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Donald R. Bonko

Company H-1

16 Dec 1936 - 26 Nov 1965

Place of Death: KIA - Vietnam

Interment: Arlington National Cemetary, Washington D.C.

Donald Raymond Bonko is memorialized on the Class of ’61 Reconciliation Plaza on Thayer Road at West Point as one of our fifteen classmates to pay the ultimate sacrifice as a result of hostile action in Vietnam.   Don deployed to Vietnam as a member of the 8th Battalion, 6th Artillery with the 1st Infantry Division, The Big Red One, in October 1965.  The Big Red One commenced combat operations on 1 November 1965 in the Phu Loi – Lam Son area approximately 60 miles north of Saigon.  Less than a month later, on 26 November 1965, Don was reported as KIA in a single vehicle ambush.

Don’s duties as an artillery liaison officer between the 1st Infantry Division Artillery and the 5th Army of Vietnam (ARVN) Division required that he coordinate plans between the U.S. artillery and ARVN forces.  This would require that he travel between the various units/secure areas. Such was the case when Don’s vehicle was ambushed shortly after he left the Vietnamese Division Headquarters compound.  A fellow Army football player near the scene of the ambush reported that Don’s driver heroically managed to turn the vehicle around, escape the ambush and return to the Vietnamese compound where the American Advisory Team administered aid to Don, awaiting medivac.  But to no avail, his wounds were mortal.  Knowing Don’s personal determination and willingness to fearlessly confront any challenge on the football field or in life head-on, his decision to make such a journey into unsecured territory at extreme personal risk is totally in keeping with the man we knew. His “final play” was in keeping with the life he led. 

His untimely death left behind his wife, Marge, who was six month pregnant with the couple’s second daughter as well as a large and loving family.  This brief synopsis does not do justice to the life of this talented and fine young man and officer who left us too soon.   

Don, a native son of Ohio, was an Army football player.  He was an All-Ohio halfback for Lorain, Ohio’s St. Mary High School setting city scoring and rushing records.  He gained 1,724 yards in a single season; and set the city scoring record, running for 24 touchdowns, completing 33 of 63 passes for 658 yards and 10 touchdowns, and kicking 13 extra points for a total of 157 points. 

Don then attended Manlius School prior to entering West Point with the Class of 1960.   According to Manlius classmate and columnist of Gloucester Daily Times, Jim Munn, Don was the fullback on what then was arguably the greatest prep school football team in the country.  Don’s backfield mate included Bill Carpenter, Army’s All-American “Lonesome End.”

At West Point, Don continued his football exploits as a four-year letterman.  He shared fullback duties and kicking responsibilities for Army’s ’58 undefeated team, playing a supporting roll for Army’s starring halfbacks, Heisman Trophy winner Pete Dawkins and All American Bob Anderson.  In today’s vernacular, he was a smash-mouth fullback, slamming into the center of the line to counter the wide play of the starring halfbacks.

As firstie roommates, the authors of this memorial grew to respect Don for his perpetual zest for life, his enduring sense of humor and his fearless manner of confronting the challenges of everyday cadet life - just as he fearlessly smashed into the center of the line for the Army Team.   He demonstrated unwavering loyalty to his friends and teammates.  Living with him was a daily adventure.   His venture to Europe with several classmates during summer leave following cow year is illustrative. One of his fellow travelers ran afoul of local authorities. Don confronted the issue head-on and went to the American Embassy to seek assistance for his classmate.  On return to West Point, he was cited for appearing at the Embassy in inappropriate attire and required to sit weekend room confinement during the fall semester.  Don accepted the price of rescuing his friend and dauntlessly set about surviving in these confined conditions.  A coffee pot and small TV concealed in our bookcases, and a TV antenna installed along the handle of our broom went undetected by the Tactical Department and enabled him to enjoy televised sports during his months of confinement. 

Don lived life to its fullest regardless of circumstances.  Originally a member of the class of ’60, neither an early encounter with the academic department that led Don to join the Class of ’61, nor a knee injury that impacted on his subsequent football prowess, nor his “confinement” as a result of his efforts to help a friend could dampen his determination and zest for life. 

