Donn Lafayette Sweet could never forget the oppressive conditions of Vietnam.
“It’s another horrible day here in Dong Ha,” he wrote on May 27, 1968. “The heat and dirt are unbearable. Everyday it’s windy and in excess of 100 degrees. Everything is dirty and hot. Too, the NVA (North Vietnamese Army) have started raising hell again and that adds to the general discomfort.”
Evelyn Sweet-Hurd will never forget her brother, an Army lieutenant who was killed in Vietnam on July 25, 1968, at age 26. She wants others to remember him, too.
Sweet-Hurd, whose family lived in Schenectady before moving to Virginia in 1956, has collected letters Donn sent to his mother from statewide training camps and later from places such as Dong Ha and Gio Linh in the north central coastal region of Vietnam. She has published them in a book titled “His Name Was Donn: My Brother’s Letters from Vietnam,” and included her own commentary about the times of war and her sense of loss.
Idea takes shape
“The motivation for this work began germinating when the first deaths of soldiers from the current war in Iraq were announced,” said Sweet-Hurd. “Two of the earliest casualties were young men from Conyers, Ga., where we live now. One had graduated from the high school where my children were attending, and the other had grandparents who live on a road I travel nearly every day.
“When these two young men died, their deaths received local coverage. But I wondered, ‘Where is the huge response? The outcry?’ And yes, local news was checking in at the moment. They should check in with those families in a year, 10 years, 20 years.”
The second motivating factor was a conversation Sweet-Hurd had with her daughter Caitlin, when the young woman said something that reminded her of Donn. “She said she wished she could have known him,” Sweet-Hurd said. “I wanted my children to know something of who he was, what an enormous personality he had.”
Sweet-Hurd did not keep letters her brother mailed to her as a college student. Some letters to mother Marion are funny. Others convey the drama fighting men endured on a daily basis.
“Right now we’re on a 72-hour alert,” Sweet wrote on Sept. 25, 1967, shortly after his arrival in Vietnam. “Dong Ha is expecting a massive attack and thus we can’t take our clothes off and must carry our M-14s plus 100 pounds of ammo wherever we go. I’m the team leader for the 12th Regiment Reaction Force while we’re here at Dong Ha. That means when and if we’re attacked, I take my 20-man team to the place that’s catching the most hell and reinforce them. It’s all rather hairy.”
Roots in Schenectady
Sweet was the son of Scotia native Marion Berning and Alva Lafayette Sweet; Alva worked as an electrical engineer at the General Electric Co. The Sweets had three children, Joan, Donn and Evelyn, and the family lived at 900 Union St. (now 1000 Union St.). The family spent summers at Ruback’s Grove on the east shore of Galway Lake.
Donn, who liked to kayak, swim and sail, graduated from Elmer Avenue Elementary School and had completed two years at Central Park Junior High when GE transferred Alva Sweet to Roanoke, Va., In 1956.
“He was very good friends with Howard Goldstock, who was eight years older but shared his wry sense of humor and love of skiing,” said Sweet’s sister, Joan Sweet Brault of Avon, Conn., a graduate of the former Nott Terrace High School. “Our neighbor Jackie Gold was also good friends with Donn as were our other neighbors, Steve Ras and Nancy Budge.”
Sweet graduated from Roanoke College in 1964 and applied to medical schools without success. He moved back to Schenectady for a year and sold insurance. He was then drafted into the Army.
Shortly before he left for combat duty, he bought a 1962 356 Super 90 Porsche for $2,200. He had two nicknames for the pearl-white sports car, “Patti Porsche” and “The Marshmallow,” and often inquired about the vehicle’s health in letters.
He had nicknames for people, too. Marion Sweet was “Toombie,” because Donn was afraid his mother’s extra weight was going to kill her.
He’d ask for black-and-white film, peanuts in the shell, orange juice and Playboy magazines. He’d mention Duke football and basketball games; Joan had graduated from the North Carolina college and Evelyn was a Duke sophomore during the 1967-68 academic year.
Speaking his mind
On Dec. 12, Sweet was in Gio Linh, and mud and rain were still on his mind.
“I work from sunrise to early afternoon as an FO [forward observer] in a 50-foot tower,” he wrote. “When we can see (the rain lets up once in a while) then we can usually spot some NVA and then we shoot. It’s all very exciting and not too dangerous.”
In the same letter, Sweet sounded like he wanted to increase the danger level.
“To direct artillery fire on the enemy is such an impersonal way to kill,” he wrote. “Sure wish we could go in after them and really wipe them out.”
While Sweet considered himself a tough guy — during his school days he liked to refer to himself as “The Rock” and also “small but wiry, lean but mean” — he also had a sense of humor. One of the soldier’s self-invented nicknames, “Donnypoo,” appeared on an Army jeep. An entrance to a camp building in Vietnam was posted with a Sweet slogan: “Smile, that’s an order.”
The lieutenant was interested in politics.
“Sure hope RFK isn’t nominated,” he wrote in April 1968, commenting on Robert F. Kennedy’s aspirations for presidency. “Think Dirty Dick (Richard M. Nixon) is the best.”
In May, he would write, “The thought of RFK in power is frightening to us. Millions of Viet kids would die if we quit or pull out. We ought to be here, but should fight offensively, not this way.”
Hero in death
Sweet was fighting on July 25, 1968. He had been helicoptered into a battle zone, where two South Vietnamese companies had suffered casualties.
Army officials said Sweet came under heavy fire and knew he had to reach higher ground.
“En route, he came under enemy sniper fire,” wrote Brig. Gen. Robert C. Taber in a letter awarding Sweet the Silver Star. “Advancing to within 50 yards of the enemy, Lt. Sweet killed the sniper with rifle fire.”
A short time later, Sweet was struck by mortar fragments and died on the way to a hospital. He had been scheduled to leave Vietnam in September; he was going to start law school.
Sweet-Hurd’s strongest memories of her brother are his smile and energy. “He was always in motion, and he had a million interests,” she said. “He played the drums, he loved sports cars, he loved crazy hats, he was in a comedy troupe, he was in school plays, he was hilariously funny, and he seemed to be in a whirlwind with a lot of friends, all of the time.”
She said others remember the man with a smile.
“Some of the veterans who have read the book have e-mailed me that Donn was a bright spot in their dismal existence in Vietnam,” Sweet-Hurd said. “As his letters show, he tried valiantly to keep his humor and his focus on getting home.”
Donn Sweet is buried in Vale Cemetery.
“His Name Was Donn: My Brother’s Letters from Vietnam,” is available through Amazon.com and Barnesandnoble.com. It is also listed on the Outskirt Press Web site.