In 1967, a Marine named John "Chick" Donohue decided that a few of his buddies deserved a beer. Unfortunately, they were halfway around the world.
Half-way across the world, John "Chick" Donahue stood at Qui Nhon harbor holding a duffel bag full of good, old American beer. It was 1968—the middle of the Vietnam war. However, that wasn't going to stop Donahue from delivering on a promise: to deliver beer to a few of the neighborhood guys serving in the unpopular war. Later deemed by one of those soldiers as the "Greatest Beer Run Ever," at the time Donahue, in his civilian jeans and plaid shirt, just wanted to find his friends and give them a little taste of home. As Donahue said to Food & Wine nearly fifty years later, "It was the right to do."
In May, The Greatest Beer Run Ever: A True Story of Friendship Stronger Than War was released. Written by Donahue and former New York Daily News reporter Joanna Molloy, it tells the story of how Donahue spent months in war-torn Vietnam tracking down friends to give them an American brew, a laugh and a message: You are not forgotten and we miss you. Plus, as Donahue is quick to point out, the majority of beer available in Vietnam at the time was what the GIs called "33," a French-Vietnamese beer that wasn't particularly liked. In Donahue's opinion, "It was just a terrible beer."
The story starts in a dark Inwood bar in Northern Manhattan that has since faded into history called Doc Fiddler's. As Donahue walks in, the local six o'clock news is on and showing an anti-war demonstration in Central Park. The bartender, George Lynch, remarks to Donahue and other patrons that these demonstrations must be having a real negative impact on the soldiers afar and they could probably use a cold one. Then, Donahue remarks offhandedly that next time he's in Vietnam, he would be happy to bring the local guys some beer. Lynch took him at his word and, within several days, had produced addresses and potential locations of neighborhood GIs. Lynch even got mother of one of soldiers to encourage Donahue to take the trip. At that point, Donahue couldn't say no.
Now, Chick Donahue wasn't any old barfly. He had served four years in the Marine Corps and was an experienced merchant seaman. "I knew I could get to Vietnam," says Donahue, "But... to find the guys, I had no idea how hard that would be." He took a job as an oiler on the Drake Victory, a merchant ship loaded with ammunition, and set sail for Asia with a bag packed with a few clothes and lots of American beer. "It took two months to get there, so I drank all the beer," he told the Sandhogs Local 147 last month but noted he quickly replenished his American beer stockpile. Obviously this was long before the craft beer revolution in America, so Donahue's stash included PBR, but also other popular names of the time, which might be a little less familiar to younger drinkers out there like Ballantine and Piels. When arriving in Vietnam, he had his work cut out for him. As you might imagine, tracking down four random GIs in a war zone is no easy task and the book details his escapades focusing on the humor, danger and courage it took to complete the greatest beer run ever.
Donahue says he wrote the book because he wanted to make sure the record was straight. He wanted to make sure the story remained accurate and truthful for future generations. Also, he got tired of not being believed. After all, his journey happened nearly a half century ago and there are only a few people who can legitimately vouch for the story's authenticity. Even fewer want to relive memories of the turbulent war. "As time went on, none of these guys were known to sit at a bar and talk about their Vietnam experience," says Donahue, "That's a common trait for a lot of (Vietnam war veterans)."
Donahue loves to tell the story, though, and he'll be doing it again on Monday, June 19th at the American Irish Historical Society in New York. At a time when the complexities of the Vietnam War are being reexamined, the story of the "Greatest Beer Run Ever" supplies humanity and levity to a time in America's history that often lacks those traits.
In 2015, for a short film produced by Pabst Blue Ribbon, Donahue reunited with the four old friends he delivered beer to in Vietnam nearly fifty years ago. The short film features testimonials with Donahue and the four GIs, who all choke up at the memory of their friend showing up thousands of miles from home in the middle of a war simply to drink a beer with them. It ends with a funny quip from Donahue, which sums up the gratitude the neighborhood guys had for him. Smiles Donahue, "Needless to say, it was awhile before I had to pay for my own beer."