August 29, 2016 | By Dr. Wesley Arden Dick, Professor of History
In teaching history at Albion College, one of my goals is to bring national and international historical issues home to Albion: to the community and the campus. With my emphasis on modern American history, the Vietnam War receives considerable attention. In exploring Albion College during the Vietnam War, one asks the question: how many Albion College students or alumni were killed in Vietnam? In research in the Albion College Archives, in the Albion Pleiad, and relevant secondary sources, I have discovered only one Albion College alumnus who died in Vietnam. That individual is Donald Bruce Adamson and 2016 marks the 50th anniversary year of his death.
Who was Donald Adamson? Donald was born on August 28, 1940 to Mr. and Mrs. Joseph Adamson. The family resided at 1863 Emerald Avenue, N.E., Grand Rapids, Michigan. Donald graduated from Creston High School in 1958, from Grand Rapids Junior College in 1960, and from Albion College in 1963. He excelled in athletics in Grand Rapids and at Albion College, where he participated in football, basketball, and track and field. Six-foot-five in height and weighing 220 pounds, his nickname was "Big Don." He was also known as a "gentle giant," fun loving, and everyone's friend, who never had "a bad or cross word to say." He was a defensive tackle on the 1961 Albion College MIAA championship football team. Following spring Commencement in 1963, Donald attended the Albion College Bay View program at Petoskey and then enrolled in pre-medical studies at the University of Michigan.
After a semester at the University of Michigan, Donald was accepted into the United States Army Officers Candidate School and trained at Fort Gordon and Fort Benning in Georgia. He was commissioned as a Second Lieutenant in May of 1965, assigned to A Company, 1st Battalion, 12th Cavalry, 1st Cavalry Division Airborne. Donald arrived in Vietnam in September of 1965 and his unit was part of Operation White Wing Masher, an offensive sweep of the An Lao Valley 300 miles north of Saigon. According to a Grand Rapids Press report, White Wing's success was measured by 1,072 Viet Cong killed, 246 captured, and 202 weapons seized. However, American and South Vietnamese casualties were also high.
Donald's last letter home described conditions: "When time permits after this whole nightmarish dream comes to an end, I'm going to sit down and write a very interesting book. A book not concerned with the trials and tribulations of war but rather a book entitled ‘C Rations Fixed 300 Exciting Ways for the Gourmet.'" He was also proud that his platoon had "functioned flawlessly" on its last operation: "I've only lost three men and the extent of their injuries was minor." Donald also noted that General William Westmoreland had commended him for his platoon's action.
Alas, this sometimes humorous and upbeat letter was soon followed by the dreaded telegram conveying the news that Donald was among the American casualties. He had been killed on February 23, 1966. The telegram notified his parents that Lt. Adamson "had succumbed of wounds to right lower chest and multiple back wounds, incurred during hostile action." He received full military honors at his burial in Rosedale Memorial Park Cemetery, Grand Rapids, in early March 1966. In May 1966, he was honored on the Albion campus by the Sigma Nu chapter with a plaque and award in his name. And he is also memorialized as one of the 58,000 names on the Vietnam Veterans Memorial on the National Mall in Washington, D.C.
In November 2015, during our travel to Washington, D.C., my first-year seminar class, A Sense of Place: Albion and the American Dream, sought out Donald's name on the Vietnam Memorial Wall. In preparation for the trip, students had written historical tributes for Donald. When we located his name on the Wall, at panel 5E, row 63, we gathered to hear Skyler Campbell, '19, read her tribute. We left another student tribute, Albion College yearbook photos, and 1966 news stories at the foot of the wall to be collected by the National Park Service. Later, I located a National Park volunteer who did a "rubbing" of Donald Adamson's name. Included above is a photograph of Skyler from our class visit to the Wall. This November, in his memory, our seminar will again visit the Wall.
In this account, I wanted to remind readers that Albion's story is America's story, to honor the memory of Lt. Donald Adamson, and to invite response on the part of Albion alumni regarding the Vietnam War. Is Donald Adamson the only Albion College name on the Wall? Are there other stories that need to be told?