Hero in Our Midst – John Doherty – Valley Patriot of the Month


OLYMPUS DIGITAL CAMERABy Dr. Charles Ormsby – December 6, 2005

ANDOVER, MA – John Doherty had a lot of family history to uphold. His family had lived in Andover for over 150 years and the Doherty Elementary School is named after his uncle, Bill Doherty, after he served 39 years on the Andover School Committee. John’s service to his town and country, which is still continuing, has upheld these traditions in a way that would make any family proud.

John has lived in Andover for all of his 64 years. All, that is, except for a couple of years in Southeast Asia in the late 1960s … but more on that in a moment. He attended elementary and Junior High in the Andover public schools and then transferred to Phillips Academy. After graduating from Phillips, John attended Harvard where he studied Latin and Greek, and joined the ROTC. He would normally have begun his two-year service commitment immediately after he graduated cum laude in 1963, but the Army granted him a one-year extension to attend the University of Pittsburgh. In 1964, after completing the requirements for his master’s degree, John began active duty as an Army second lieutenant.

Upon commissioning, John headed straight for nine weeks of infantry training at Ft. Benning, Ga. Although the Vietnam War was in its early stages, the infantry-training program was still focused on thermonuclear or limited war scenarios with the Soviet Union. Halfway through training, the focus shifted to jungle warfare. Nobody had to ask why. John remembers this training to prepare young officers to be platoon leaders as being very intense, seven days and nights per week, and very hands-on. John loved it!

U.S. Army Intelligence School at Ft. Holabird, Md. was next. The technology was cutting edge and involved extracting intelligence data from overhead photography taken over denied areas such as Cuba, Germany, Hungary and Vietnam.

doherty5During this period, John was itching to go to Vietnam and see action. His country was at war and, therefore, that was where he should be. The Army saw things differently. They saw John’s language major from Harvard and his maximum score on the Army Language Aptitude Test and sent him to Verona, Italy. John repeatedly requested re-assignment to Vietnam and even offered to switch with other soldiers being shipped to Nam, but the Army always refused. In May of 1966, after 11 months in Italy, John got his wish and was assigned to the 55th Military Intelligence Detachment at Nha Trang, Vietnam.

At Nha Trang, a beautiful port on the coast of Vietnam just north of Cam Ranh, John was assigned prisoner interrogation duty but he continued his quest to be assigned to a combat unit. Eventually, he was told to “find a home.” So he did.

John picked the 2nd Battalion of the 7th Cavalry (2/7th Cav) – famous because it was originally General Custer’s unit. John felt at home in the 2/7th Cav. He was assigned to provide specialized intelligence for II Corps – one of Vietnam’s four military regions.

Soon after being placed with the 2/7th Cav, Gen. Westmoreland assigned John’s unit to a province that was nearly overrun with Viet Cong. The province had a very weak Army of the Republic of Vietnam (ARVN) presence and Westmoreland wanted it cleaned up. The 2/7th Cav was heavily armed and was just the unit to do it. John was assigned to plan raids and ambushes against the Viet Cong. Having previously faced the weaker ARVN forces, Charlie was unprepared for the highly professional, cutting-edge 2/7th Cav forces that came at them with “an attitude.” The local Viet Cong were destroyed.

doherty4John had access to high-level intelligence, radio intercepts and information from local agents. One of John’s responsibilities was to determine the enemy’s “order of battle” – i.e., the specific units deployed by the enemy and their past history, so that they could be effectively engaged. John interrogated numerous prisoners who felt fortunate to be captured by American forces and not by the South Vietnamese, since ARVN soldiers were known for their brutality.

John, promoted to captain at this point, recalled his use of a “lie detector” machine during interrogations. The unit had two large colored lights on top, one red and one green. The unit had a switch under the table to control the lights. The machine didn’t reveal anything about the truth of a prisoner’s answers, but it had a powerful psychological effect. As John sat behind the desk with his pistol on top, his bayonet stuck in the desktop, and a mean-looking ARVN soldier/interpreter by his side, he would ask questions and control the lights. He would turn on the green light when routine questions were asked and when the prisoner was likely telling the truth. When John asked a more sensitive question or suspected a prisoner might be lying, he would flip on the red light and the ARVN soldier, seeing the red light, would jump out of his chair and run towards the prisoner with a half-crazed look on his face. To the prisoner, it was all very believable … heck, if the Americans could invent a way to see in the dark — night vision devices — they could probably invent a truth detector.

