"Robert Allen Dondero was the first born son of Alfred and Hazel Dondero.
"He was the oldest of seven children, five boys and two girls, who all looked up to him. He was a fine example for them. A wonderful son, brother, father and uncle . He was, in fact, the favorite Uncle...We all miss him still.
"He joined the Army at a very young age and spent 22 years of his too short life in service of our country. He didn't marry until his later years. He was stationed in The Hague in 1958-59. That is where he met and became good friends with Ted and Marie Doan, who introduced him to Helen Davis. The rest is history. His new wife, my aunt Helen, lost her will to go on and left us less than a year after he did. It is said that she died of a broken heart.
"The last time I saw him was February 14, 1969. He and my Aunt Helen arrived at our home armed with gifts and jelly filled doughnuts before leaving for Vietnam. His visits were always memorable as he spoiled us a great deal. (this was Uncle Spikes 3rd tour of duty. His visits, being a career military man, were very few and far between ...but always memorable)
At the time of his death he was visiting one of his subordinate MACV Teams in Quang Duc Province. While they were visiting, the team started receiving incoming rockets.The team made a dash for the helicopter to get airborne and out of there. They all made it except for my uncle. I was told that a rocket landed in front of him as he was running. The upward blast and shrapnel caught him at about his waist line.
"I have this picture of him which was taken just before he was killed. On the left is Sergeant Major Dondero, known to us as Uncle Spike. Sergeant Major Sam Hadley is in the center, his good friend. Uncle Spike was presenting a painting of the first moon landing to Hadley and their NCO club manager. The painting was done by a Vietnamese artist.
"Sergeant Major Hadley said of him:
"'Vietnam was a hot, humid place, and it was a job to keep the jungle uniform looking neat, but your uncle changed uniforms twice a day. He was our senior NCO and always set an example for the rest of us. God, how I admired that man. I miss him and will never forget him. In my 30 years in the Army, I never met a more perfect gentleman and soldier.
Advisors to ARVN Rangers
(Biêt Dông Quân)
During 1951, the US Central Intelligence Agency (CIA) suggested to General De Lattre (Jean de Lattre de Tassigny - Commander in chief Indochina) that the French should form "counter-guerilla" warfare groups to operate in Vietminh - controlled areas. The French command rejected the concept of unconventional warfare units, although they did establish a Commando School at Nha Trang. By 1956, the US Advisory Group would turn this facility into a physical training and ranger-type school.
As the seriousness of the insurgency became more apparent during the early weeks of 1960, American and South Vietnamese leaders began to consider what measures might be adopted to deal with the deteriorating security situation. President of the Republic of Vietnam, Ngo Dinh Diem had his own solution. On 16 February 1960, without consulting his American military advisors, he ordered commanders of divisions and military regions to form ranger companies from the army, the reserves, retired army personnel and the Civil Guard.
In the Beginning
Activated in 1960, Army of the Republic of Vietnam (ARVN) Rangers (Biêt Dông Quân [BDQ]) initially organized into separate companies to counter the guerilla war then being waged by the Viet Cong (VC). From the beginning, American Rangers were assigned as advisors, initially as members of Mobile Training Teams (MTTs), deployed from the U.S., at training centers, and later at the unit level. A small number of promising Vietnamese Ranger leaders were selected to attend the U.S. Army Ranger school at Fort Benning. As a result of their common experiences, lasting bonds of mutual respect were formed between the combat veterans of both nations. During the early days, Ranger missions focused on raids and ambushes into such VC zones as War Zone D, Duong Minh Chau, Do Xa and Boi Loi (later to be called the "Hobo Woods" by the American forces) to destroy the VC infrastructure. The well-known shoulder insignia, bearing a star and a Black Panther's head, symbolized the courageous fighting spirit of the Vietnamese Rangers.
Ranger courses were established at three training sites in May 1960: Da Nang, Nha Trang, and Song Mao. The original Nha Trang Training course relocated to Duc My in 1961 and would become the central Ranger-Biêt Dông Quân-Company and Battalion sized unit training was later established at Trung Lap; to ensure a consistently high level of combat readiness, BDQ units regularly rotated through both RTC's. Graduates of the school earned the coveted Ranger badge with its distinctive crossed swords. Ranger Training Centers conducted tough realistic training that enabled graduates to accomplish the challenging missions assigned to Ranger units. Known as the 'steel refinery ' of the ARVN, the centers conducted training in both jungle and mountain warfare.
South Vietnamese combat reconnaissance was a responsibility of the Ranger Training Command and ARVN reconnaissance units and teams were trained at either the Duc My RTC Long Range Reconnaissance Patrol (LRRP) course or at the Australian-sponsored Long Range Patrol (LRP) course of the Van Kiep National Training Center; graduates were awarded the Reconnaissance Qualification badge (a pair of winged hands holding silver binoculars).
