This is the second part of a veteran’s efforts to find and recognize a special group.
Tom Dohnke, a member of the 327 Infantry in Vietnam, has a mission — to find the survivors of the Southeast Asian war.
Dohnke never saw himself as a people finder. He became a paratrooper after basic training and was initially assigned to the 82d Airborne Division at Ft. Bragg, N.C. Almost immediately he was re-assigned to the 101st Airborne Division, headquartered at Ft. Campbell, Ky, a bucolic hundred- thousand acre Army camp straddling the Kentucky-Tennessee border.
But that wasn’t where the 20-year-old landed. His new home consisted of jungle peaks and misty valleys punctuated by rice paddy villages, sweeping jet contrails and thumping helicopter rotors. Add miles of enemy tunnels, robust cities, burning villages, half a million American soldiers, a separate South Vietnamese Army, and a distrustful population, and you have what used to be called South Vietnam.
His unit was A Company, 2d Battalion, 327th Infantry. Dohnke was now part of one of the Army’s most storied units.
In 1944 the 327th whooshed into Normandy at night behind German lines, strapped into plywood gliders. The same infantry unit, half-frozen and starving, and using rationed ammunition, held off the final German advance of World War II at Bastogne, Belgium, and became famous for the reply “Nuts!” when presented with a surrender demand from the German High Command.
“Nobody believes he said that exact word,” Dohnke smiled at the sanitized version of General Anthony McAuliffe’s famous retort.
“Many historians believe it was two words,” Dohnke said.
In 1957, President Eisenhower dispatched the 327th Infantry to Little Rock, Ark. to enforce integration of the high school. President Kennedy ordered its use in Meridian, Miss. to maintain public order during James Meredith’s enrollment at Ole Miss. But the 327th Airborne Infantry’s greatest test was ahead.
In 1965 the unit, part of the First Brigade of the 101st Airborne Division, was called upon to help defeat Ho Chi Minh’s army in Southeast Asia, where the proud French Army had been humiliated nine years earlier by the under-rated Vietnamese forces.
The Asian sub-continent was catching the flu of communism and America was under political pressure to say “Nuts!” to the Red expansion somewhere along the line. It chose Vietnam.
Enter Dohnke’s 327th Infantry.
In his famous documentary “The Fog of War,” the late Defense Secretary Robert McNamara made clear that soldiers in combat typically become disoriented quickly. All planning falls apart when boots hit the ground. Blinded by smoke and dust, ears ringing from exploding mortars, emotions seared from the screaming of the wounded, scared soldiers lose sense of direction and are drawn to shoot at shadows. Command breaks down.
The Vietnam experience always got worse. Body count skyrocketed on both sides, there were village massacres. Through the ’60s “America lost its innocence one dead soldier at a time — from each side,” reported Newsweek magazine.
The 101st Airborne lost 4,100 paratroopers in Vietnam, twice the toll of WW II. In all, 58,000 U.S. military personnel died. More than two million Vietnamese were killed. “Wasted” was the common vernacular.
Dohnke reflected, “Good word.”
After the fact
There is often a residual effect from the baptism of the killing fields which haunts its participants for many years. Post Traumatic Stress Disorder manifests itself mildly or profoundly. Look closely and you’ll see eyes perpetually brimming, scarred psyches disconnected from the world of Facebook and smart phones, men and women not always fitting in but always fitting on the edge.
For reasons he still hasn’t figured out completely, Dohnke served as point man, the leading soldier in a patrol, too often.
“They had the highest mortality rate,” he said.
He was awarded a Purple Heart for wounds received by a sniper’s ricocheting bullet, plus two other wounds that were overlooked, but got nothing for his broken heart. No one did.
Dohnke returned to the world in 1968, got married, and built a log home, only to face selling it in a divorce settlement.
Tom’s father stepped up, “Son, you don’t know me very well. I’ve got a lot of money and I want you get her settlement number, buy her out and keep your home.”
He was shocked to discover his dad was so well off. He accepted the offer and wound up with the house in Placerville, which remains his home today.
William Dohnke passed away in 1999.
“Imagine my surprise when the estate was settled and I learned my dad wasn’t wealthy at all. He apparently had a few shares of stock, some savings and a retirement account. He cashed it all in to help me,” he said.
Somewhere along the line William Dohnke bought up a supply of small angel pins. He called them guardian angels and passed them out through handshakes to “good people” he met. This went on for 10 years till his death.
At the funeral, Tom noticed that nearly every attendee was wearing a guardian angel. He gladly took over the pin distribution.
“Knew a lady in New York,” Dohnke recalled, “who had had a baby at age 15 and reluctantly gave it up for adoption after two tough years.” Fifty years later, still haunted by her decision, she asked Dohnke, finder of ex-GIs, if he could locate the child, now a grown man.
“After half a century it wasn’t very realistic but she was really tormented,” Dohnke said. “She had nothing to give me but a first name and the place of adoption. So I gave her and her husband a pin and promised I’d look into it. I had no idea where to start.”