During this period, John took possession of a very valuable prisoner/defector. He had come into camp sick with malaria and dysentery and with one of the surrender leaflets that were scattered by US/ARVN troops.

doherty2He was faced with either dying or defecting and decided on the latter. This was not your usual prisoner! He was French/Vietnamese, 6 feet 1inch (most Vietnamese were 5 feet tall) and was very well educated … at the Sorbonne! He had graduated from the Soviet Airborne School at Ryazan and had a great deal of high-level intelligence to offer. When word got to Gen. Westmoreland in Saigon, John was ordered to “protect him with your life” and a helicopter was soon dispatched to bring the prisoner to Saigon.

When John’s first tour of duty in Vietnam was over, he decided he really liked what he was doing and wanted a second tour. After completing a 30-day leave of absence — granted to all soldiers who signed up for a second tour – John reported back to Saigon expecting to be reassigned to the 2/7th Cav. However, that was not what the Army had in mind. Instead he was sent to the Ancient Imperial City of Hue in I Corps – the military region closest to North Vietnam. At first, John was very disappointed. While he initially didn’t want to change units, he came to like his new assignment. He was now working with the ARVN 1st Infantry Division – the best unit in the South Vietnamese Army.

John now interrogated prisoners from the North Vietnamese Army – NVA – and, using intelligence gained from them and other sources, became the I Corps target coordinator. In this role, he planned radar-based air strikes, naval gunfire, and even B-52 strikes – including a series of secret B-52 missions known as “Arc Light.”

doherty3John’s second tour took a different twist when an Australian warrant officer attached to the 1st ARVN Reconnaissance Unit was wounded and John was assigned to take his place. Finally, John was in the field with ARVN forces … a group of about 100 soldiers … conducting very quiet, sneak-and-peek operations in one of the more dangerous places in Vietnam.

During this period John was living off C-rations and rice, sleeping in hammocks to avoid rats and snakes, and spending his days walking through rice paddies. John’s ARVN liaison was 1st Lt. Tan, a 31-year old Vietnamese who had been fighting the communists since he was 15-years old. Sixteen years of wartime experience develops good instincts. John noted that Lt. Tan often picked trails that avoided potential ambushes and/or minefields. 

On one occasion John had to overrule Lt. Tan and, sure enough, they entered a mined area. John stepped on something odd but it didn’t explode … at least not until John had moved away. John pointed at the questionable object to warn others, but it was too late. A South Vietnamese soldier lost his foot when the mine exploded. John believes it was only the heavy mud surrounding the mine that kept it from “springing” apart and exploding when he took his foot off it.

John had a lot of respect for the enemy. Their soldiers were very resourceful and changed tactics quickly when needed. They were tough and fatalistic. NVA soldiers routinely had tattoos that said, “Born in the North – Died in the South.” They were dedicated and ready to die. Many ARVN soldiers were equally brave. Some would dress up as NVA soldiers and infiltrate enemy positions to gain needed intelligence.

In December 1967 the previously wounded Australian returned and John was re-assigned to his former duties in Hue. He might have thought this would be less dangerous, but he would have been wrong.

On January 31, 1968 at 2:40 a.m., John was sleeping in his compound in Hue. He was just south of the “Perfume” river that divided Hue. Suddenly, all hell broke loose. Mortars, 122 mm rockets, and RPGs were exploding all around his compound. Hue was ground zero for the largest North Vietnamese attack of the war – the Tet Offensive.

John’s first reaction was, “What the <expletive deleted>?” He could see the explosions and RPG trails. He pulled his boots on and grabbed his AK-47. The building was being plastered with enemy fire. He could see the green tracers from enemy rounds being fired in his direction. He and fellow soldiers returned fire, shooting at shadows and muzzle flashes throughout the night. A mortar struck near John’s position and he was wounded in the right leg.

