John “Chickie” Donohue had already served his time in the U.S. Marines during the early stages of the Vietnam War. A local sandhog (tunnel construction worker) in New York City, he enjoyed the occasional pint at his favorite watering hole.
One day in 1967, the barflies were watching the seemingly endless protests against the war on a television hanging about the bar. Saddened by the lack of support for their countrymen, the bartender remarked “someone should go to Vietnam to give the soldiers a pat on the back and buy them a beer.”
Chickie piped up, smiled, and said something along the lines of “consider it done!”
No one really expected he was being serious.
Making a list
Chickie and the bartender, George Lynch, spent the next few weeks scouring their neighborhood for information on any active-duty soldiers. They came up with a list of about half a dozen men, one of whom grew up in the very same building as Chickie.
Having made his list, he now moved onto the next step.
How does one go from New York to Vietnam, an active war zone, for as little money as possible?
Leaning on his former Marine skills, Chickie took a job as a machine oiler (a fluffer for boats) onboard the Drake Victory — a merchant ship helping supply ammunition to the US Army.
Crack a beer for me
Grabbing a large amount of his favorite beer — Pabst Blue Ribbon — Chickie stuffed it into a duffle bag and set off to work.
Two grueling months later, Chickie arrived in the harbor of Qui Nhon harbor. There was only one problem — he was bored on the passage over.
Two months is a long time to go without drinking for a drinker such as Chickie — and he arrived with an empty duffel bag.
“It took two months to get there, so I drank all the beer.” — John Donohue in an interview with The New York Times
No matter, he was able to restock his beer supply in Qui Nhon, albeit with non-American beer.
His first stop in Vietnam had him randomly run into one of his old friends, Tom Collins, who wasn’t even on his list.
I wonder if he enjoyed drinking his namesake?
“Chickie Donohue, what the hell are you doing here?” asked Tom Collins.
“I came to bring you a beer.”
The next two months were an adventure of strangeness and appreciation. He traveled from Qui Nhon to Khe Sahn, then on to Saigon.
He convinced pilots to let him fly on their mail planes. He hopped on jeeps. He boarded helicopters with fabricated but necessary stories of finding his stepbrother.
He even spent a night exchanging fire with the enemy, according to one of the members on his list.
Every place he went ended up in sheer shock, amusement, and then appreciation.
“Holy sh-t! What the hell are you doing here?!” one of his listed named Duggan yelled.
Another member of the platoon exclaimed, “Wait a minute. You’re telling me you don’t have to be here and you’re here?”
In total, Chickie found 4 men on his list and brought every single one of them a grateful beer.
When he returned home after his four-month adventure in slight-insanity, Chickie went back to his watering hole.
The barkeep George Lynch drew a huge smile on his face.
“To Chickie, who brought our boys beer, respect, pride — and love, goddamn it!”
John Chickie Donohue had brought a complete surprise to some of his countrymen, and more importantly, hope. Hope that people back home still cared about their soldiers — whether or not they wanted to be in a war they didn’t start.
John went on to experience many free drinks at his favorite bar over the years. But many skeptics abounded. It seemed the further they got away from 1967, the fewer the people that believed his story.
Eventually, Chickie wanted to set the record straight — and wrote a book about the story alongside author J.T. Molloy.
It’s called “The Greatest Beer Run in History” and the title is probably 100% true.
Just an FYI to any Canadians reading this — I haven’t had a Molson in almost two years while living here in Asia. Wink, wink.
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