“They threw us on choppers and dropped us off at some LZ (landing zone). Missions often changed en route.” He chuckled. “I know more about foxholes than maps.”
The North Vietnamese Army was well-trained and battle-hardened, first against the Japanese, then the French and finally the Americans. The brigade had its hands full.
“Tactically speaking, the NVA fought like a real army. Charlie, on the other hand, wasn’t there to fight, just to kill,” Dohnke said.
He is referring to the insurgent guerilla forces known as the Viet Cong, village-dwelling irregulars quite different from the NVA.
“Charlie preferred the ambush. So the brass kept our combat teams irresistibly small to draw fire from either unit.” He shook his head. “It definitely worked.”
Dohnke, like so many of his brethren, has lived a version of Dante’s hellish imagination but he doesn’t bring it to the table. He scoffs at his own battle stress, saying he had it relatively easy. He is aware there are details that can’t be discussed except with another GI.
There is a small but noticeable scar on his left hand.
“Punji stake,” he said, referring to the sharpened bamboo shafts set at angles in the grassy trailside by the Cong. “Charlie lined the edge of the path with them, then fired on us as we came through. Naturally we dove into the grass for cover.”
Dohnke talks with many No Slack vets, looking to re-introduce them to their forgotten battlefield chums.
“It brings closure,” he said. His hat does the advertising.
He treads gently, never knowing when a random question may trigger a restless ghost. The penetrating eyes don’t look at you so much as within you. But when he talks about his father, Taffy the lost cat or his less fortunate comrades-in-arms from the late 1960s, those flinty eyes fill up quickly.
“By May of ’68, we’d been fighting for four months in the A Shua Valley, a major staging area for the NVA. Machine-gun fire slowed our advance and now had us pinned. The guy next to me, his legs got ventilated with four holes from a single enemy round. Name was Joe Burkhart. We all knew the medivac helicopter couldn’t get in till morning. All you can do is stuff compresses against the points of hemorrhage and wait,” he said.
Dohnke won’t accept the term hero, neither does he walk around with a thousand-yard stare. He’s relaxed on the outside. About the only residual passions he harbors these days stem from his now defunct Tomary tomato operation and best friend Taffy the cat. And his beleaguered squad.
“It was getting dark, with increasing fire. We tended to the wounded in shifts, each man taking turns pressing bandages against the punctures for about an hour at a time. ‘Hang on buddy,’ I said over and over to the spent trooper, ‘the bird is coming. You’re gonna be fine.’ He was white as a sheet. Just after dawn the chopper rescued Joe Burkhart,” Dohnke recounted.
Like Luke Skywalker speeding away from the doomed Death Star, Dohnke is still escaping the Vietnam War. This decorated soldier has upgraded the mission from “Search and Destroy” to “search and reunite,” when it comes to veteran warriors of the battalion.
After his discharge in 1969 Dohnke began looking for a few war-time pals. It wasn’t easy, there was no Internet. The surviving paratroopers had gone “back to the world” but time had faded them right off the scope. He could not find anyone from his old fire team or squad. Were they all dead?
After his visit to the Vietnam Memorial Wall dedication in 1982, Dohnke couldn’t find his squad members’ names on the wall. He felt a small rush. That meant they were still alive. He was re-inspired. “Give me another name,” his father’s internal voice thundered.
Dohnke thought long and hard and then it came to him, a forgotten comrade. This man had mentioned several times the tiny town he was from.
He immediately mailed a letter to that soldier in that town. The soldier’s mother replied with a few short phrases. “No longer with us. Died in 1977.”
It was a sad irony. The soldier had escaped the death traps of Hiep Duc and A Shua, only to die in his own small town. Tom wrote again, respectfully asking how it had happened.
Then his phone rang. The caller was his friend’s wife with the information Tom was seeking — her husband had committed suicide nine years after returning from ‘Nam.
Dohnke was devastated. The war had followed his pal home. How many others? He was now living his father’s nightmare. He abandoned further outreach.
“Tom feels guilt,” said Mary Dohnke, his wife. “As survivors often do.”