We, Don’s roommates, have been remiss in that it has taken us forty-five years to record our remembrances, but he is not forgotten by so many who knew him.  In contacting friends and associates for this article, every one had a still remembered “Bonko” story to recount, and a smile in their voice as the story was told.  In the fall of 2005, forty years after Don’s death, Manlius classmate and columnist, Jim Munn, authored an article, “Remembering A Victim Of An Earlier War Abroad” that memorialized Don and summarized friends and family’s feelings at Don’s loss:  “That war (Vietnam), and the many needless deaths it produced, also robbed a long-ago group of prep school seniors of a greatly admired and never-to-be-forgotten classmate, teammate, and friend.”

On a personal note, Don’s death made a life changing impact on both of his firstie roommates.  One of us volunteered for service in Vietnam, and, as fate would have it, served in the same area of operations where Don had paid the ultimate sacrifice a year earlier.   It made the other roommate, who had left the Army two years earlier, recognize his true calling in life, return to active duty, serve in Vietnam, and complete a 30 year career in the Army. 

A guy like Don remains forever in your heart. What a joy to have had the opportunity to share our cadet experience with this special guy.  How sad to have to say good-bye so soon. 

Don, a belated well done!  Be thou at peace, soldier.

Prepared by his firstie roommates (Bob Janoska and Todd Counts)


Class Memorial Pages\H-1 Don Bonko.pdf

Thank you for sharing your beautifully written tribute to a man whose memory has remained so vivid in the hearts of all who knew and appreciated the many qualities of character that made him the unique and deeply respected individual that he remains in our hearts and minds nearly a half century after his death in Vietnam.

Among my many memories of Don, one of the most vivid--and perhaps telling--was watching him take a hand-off from his "Red Knights" Manlius School quarterback, bust straight into a wall of the opposing team's linemen (I believe it was either the Colgate or Cortland State freshmen), then emerge, still on his feet, to continue his jaunt through the opponent's secondary until reaching the end zone. 

Talk about "determination in the face of extreme adversity."  Over the length of that 65-yard gallop, I don't believe Don’s line of attack veered or deviated more than a foot either left or right over what may very well be the longest touchdown ever recorded running in a perfectly straight line.

What is so amazing is that after all these years, 55 to be exact, I don't even have to close my eyes to replay that incredible, straight-ahead run.  It was that kind of performance, and the qualities of character that produced them, that serve to help define the kind of man Don was, and why we so remember and miss him.

Again, thank you for your thoughtfulness in sharing your memorial tribute to Don with one of his Manlius classmates and old warriors (503rd MP Battalion, the Battle of Oxford, Mississippi, 1962).

Jim Munn, Manlius School ’56 classmate

Without a doubt, your piece captures Don Bonko - unfortunately, a real loss for his Family and our Class.  At right is a photo of the statues that Don was selling to all the members of the football team.  He had them made somewhere in PA.  What a pistol!!!!.  Often, when I take a look at that figure on my book case, I remember some of the crazy things he did.  

I was in country when Don was killed... with the 173rd Airborne Brigade.  Our base camp was at Bien Hoa and Don was stationed to our north by about 30-40km in Phu Loi.  Buck Shaffer, Tom Blanda and yours truly were only notified on Sunday, 5 December that Don had been killed back in November.  Also, I have the following written in my notes of the time spent in Vietnam....."Received the word that Don Bonko got it up in Phu Loi - vehicle hit by a mine...His wife Marge was pregnant too."

Again thanks for making sure that Don Bonko will always be remembered by his Class. 

Dick Buckner, USMA ‘61

Dear Don, My dad, LTC Walter Hanson, was your battalion commander in Dachau, West Germany.  I still remember you and your wife.  And when I was working at West Point a few years ago, I was walking back to Thayer Hall and passed your class memorial in the Central Area.  Your name leaped out to me, and I stood there and cried for you and all of your classmates who sacrificed so much.  Thank you, bless you, rest in peace.

Karen Hanson Sullivan