In 1962, BDQ companies were grouped to form Special Battalions: the 10th in Da Nang, the 20th in Pleiku, and the 30th Battalion in Saigon. These Special Battalions operated deep inside the enemy controlled regions on "Search and Destroy" missions. By 1963 the war expanded as main force North Vietnamese Army (NVA) units began invading the South, launching battalion and regimental-size attacks against ARVN units. To cope with the escalation by the Communists, Ranger units were organized into battalions and their mission evolved from counter-insurgency to light infantry operations. During the years 1964-66, the Ranger battalions intercepted, engaged and defeated main force enemy units. During July 1966, the battalions were formed into task forces, and five Ranger Group headquarters were created to provide command and control for tactical operations. This afforded the Rangers better control and the ability to mass forces quickly and strike more rapidly. ARVN combat divisions as well as Regional and Popular Force (RF/PF) units had a territorial security orientation that tied them to a limited geographic area. Ranger units assumed the responsibility of providing the primary ARVN mobile reaction force in each Tactical Zone a far larger geographical operating area.
When the VC and NVA forces opened the 1968 Tet Offensive in the major cities of Vietnam, the maroon beret soldiers were rushed to the scene and were an active force in defeating the Communists threat. The 3d and 5th Ranger Groups defended and secured the capitol, Saigon and the 37th Battalion fought alongside the U.S. Marines at Khe Sanh. Rangers continued to distinguish themselves on battlefields throughout Vietnam as well as the 1970 incursion into Cambodia and Operation "Lam Son 719" in Laos. As American ground forces reduced their tactical role and began to withdraw from Vietnam, an additional mission was assumed by the BDQ. On 22 May 1970, the Civilian Irregular Defense Group (CIDG), formerly under the operational control of 5th U.S. Special Forces Group, integrated into Ranger forces, along with responsibility for border defense. With the conversion of CIDG camps to combat battalions, Ranger forces more than doubled in size.
When the NVA launched major attacks on three fronts on Easter Sunday of 1972 in an all-out effort to gain a decisive military victory Ranger units once again answered the call to defend the fatherland. Near the DMZ in Quang Tri Province, Rangers, together with ARVN, Marine and Regional Forces units, stopped the enemy after a 22-day fight in which 131 NVA tanks were destroyed and approximately 7,000 NVA soldiers were killed. At An Loc, Ranger, ARVN and Regional Force units stopped four NVA Divisions, reinforced with armor and artillery in what was probably one of the bloodiest battles of the Vietnam War. In Kontum Province, the Rangers participated in the battle of Tay Nguyen, in which still another multi-division NVA attack was smashed.
At the time of the "cease-fire," 28 January 1973, Ranger High Command estimated that the Rangers had killed 40,000 of the enemy, captured 7,000 and assisted 255 to rally to the government side. It was also reported that 1,467 crew-served weapons and 10,941 individual weapons had been captured. Of course, there was no true cease-fire, and the war continued. In 1973, the role of the Ranger Advisor was curtailed. As individual advisors rotated back to the United States, they were not replaced. Finally, by the end of 1973 the last Ranger Advisor was quietly ordered home.
During 1973, 1974 and 1975, the Rangers continued to be employed in a variety of critical combat roles, performing intelligence and reconnaissance missions and providing the ARVN with a quick reaction force. In addition, their mission of border security continued. In the last days of the war, the BDQ fought to the end, units totally destroyed in battles from the North to Saigon, many of the Ranger units fought back independently against orders - refusing to surrender - bloodying the advancing Communist forces. In Tay Ninh province the Rangers fought until Saigon fell. In Saigon, Rangers fought until the morning of 30 April when they were ordered to lay down their arms.
When the war finally ended with the fall of Saigon in 1975, most of the Ranger leaders were considered too dangerous by the communist government, and sentenced to long periods of incarceration in the dreaded "reeducation camps." As an example, General Do ke Giai, the last commander of Ranger forces spent more than 17 years imprisonment for his fervent anti-Communist resistance.
The Role of the Advisor
The experiences of the American advisors (and a few Australians) to the BDQ were unique from other advisors and definitely different from their U.S. unit counterparts. Their mission and the force structure of the units they advised demanded more experienced and thoroughly trained individuals. Officers were almost all Ranger qualified, and after 1966 most were on a second or subsequent combat tour. The Non-Commissioned Officers were arguably the most talented Sergeants that the Army had to offer. Many of these Sergeants were experienced cadre from the Ranger Department at the Infantry School, or experienced small unit leaders with Infantry, Special Forces or Marine backgrounds; some had fought in World War II and / or Korea. It was fairly common for the more senior NCOs to serve as Ranger advisors between tours at one of the Ranger Training Camps.