The search restarts
In 2004 Dohnke wore his 327th cap to the traveling Vietnam Memorial Wall in Sacramento. There he received a brochure about an upcoming battalion reunion. Enthused again, he got the roster and wasted no time reaching out.
This time he found almost 12 survivors from his squad and talked each one into attending the reunion. It was closure on a grand scale. He’s made contact with 20 since then. It was his first military reunion but not the last.
One by one the ex-GIs contacted by Dohnke connected with one another. There was a common belief that their legendary Platoon Sergeant Nitche Alonzo was killed in action.
Dohnke didn’t believe it. “He was too tough to die.”
In a determined hunt, Dohnke found an obscure lead which eventually led to the retired hero, whose two wars had garnered seven purple hearts. Later, at an event someone asked, “Anybody know whatever happened to Sergeant Alonzo? He’s dead, right?”
“Not quite,” grinned the newly minted sleuth, waving his cell phone. “Want to say hello?”
In 2007, 40 years after the nightmares of Hiep Duc and A Shua Valley, and three years after the tomato operation, Dohnke allowed himself to be adopted by a cat. It came out of nowhere one day and wouldn’t leave.
“Called her Taffy for her color.” Dohnke rolled his eyes. “We were inseparable.”
When he and Mary were in Iowa visiting some war vet friends, the cat, spooked by a clap of thunder, escaped its harness and disappeared. A search began. Local newspapers ran stories on the determined warrior’s roadside vigil. A week went by, then another. He made flyers, posted signs, combed the nearby woods and fields.
Finally, prompted by the demands of her schedule at home, Mary went back to California. But the old soldier stayed, unwilling to give up on the cat who never gave up on him.
Not all endings are storybook style. A week later Tom chose to fold the search and rejoin Mary in Placerville. Once again he did everything but it wasn’t enough. It’s an old story he feels even today.
Guys like Dohnke aren’t mass produced. The second son of hardware salesman William Dohnke, he hails from Pasadena. His brother joined the Peace Corps, Tom had no such aspiration. He and his dad weren’t estranged, they just never bonded.
Then the draft notice arrived in 1967. Tom was in the Army now and a big change came over the senior Dohnke.
Death comes in threes, according to superstition. Three family members had passed on recently, followed by the beloved family pet dog. A neighbor’s boy, already in Vietnam as a buck sergeant, was killed shortly thereafter. Now Tom was heading there. William Dohnke was nervous.
Dohnke’s aunt pleaded with him in a letter not to die.
“It was strange but revealing,” Dohnke recalled. “She insisted no matter how bad it might get, how mangled I may become, I wasn’t to give up, my father would gladly take care of me forever. ‘Do not die,’ she insisted, ‘because if you die, he’ll die with you.'”
In his 11 months of combat Tom received many care packages from his father.
“Started with smokes and cartons of small Tabasco bottles. I thanked him in a letter but told him I wasn’t crazy about hot sauce.”
“Give it out to the others,” snapped the reply. William was right, fellow soldiers loved Tabasco on field rations. As some became casualties, Tom would update his dad. “He told me in no uncertain terms I was to redistribute the packages to the other soldiers.”
He paused. “You see, he sent everything to me because he didn’t want to know who died. He refused to think of his heroes in the past tense.”
When Dohnke returned home after the war, he found virtually every wall of his dad’s kitchen stacked with Tabasco, cigarettes and other gifts.
“I asked him why, since I was now a civilian.” His answer was brief. ‘The others kept you alive, didn’t they? Just give me another name!'”
Then the elder Dohnke handed Tom a stack of unopened envelopes. “Here, read these.”
Dohnke noticed the letters were addressed to his father, not himself. The return addresses were all GIs in Vietnam. He tried to give them back but his father refused them, continuing to insist on more names.
It would be almost 30 years later when Dohnke found out why his dad wouldn’t read the letters and why there always had to be another name. Many gift boxes had been returned marked “deceased.” So many, that it almost became superstitious. As emotionally crippling as that was, the father persisted in sending packages but he needed his son to provide the identities. “Give me another name” became the mantra for his dad’s single-minded unselfishness.
Part two will run Wednesday, Nov. 13.