In 1967, when John “Chick” Donohue was a 26-year-old Marine Corps veteran and merchant mariner living in New York City, he and some friends cooked up an outlandish show of support for their buddies in Vietnam. Donohue, whose U.S. merchant mariner status permitted him to enter the country, joined the crew of a cargo ship and set out to deliver a backpack full of beer to guys from the neighborhood serving there. In The Greatest Beer Run Ever (Morrow, Nov.), Donohue, writing with former New York Daily News columnist J.T. Molloy, relates his journey in what PW’s starred review called a “fascinating, vividly narrated recollection of the chaos of the Vietnam War.”
What did you do once you tracked down your friends in-country?
I went and patted them on the back and told them I cared for them, and their community cared for them. I told them we thought about them, we prayed for them. In the middle of that unrest, one side was condemning our own kids, and the other side was lying to us about the conditions. I did the best I could. I went and showed the guys who were really in harm’s way—and in fact dying—that we loved them.
Why did this story go largely untold until now?
It’s not that I didn’t talk about it. Quite frankly, most people didn’t believe it. Two weeks ago, I had dinner with one of the four guys I visited over there, Ricky Duggan, and we were talking about this. It was a good 40 years before Ricky said more than two words about Vietnam to me. He just never spoke about it. We’ve all heard the stories about post-traumatic stress, so I wasn’t going to pull it out of him.
What finally got you to put pen to paper?
I was getting ready to retire, and J.T. Molloy, whom I’d met during the Daily News strike [in 1990, when Donohue was with the Teamsters Union], said, “Can I come speak to you about the Vietnam story?” She told me she wanted to write a book about it, and would I cooperate with her? I certainly didn’t plan to wait 50 years to get a book out. I wish I was that smart to figure that one out, but it finally came out and just at the right time.
What do you mean by that? Why is now the right time?
The ’60s were tough—tough times politically, tough times for the nation, tough times all around. The country was divided, not exactly like it is today, but similar. You’re afraid today to talk to your neighbor to see who they voted for; you were afraid in those days to talk to your neighbor to see what their position on Vietnam was, particularly if you had friends or family over there in harm’s way. I went and told [my friends who were fighting] that we were all together, as bad as it was, we were all together about this thing. Recently, a friend of mine said, “Chickie, it’s the appropriate time for this story to come out, because it says, ‘I simply did the right thing for my community.’ ”