Two months later, the 51-year-old son reached out from nowhere and called his birth mom. The reunion came soon thereafter and the bond has remained solid. The couple hugged Tom.
“It was the angel, Tom. Your dad,” they said.
The road traveled
Dohnke was a California Highway Patrol officer for 10 years.
“Those roads are an unpredictable adventure and the CHP is an effective organization. It was a great run, I made good friends,” Dohnke said.
He moved to Placerville in 1979, marrying Mary in 1985.
A former teacher, Mary’s entrepreneurial instinct had led her to successfully found a daycare center and starter school, grades first through third. Now she would join Dohnke on his 10 acres, where those instincts would be tested in a way she never expected.
In 1987 the couple, using their combined first names, began Tomary, the region’s first commercial heirloom tomato growing operation.
“They look funny but taste great,” Mary said.
The “great whites,” so named by tomato aficionado Thomas Jefferson, were mostly unknown at the time. Dohnke became ambassador for these odd-lookers, driving the Lake Tahoe to San Francisco corridor with truckloads of freshly picked fruit. Chefs took a liking and soon important customers began demanding Tomary tomatoes.
Tomary expanded to 80,000 plants over the next few years as its reputation grew exponentially. Dohnke could hire pickers, packers and drivers, but only he could handle pricing and delivery issues.
For many chefs, customer service needed to happen in person. While Mary took charge of certain farm operations, Dohnke drove the merchandise. Day trips became over-nighters, which became sleepless weeks. Exhausted, Mary would take nap breaks on the sorting table as Dohnke took cat naps on the road. Distribution kicked in and Tomary went national, then international.
Williams-Sonoma used Tomary tomatoes for gift packages. From iconic New York restaurants to Disneyworld, top chefs demanded customized attention. Radio and television shows tried to schedule Dohnke into on-air interviews and questions and answer forums, and Dohnke, often clad in trucker’s T-shirt and jeans, did his best.
Steven Spielberg, Robin Leach, Martha Stewart and the famous chef Jacques Pepin wanted Dohnke’s personal consideration but so did the start-up restaurant 20 miles away. Customers always came first.
Competitors sprang up and undercut Dohnke’s prices. The Tomary duo was now going full speed 24-7. Bringing in outside people hadn’t worked out, no one was willing to carry the Tomary standards of quality and work. Dohnke’s doctor had long insisted he take better care of himself but now it was a mandate.
“It’s a long story,” Dohnke said with a squint, “but we had to lay it down in 2004.”
Sixteen years of dedication created an institution which has been emulated throughout California. Heirloom tomatoes are the rage in stores and magazines.
“We weren’t perfect,” Mary flipped through a scrapbook of the years. “But I’ll tell you the truth, Tom is the most virtuous man I’ve ever known.” Then she added, “And he made a difference.”
Making a difference
Dohnke’s aptitude for making a difference continued long after Tomary. Recently a friend of his noticed a shopper at Costco wearing a hat with tell-tale military insignia. The shopper turned out to be Major Phil Lugo, a former Ranger and Special Forces operator in Vietnam. Major Lugo had long sought someone in the 327th who might have known a Sergeant Fred Nunez.
“He was KIA in Vietnam but I never heard details,” spoke the vet, adding, “We went to ranger school together. Served together in Panama. He was my best friend.”
“I know a guy I could ask,” replied the other man, thinking of Tom Dohnke.
Unbelievably, Dohnke came through the store 20 minutes later. Asked if he remembered Sgt. Nunez, the vet was dumbfounded.
“Are you serious?” Dohnke asked. “Sergeant Fred Contreras Nunez was my platoon sergeant.”
Dohnke retreated into his memories. “Got mortared Oct. 5, 1967 at Hiep Duc. The guys kept him alive all night, but he bled out half an hour before the chopper could get in.”
Stunned, Dohnke’s friend alerted him to the inquiring gentleman who could still be in the store. Dohnke searched the store for a senior with a decorated hat but came up empty-handed. He scratched out a phone number.
“If you ever see him again, please have him call me,” Dohnke said.
It was four months until Phil Lugo reappeared in Costco. He was given Dohnke’s number and the two men talked on the phone.
Lugo was ecstatic.
“Tom even gave me the phone number of the officer who stayed with Fred through the night, a guy named Williams. I called him too and got the details on Fred’s last hours. The team had kept pressure on his wounds all night but lost him half an hour before the medivac arrived.” Lugo took a deep breath. “Fred Nunez was godfather to my children, you know.”
Major Phil Lugo finally had closure.
There are no accidents, says the adage, no coincidences. Borrowing the theme of James Stewart’s movie “It’s A Wonderful Life,” if Tom Dohnke hadn’t been born, it would be a much different world for more than a few, including four battered and disparate soldiers who survived the Hiep Duc and A Shua Valley battles.
Hiep Duc was a particularly brutal series of engagements. In the months leading up to the Tet offensive of January 1968, the NVA used the strategic valley as a staging and resupply area. “A” Company attacked relentlessly but the NVA was determined to stay. The Americans were outgunned and outmanned.