According to the Military Assistance Command-Vietnam Joint manpower authorization documents, advisory teams were fairly robust. Each was authorized eight personnel to perform the support mission. The authorized grades for the Ranger battalion and group Senior Advisor were Major and Lieutenant Colonel respectively. This was usually not the case however, as a battalion advisor team routinely consisted of an experienced Captain, a Lieutenant, two NCOs and a RadioTelephone Operator (RTO). It was not uncommon to field teams of two or three personnel. The Ranger Group Headquarters advisor team was comprised of a Major, one or two Captains, two or three NCO's, and an RTO.
Living and military operations experience for the Ranger advisor varied dramatically from area to area, unit to unit, and year to year. Operations were normally conducted by Ranger battalions, but were often smaller in some locales. Frequently, multi-battalion operations were conducted under the command and control of the Ranger Group headquarters. In addition to being selected for tactical and technical proficiency, many Ranger advisors were graduates of the Military Assistance and Training Advisory Course (MATA) and Vietnamese Language School. However, the tactical requirements always exceeded the number of school slots, and most advisors depended upon lessons learned the hard way, and the good luck to have a Vietnamese counterpart who understood English. Each team was authorized a local interpreter / translator, however these proved to be of varied skills and reliability.
The primary mission of an advisor was to counsel his Vietnamese counterpart on development and implementation of operational plans as well as the tactical execution of military operations. The advisor coordinated any available combat support from U.S. forces such as artillery, armored vehicles, air strikes, helicopter gunships, naval gunfire, and medical evacuation. Additionally, the advisor was expected to escort and directly communicate with a variety of specialist teams that might accompany the unit on operations, such as artillery forward observers, Air Force forward air controllers (FAC), naval gunfire teams, canine handlers, or combat correspondents.
While differences were evident from team to team, the Ranger advisors led a unique life under an unusual set of circumstances. The highly mobile advisory team was with the Vietnamese unit at all times when it was in the field on military operations, which could last for days or weeks. Living conditions were Spartan and arduous. Frequent and intense combat was the rule for Ranger units. The team survived on limited supplies and rations (resupply in the field was sporadic at best), often with a limited knowledge of the operational plan and enemy intelligence situation. The team's communications lifeline and link was often a single PRC-25 tactical radio. Despite, or because of these circumstances and conditions, the Ranger advisors became very adept at accomplishing their responsibilities and fulfilling their missions.
Awards and Honors
Vietnamese Ranger units and individual soldiers received a wide range of awards for valor and heroism from both the Republic of Vietnam and the United States. The 42nd and 44th Battalions were awarded their country's National Order Fourragere, the 43rd Battalion the Military Order Fourragere, and the 21st, 37th, 41st and 52nd Battalions the Gallantry Cross Fourragere. Twenty-three Ranger units were awarded the Vietnamese Gallantry Cross with Palm unit award, with the 42nd Battalion receiving the award seven times, the 44th Battalion six times, and the 1st Group and 43rd Battalion each four times.
Eleven U.S. Presidential Unit Citations (PUC) were awarded to Vietnamese Ranger units. The 37th Battalion three times, the 39th and 42d twice, and the 1st Ranger Task Force, 21st, 44th and 52nd Battalions each received the PUC once. The U.S. Valorous Unit Award was awarded to the 21st, 32d, 41st, 43d, 77th and 91st Ranger Battalions. Large numbers of individual Vietnamese Rangers were presented U.S. awards such as the Silver Star, Bronze Star, and Army Commendation Medals for acts of valor in the face of enemy forces.
A number of American Ranger Advisors were decorated for gallantry under fire, the best known is SFC Gary Lattrell, an advisor to the 23d Ranger Battalion, who was awarded the Medal of Honor for valor on 4 - 8 April 1970. Additionally, Colonel Lewis L. Millett, a Medal of Honor recipient during the Korean War, was a member of the first Vietnamese Ranger MTT. Staff Sergeant David Dolby who was previously awarded the Medal of Honor while serving with the First Cavalry Division in 1965, was an advisor to the 44th Ranger Battalion in 1970. LTC Andre Lucas, who served as Senior Advisor, 33d Ranger Battalion in 1963, later received the Medal of Honor posthumously while commanding an infantry battalion in the 101st Airborne Division in 1970. First Sergeant David H. McNerney, who was an advisor with the 20th Special Battalion in 1962, was later awarded the Medal of Honor while serving with Company A, 1st Battalion, 8th Infantry, 4th Infantry Division for actions on 22 March 1967. More than two dozen Ranger Advisors received the Army Distinguished Service Cross or the Navy Cross, the second highest valor award. Finally, nearly 50 American Advisors were killed while fighting alongside their Vietnamese Ranger counterparts. Theirs was the ultimate sacrifice in the performance of their duty.
On 11 November 1995, more than 20 years after the fall of Saigon, American Ranger Advisors and their Vietnamese Ranger counterparts gathered at Arlington National Cemetery to unveil a living memorial and bronze plaque to honor their comrades. The plaque reads, "Dedicated to the honor of the Vietnamese Rangers and their American Ranger Advisors whose dedication, valor and fidelity in the defense of freedom must never be forgotten."