James Donnelly wrote often to his fiancée Sue Markus; his parents, Mary and James Donnelly Sr.; his brother Jerry, and his younger sisters, Mary and Marsha, then ages 6 and 10. One letter to his dad, who had served in World War II, tells much about his Vietnam experiences.
June 11, 1969
Once again I’ll have to cry on your shoulder. I lost my best buddy (Sgt. Higgins) 4 days ago. I still can’t believe it happened … I went to NCO school with him at Polk and then here for six months. I talked with him about 20 minutes before it happened. It really tore me up.
As 1st Platoon leader, Donnelly quickly earned respect from his company commander and his squad members.
“Most of the time, new sergeants would want to take over, show their authority,” Matt Switanowski said. “Not Sgt. Donnelly. He waited his time, listened, learned and watched the old timers; watched what they did, how they did it, and why they did what they did. We knew he was in charge, and when we needed him to be the boss, we let him.”
Machine Gunner Harold Erby remembered being on a forced march to help another company. Erby was carrying most of the weight with his machine gun and fell behind. Donnelly looked back and noticed it.
“Erby, I thought you said you could hump that gun. If you can’t carry it, I’ll get someone else to carry it,” Donnelly told him.
Erby wrote, “He kept on me like Sgt. Carter on Gomer Pyle. I started picking up my pace, and when we got to our destination we beat everyone there. Jim says, ‘I knew you could do it, Erby.’”
June 11, 1969
Oh yes, another of my friends was killed, too—Sgt. Deibbeck of C Co. He was killed in the firefight. I did give $5 for flowers and I felt stupid sending flowers to his parents with a dead son attached.
Donnelly had been drafted in 1968. Someone in boot camp recognized his leadership potential and sent him to noncommissioned officer (NCO) school. By January 1969, he was 21 years old and a staff sergeant in charge of his own platoon in a war zone.
His company commander, Capt. Ron Cabral, said he trusted Donnelly completely. In 1969, Cabral was 25 and on his second of three tours of duty in Vietnam.
“Anything I asked him to do, he did it. He was a professional,” Cabral said. “He was like my son. I loved them all, but Jim, he was definitely my favorite.”
One special request was for Donnelly to build a noncommissioned officers' club. He not only helped construct it, but added his artistic touches, too. In civilian life, he worked as a technical illustrator for Laclede Gas in St. Louis. So, he drew illustrations of Sad Sack, Snoopy and the Red Baron to help dress up the NCO club.
Dad, you have to be so careful here. Accidents happen so easy and so often. Again, I never wrote this to worry you. I guess it does, but Dad, I got to tell someone. Do you mind?
I just got to write someone, and you get to be the one. Just don’t let anyone in on this. I did tell Jerry somewhat ‘cause I couldn’t answer his letter. I guess he knows what’s going on. Just make sure Sue doesn’t find out.
Each italicized portion of the story are from actual letters to Donnelly's father and in his own words.
Part three, the final part of the series, will run Monday afternoon.