Specialist 1st Class Frank Doezema probably saved John’s life. Doezema was manning a machine gun and faced the first massive assault of NVA troops. He gunned down three NVA soldiers attempting to set demolition charges. When he was finally hit by an RPG, he still continued to fire at attacking units. Regrettably, the RPG had blown off Doezema’s leg and he died before he could be given the needed medical care. He was later awarded the Army’s Distinguished Service Cross.

The day before the attack, John noted that he had traveled through Hue in the open on a routine assignment. At the time, NVA forces were already in Hue in force, but were still awaiting the order to attack. John, almost certainly, passed right through NVA positions and was an easy target but they held their fire.

The battle of Hue raged on for a month. During the first week of the battle, John went on numerous missions within the city to attack enemy positions and to free trapped friendly forces. On one occasion, John’s patrol rescued two senior ARVN officers who were surrounded by NVA forces.

On February 7th, 1968, John went on an impromptu patrol near the local soccer stadium. As he and others were slowly moving from tree to tree, Gunnery Sergeant George P. Kendall, Jr. stepped in front of John and took an entire burst from a Soviet RPD machine gun – a burst that was probably meant for John. In the ensuing battle, an RPG struck near John and shrapnel hit John in his right knee. He was eventually able to hobble back to his compound a quarter mile away, at which point he was dressed down for engaging in “unauthorized combat.”

After having his wound tended, John returned to the scene of the battle to retrieve Kendall’s body and do a little payback. He returned with an M42 Duster – a tank chassis armed with several 20 mm cannons. After obliterating the enemy machinegun position and retrieving Kendall’s body, his unit was on its way back to the compound when John was hit by friendly fire. One of the men in John’s unit was not a trained infantry soldier, since even cooks and bottle washers were in the fight at this point. When he was told to point his 40 mm grenade launcher away from his fellow soldiers and toward the enemy, he mistakenly fired it into the ground. After the grenade bounced off the ground and a nearby wall, it exploded and wounded John in the same knee that just took shrapnel.

Unfortunately, the new wound required some real surgery and there was no more morphine. All that was available was Darvon, but the surgery to extract metal from John’s knee went ahead anyway.

John wasn’t evacuated from Hue until February 14th. It wasn’t a routine evacuation. John was loaded into a Huey helicopter with a pilot and a door-gunner. After takeoff, they flew 10 feet above the river at 85 knots and then right over thousands of NVA troops. The NVA were everywhere! John had 5 magazines of ammo and, despite being wounded, fired out the door continuously during his evacuation. The helicopter was hit numerous times, including rounds through the door and into the bulkhead that John was propped up against. Only 5 rounds were left when John ceased firing.

John made it to Saigon, but the city was also under attack during the Tet Offensive and John’s combat wasn’t over yet. A few days later, word was received that another attack was imminent. Sure enough, at midnight the attack came. A mortar round landed across the room — about 20 feet from John — and he again received shrapnel wounds, this time to his back, face, and head. His helmet was also dented and he couldn’t hear anything or focus his eyes.

On the 14th of February 1968, two weeks after the Tet Offensive had begun, and 7 days after John had been scheduled to complete his tour and become a civilian, he was finally evacuated from Vietnam. This time he was glad to leave, but he refused to hand over his rifle until he was safely on the waiting Continental Airways 707. John didn’t feel entirely safe until he was out over the Pacific, and for good reason; mortar explosions were still erupting on the airfield as they started their takeoff roll.

John officially left the Army on February 20th, 1968. After returning to Andover, John worked for Raytheon for a short period and then attended Boston College Law School. After graduation, John was a prosecutor for 14 years – the last 4½ at the federal level. He married his wife Denise in 1984 and has a 16-year-old daughter, Margaret. John switched to a private law practice in Andover in 1984 and continued his legal career until 1998 at which time he took his current position as the town’s Veterans Service Officer.

OLYMPUS DIGITAL CAMERACapt. John Doherty, thank you for your service.

Capt. Doherty has been awarded the Bronze Star, three Purple Hearts, the Vietnamese Medal of Honor, two Vietnamese Crosses of Gallantry, and two Vietnamese Wound Medals (earned while he was an advisor to ARVN Forces). 

Each month the Valley Patriot honors American servicemen and women. To nominate a veteran to be honored as a Valley Patriot of the month, please email us at valleypatriot@aol.com.