Unlike most veterans, John “Chick” Donohue’s journey to the frontlines of the Vietnam War didn’t start with a military draft or sense of duty — instead, he wanted to bring his friends fighting on the battlefield a couple of beers.
In 1967, Donohue’s tight-knit New York City neighborhood, the Irish enclave of Inwood, had already buried 28 young men who had been killed while serving in Vietnam. At the same time, anti-war protestors took to the streets of N.Y.C. in droves, opposing the purpose of the war, its violence and other aspects.
George Lynch, a bartender at Doc Fiddler’s, the local watering hole, wanted to show the Inwood guys still embroiled in the overseas conflict that people were thinking about them and cared.
As Donohue recalls, one night, Lynch, from his soapbox behind the bar, shouted an idea: “Somebody ought to go over to 'Nam, track down the boys from the neighborhood and bring them each a beer!”
Donohue, then a 26-year-old U.S. Marine Corps veteran working as a merchant seaman, volunteered for the mission. His epic adventure is detailed in the new book The Greatest Beer Run Ever: A Memoir of Friendship, Loyalty, and War, which he co-wrote with former New York Daily News reporter J.T. Molloy.
“I’ve told the story thousands of times, but I wanted an accurate, written account of what happened that I could pass on to my seven grandkids,” the 80 year old tells PEOPLE.
Donohue quickly found work on a cargo ship bound for Vietnam, bringing a case of New York beers — Pabst Blue Ribbon, Schaefer and Rheingold — with him.
As the freighter pulled out of the port, he says, “I was scared, I thought I might not come back … but I told people I would try to find their friends and sons, so I had to go.”
The trip took about eight weeks. Once they docked in the Qui Nhon Harbor, Donohue got to work finding his friends, using the letters and photos families passed on to him as a guide.
In the four months Donohue spent in Vietnam, he was able to track down four Inwood guys: Tommy Collins, Kevin McLoone, Sgt. Rick Duggan and Bobby Pappas.
“The fact that Chickie was able to find me is nothing short of a miracle, I thought I was being punked,” Duggan, 72, tells PEOPLE. “Having him there gave us a much better feeling about being in Vietnam, that people at home actually cared about it and would go to that extreme to show us that.”
During his quest, Donohue got caught in firefights, ducked the Viet Cong and even witnessed the bloody Tet Offensive attack on the U.S. Embassy in Saigon — experiences that challenged his original support of the war, he shares.
“There was a lot of death and a lot of hurt,” Donohue says. "While I was there, I came to the conclusion that this was a bad, wrong war … it changed my mind about sending troops anywhere.”
Donohue finally returned home in April 1968, making his first stop at Doc Fiddler’s to report back to Lynch and his neighbors.
“I stepped out of the cab as someone was coming out of the bar across the street, Chambers, and he said, ‘Hey, Chickie!’ and he turned back into the doorway and yelled to the crowd, ‘It’s Chickie, he’s back!’” he recalls. “It was a blur after that, just a lot of back slaps and laughing.”
Green Book director Peter Farrelly is currently working on a film based on The Greatest Beer Run Ever starring Dylan O’Brien.
Donohue says he hopes that, by reading (or watching) his story, people are more thoughtful about respecting and honoring veterans.
“Freedom ain’t cheap — a lot of people pay for it with their lives and their limbs and they should be respected [for it],” he says. “They’ve given years of their lives doing their duty to their country, and in my mind, they should not be picked out as anything other than American heroes.”
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