Aug. 5, 1969
In two weeks, James Donnelly was due for some R & R in Hawaii. He had asked Sue Markus, his fiancee, to meet him there. One year and three days shy of his wedding date, Donnelly was leading his platoon into the Boi Loi woods.
When Matt Switanowski had first spotted a bunker, the platoon pulled back and called in air strikes and artillery.
“We could see the pilots they were so close to us,” Switanowski said. “You could almost shout to them. One piece of shrapnel almost tore my knee off we were so close.
“They were dropping 250-pound bombs and artillery, but it took a direct hit on a bunker to do any damage,” he said.
The barrage continued for 45 minutes.
“After all this, we went back in. This time, the dog stayed back. I was the first guy in, the sergeant behind me, and Art with the radio behind him,” he said.
After walking about 75 feet, Switanowski spotted a bunker and told Donnelly that he would check it out. He asked Donnelly to cover him.
“I only took those three steps when a machine gun opened up from somewhere else,” Switanowski said. “We never saw it.”
He said the North Vietnamese had been waiting for him to move out of the way.
“They knew the guy with the radio operator was in charge,” Switanowski said.
“That first burst hit the sergeant. Art yelled to me that the sergeant was gone. He died instantly. Next came the grenade. They threw it in the (bomb crater) where the sergeant and the radio operator had fallen. The sergeant probably saved Art’s life because his body absorbed most of the blast.”
Switanowski and the radio operator made it out. There was fighting back and forth, with the Americans’ goals being to recover Donnelly’s body and inflict payback. With help from South Vietnamese soldiers, they were able to do just that and killed a number of North Vietnamese Army regulars.
Donnelly was the only American casualty that day.
“It wasn’t worth it,” Cabral said. “Not for him.”
Cabral remembered putting the body in the chopper and closing Donnelly’s eyes.
Back home, Sue’s parents arrived at her workplace at the Department of Agriculture and asked that she be excused.
“On the way back home, they told me Jim had been killed,” she said. “From there it was just silence.”
Sue said when Jim had left St. Louis that last time, she cried because she had a premonition he would not be coming back alive.
“Once I got home, I sat down at the kitchen table, took off my engagement ring and said, ‘Well, it’s over.’ And I just cried.”
“It’s not over for us”
Donnelly’s life and death reverberates in the lives of those he served with, his family members and those he loved.
“I think about him constantly,” his company commander, Capt. Ron Cabral, said. “I go to the doctor, and I still blame myself for what happened. I couldn’t stop the bullets.”
Switanowski said he’s been able to talk about that day just a couple times with some of his buddies from the Manchus. He emailed Sue about the details of that day about five or six years ago.
The Manchus have been true to their motto, “Keep up the Fire.” They have a website for their own Vietnam vets, www.manchu.org. They use it to correspond and share memories.
They also have regular reunions, where members of Donnelly’s 1st Platoon never fail to drink a toast to Staff Sgt. James Donnelly. One table remains empty at every reunion in remembrance of those who died in their country’s service.
Switanowski said they never have to renew their friendships. Some bonds don’t need renewing.
“We pick up just like it was yesterday,” he said.
Unfortunately, the pain can return like it was yesterday, too, he said.
Sue Markus married another Vietnam veteran, Jim Johnson. They live in North St. Louis County near Florissant.
As hard as it on Sue, she said it was even more difficult for the Donnelly family.
Donnelly’s father, Jim Sr., died of an aneurysm a couple of years after his son’s death. His mother also has passed away. Donnelly’s sisters both live in North County and stay in touch. When they talk about their brother, there are always tears, she said.
Sue said losing a loved one never stops hurting.
“The pain subsides, but it never goes away,” she said. “We have the memories we’ll always have inside, so it’s never over for us.”
June 11, 1969
Well Dad, write more when you can, and I know what you think when you read this all, but life is not that bad. It’s just those certain days that are hard to take.
And the rains are hard to take, too. Wet 24 hours a day and sleep in one foot of water on ambushes. Ringworm and leeches are getting everyone.
Believe me, home will look so good to me!
Love, your son,
Each italicized portion of the story are from actual letters to Donnelly's father and in his own words.