In two weeks Dohnke’s unit lost 12 men to snipers, machine gunners and mortars. Then in a single day, Oct. 8, 1967, the unit tragically lost 18 more soldiers.
The brothers-in-arms were bound forever by the shared nightmare and Dohnke wasn’t about to let that brotherhood expire by the mere passage of time. He tracked down Pete Pepper, “the old man,” a then 23-year-old company commander.
Now in his 60s, Pepper was also in touch with three other members of the unit, a radioman and two riflemen. All suffered from PTSD, all had problems adjusting to “the world.”
Captain Pepper proposed they all return to the scene of the trauma. A media figure himself, he could bring videographers along and document the whole thing. Not everyone liked the idea, but Pepper prevailed.
In 2009 the old paratroopers, Dohnke and four comrades, re-entered Vietnam as guests. The video chronicle was later dubbed “Killing Memories” and was widely broadcast.
Vietnam is a beautiful but abused lady who, fortunately, has a short memory, says a latter-day proverb about the slender jungle paradise bordered by the South China Sea.
Through a guide, the apprehensive quintet visited many battle sites, including the grisly battle zone of Hiep Duc. Time disappeared as each one came to grips in the exact spot where the boy became the man.
“It was cathartic,” Dohnke recalled. “Former enemies respectfully approached us and we embraced one another.”
“If it weren’t for Tom’s tenacity in finding me,” said Pepper, “I can’t guarantee that all of us would have made it to old age. He brought each of us back into the circle, he insisted on each of us staying in the game. That journey back to Nam rewrote my life.”
In a final irony of Dohnke’s post-war adventures, he revealed something about that trip to Iowa in 2007, where he became separated from his beloved cat Taffy. He was there to visit an old soldier, a war buddy whose legs were ruined at the A Shua 40 years earlier, when the chopper couldn’t set down till daylight, and Dohnke’s squad took turns keeping him alive with compresses — a grateful man named Joe Burkhart.
Dohnke paused. “I’ll never forget the feeling I had when the chopper got him out of there alive. What a moment!”
And in that rare moment of relief in the spring of 1968, Fred Nunez may have been watching from his newly acquired spot in heaven and for certain William Dohnke was furiously packing another gift box of smokes and Tabasco.
In New York, a 22 year-old woman was still struggling with having given up her child to an uncertain world seven years earlier. She had no way of knowing the child’s life was already working out harmoniously. She wouldn’t know it for another 44 years, when her husband’s war buddy, Tom Dohnke, would give her a Guardian Angel and promise to look into it.
Closure follows Tom Dohnke
For many, it’s difficult to bring finality to those 10 years of national sacrifice. Asked whether the war was worth it, Dohnke is quiet for a long moment.
“You know, we won nearly 100 percent of the battles, including Tet, but lost the will to win the war. Could it have been shorter and better executed? Yes, I believe so,” he said.
He recited the struggles. “The 1948 Berlin blockade, the 1950 Korean War, the 1962 Cuban Missile Crisis and the 10 years of Vietnam, as well the black ops we’ll never know about, they all contributed to the fall of Communism. It was a full court press. We never gave them a chance to catch their breath.”
The benevolent soldier’s reflections on the Vietnam war mirror his own self-effacing oath which remains anchored in his head as though chiseled into a wall. “I did everything I could but it wasn’t enough.”
Mary disagrees. “Life’s too big for one man to solve,” she smiled, squeezing his arm affectionately. “But nobody could have done more.”
The old soldier wants to track down every man who served “across the pond” in his beloved 327th Infantry. He also carries a list of 70 KIAs from the unit which he hopes to see posted or published.
“Yes, their remains have been buried properly but a few of these guys didn’t have friends or family to say thank you or even goodbye. Their sacrifice is already becoming forgotten. I want people to see these names, maybe somebody will recognize a relative or old friend, and maybe they’ll put that man in their memory, or light a candle or visit the grave.” Dohnke’s eyes shone with resolve. “And that soldier will continue to be recognized for what he gave, maybe not forever but at least for a little bit longer.”
As he stood to leave, the afternoon light strikes the medals on his hat, briefly illuminating the tiny guardian angel.
For a split-second it seems the Star Wars guru Obi-wan Kenobi might be silently declaring, “The force is with you, Tom.”
No doubt Dohnke would tell you it wasn’t a sign from a movie character at all but a wink from William Dohnke, the real expert on matters of the force.
“If religion has it right, my dad went straight to a reunion in heaven with a bunch of heroes he never personally met. But I knew them. And of course I knew him.” He smiled. “I was the mediator. I guess that makes me eligible for the party but not too soon. I need to find a few more names.”
In 2007, Dohnke was appointed to the 327th Regiment’s Distinguished Members of the Regiment, a prestigious club whose members’ names are permanently inscribed in the organization’s ledger, an honor shared by fewer than 200 soldiers in its long history.
Apparently, to the venerable keepers of that flame, “I did everything I could but it wasn’t enough,” was enough.