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
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
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
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
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
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
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.