A Cold One for the Boys: The True Story of Chick Donohue's Beer Run to Vietnam
The Greatest Beer Run Ever: A True Story Of Friendship Stronger Than War
Have you ever heard of a man who traveled halfway across the world to bring beer to his friends who were fighting in a war? Sounds like a crazy idea, right? Well, that's exactly what John "Chick" Donohue did in 1967, when he embarked on a daring mission to deliver some suds and some hugs to his buddies in Vietnam. His incredible journey is the subject of a book by Donohue himself, co-written with J.T. Molloy, titled The Greatest Beer Run Ever: A True Story Of Friendship Stronger Than War. It's also the inspiration for a movie directed by Peter Farrelly and starring Zac Efron as Donohue, which premiered in September 2022.
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In this article, we'll tell you more about this amazing story of friendship, loyalty, and courage. We'll introduce you to Chick Donohue, a former Marine and merchant seaman who decided to take on this challenge after hearing some anti-war protesters turn on the troops. We'll follow him as he sneaks into Vietnam on a cargo ship carrying a backpack full of American beer, and as he tracks down his friends in different units across the country. We'll share some of the highlights and dangers of his adventure, as well as some of the reactions and emotions of his friends who received his unexpected visit. We'll also tell you what happened to Chick and his friends after the beer run, and how their story became a legend in their neighborhood of Inwood in Upper Manhattan. Finally, we'll explain why this story is important and relevant today, and how it challenges some of the stereotypes and misconceptions about the Vietnam War and its veterans.
The Greatest Beer Run Ever is a memoir by John "Chick" Donohue, who was born and raised in Inwood, a working-class Irish American enclave in Upper Manhattan. He joined the Marine Corps at 17 and served for four years before becoming a merchant seaman. In 1967, he was 26 years old and working as an engineer on a cargo ship.
One night, he was drinking with some friends at Doc Fiddler's Bar in Inwood, when they started talking about the Vietnam War. They had lost many family members and friends in the war, and they were upset by the growing anti-war movement that was turning against the soldiers. One of them suggested that someone should go to Vietnam and bring some beer to their buddies who were still there, to show them that they were not forgotten and that they had support from back home. Chick volunteered for the mission, saying he had nothing better to do and that he could get a free ride on a ship going to Vietnam.
He got the names and addresses of four of his friends who were serving in different units in Vietnam: Tom Collins, Ricky Duggan, Bobby Pappas, and Kevin McPhillips. He also got a list of their favorite beers: Pabst Blue Ribbon, Schaefer, Ballantine, and Rheingold. He bought a case of each brand and packed them in a duffel bag, along with some clothes and a camera. He boarded the SS Drake Victory, a cargo ship carrying ammunition and supplies to Vietnam, and set sail for his epic beer run.
Why did he do it? Chick says he was motivated by a sense of loyalty and friendship, as well as a sense of adventure and curiosity. He wanted to see what the war was like for himself, and he wanted to make his friends happy. He also wanted to prove that not everyone back home was against the war or the troops. He says he was not trying to make a political statement or a heroic gesture, but rather a simple act of kindness and solidarity.
Chick's beer run was not an easy task. He faced many risks and obstacles along the way, both from the enemy and from the authorities. He had no official permission or credentials to enter Vietnam or to visit any military bases. He had no weapons or protection, except for his charm and his wit. He had no maps or guides, except for some vague directions and some friendly locals. He had no communication or transportation, except for some hitchhiking and some bribing. He had no guarantee that he would find his friends alive or that they would welcome him.
He arrived in Qui Nho'n, a port city in South Vietnam, in December 1967. He managed to get off the ship without being noticed by the military police, and he found a hotel where he could stash his beer. He then started looking for his first friend, Tom Collins, who was stationed with the First Cavalry Division in An Khe, about 50 miles away. He hitched a ride on a helicopter that was heading there, pretending to be a civilian contractor. He found Collins at his base camp, where he surprised him with a can of Pabst Blue Ribbon. Collins was shocked and delighted to see Chick, and they shared some laughs and stories.
Chick then moved on to his next friend, Ricky Duggan, who was with the 18th Military Police Brigade in Nha Trang, about 150 miles away. He took another helicopter ride there, again posing as a contractor. He found Duggan at his barracks, where he greeted him with a can of Schaefer. Duggan was also stunned and happy to see Chick, and they hugged and chatted.
Chick's next stop was Saigon, where he hoped to find his third friend, Bobby Pappas, who was with the Army's 199th Light Infantry Brigade. He took a train from Nha Trang to Saigon, where he arrived on January 30th, 1968. That night, the Viet Cong launched the Tet Offensive, a massive surprise attack on cities and towns across South Vietnam. Chick woke up to the sound of explosions and gunfire, and realized he was in the middle of a war zone.
Chick's beer run turned into a life-or-death adventure when he got caught in the Tet Offensive. He witnessed some of the most intense and brutal fighting of the war, as well as some of the most heroic and compassionate acts of humanity.
He saw the battle to retake the U.S. Embassy in Saigon, where Viet Cong commandos had breached the perimeter and occupied part of the building. He helped evacuate some wounded soldiers from the embassy grounds, using his camera as a fake press pass. He also saw the battle for Hue, where U.S. Marines fought street by street to recapture the ancient imperial city from the Viet Cong.
He met some journalists who were covering the war, such as John Steinbeck IV (the son of the famous novelist) and Sean Flynn (the son of the famous actor). They invited him to join them on their assignments, giving him access to some of the hottest spots in Vietnam. They also gave him some advice on how to survive and how to tell his story.
He befriended some Vietnamese people who helped him along the way, such as a taxi driver who drove him around Saigon for free; a hotel owner who let him stay at his place for free; and a nun who gave him shelter at her orphanage. They showed him kindness and hospitality despite their own hardships and dangers.