May 29, 1942 – March 4, 2013
James C. Donahue’s courage and sense of daring would take him to the Vietnam War as a member of the Green Berets and when the war was over, back again twice on top-secret missions in search of missing prisoners of war.
He was a recipient of the second highest honor the Army can bestow on a soldier, the Silver Star, and three Bronze Stars, a Purple Heart and two Air Medals.
Mr. Donahue died Monday in his home in Lakewood Ranch, Fla., after a two-year “courageous battle with cancer,” according to his son, Michael. He was 70.
As a civilian devoted to improving the image of Vietnam Veterans, he organized an annual 100-mile run through Death Valley that began with a 3,000-foot parachute jump into the wasteland. Each day participants ran for 15 miles until the race was completed.
The purpose of the race was to prove that veterans from the unpopular war could finish what they set out to do. First started in 1983, the race continued for 13 years.
After completing his studies at the University at Buffalo, which included a master’s degree in social sciences, he was hired in the early 1970s to head the City of Buffalo’s Absentee Control Unit. In that role, he uncovered no-show jobs and corruption.
He later advanced to a post with the U.S. Labor Department as the assistant state director for veterans employment in Buffalo. He retired in December 2002 and moved to Florida.
“My dad had been shot in the head twice. He was surrounded by Viet Cong and dressed his own wounds and continued fighting the enemy until he passed out and was medevaced,” Michael Donahue said.
Because of those head wounds, he suffered severe headaches, especially during severe winters in Buffalo, which, the son said, “necessitated his move to Florida.”
As a boy, Mr. Donahue often spent his afternoons at the Butler-Mitchell Boys Club on the West Side, honing his athletic abilities in the boxing ring, on the basketball court and playing tennis. After graduating in 1960 from Grover Cleveland High School, he joined the Marine Corps at 17 and ended up at Guantanamo Bay during the fiercely tense Cuban Missile Crisis in 1962.
After completing his hitch with the Marines, Mr. Donahue enlisted in the Army and volunteered for Special Forces, serving with the 6th and 7th Special Forces Groups at Fort Bragg, N.C., and with the 5th Special Forces Group in Vietnam.
In 1987, he wrote a book, “No Greater Love,” which was later retitled “Blackjack 34,” and won praise from the Freedom Foundation, which awarded it the George Washington Honor Medal. His war experiences also provided him material for two other books, “Mobile Guerilla Force,” and “Blackjack 33.”
He was selected by AMVETS as the Outstanding Civil Servant in the nation in 1983 and received the “Silver Helmet Award.”
In 1976, he was honored as one of seven Vietnam War veterans in the country who made “truly significant contributions to their communities since returning from the war.” The award was bestowed by No Greater Love organization.
Mr. Donahue also served in the New York National Guard, where he attained the rank of major.
He was credited with coming up with the idea of building a version of “The Wall,” the Vietnam Memorial in Washington D.C., on Buffalo’s waterfront and once the project gained support, he stepped aside, loved ones said.
In addition to his wife, Sandi, and son, Mr. Donahue is survived by a daughter, Sarah Hanson; a brother, Mark; and a half brother, John.
A celebration of life is planned Saturday in The Chapel at Crosspoint, Amherst. Details are still being arranged.
– Lou Michel