"I had 50 years of telling stories about this, and 99 percent of the people didn't believe me," said "Chickie" Donohue. His tall tale of "The Greatest Beer Run Ever" really did happen, and is now a motion picture directed by Academy Award-winner Peter Farrelly.
"A guy who brought beer to his friends in Vietnam? I just immediately thought that's a movie," said Farrelly.
CBS News national security correspondent David Martin asked, "What was it about that story that connected with you?"
"It was the sheer, you know, hubris, the stupidity to even attempt it," Farrelly replied. "But then, to actually go through, to pull it off? I love that guy!"
And what exactly did Donohue pull off? In 1967 the merchant seaman, who spent way too much time at his local bar in New York City, was inspired by Colonel Lynch, a former G.I. (and not a colonel) who tended bar. Lynch hated seeing protests against the Vietnam War, while boys from the neighborhood were fighting and dying over there.
In the movie Lynch (played by Bill Murray), said, "I'd like to go over to Vietnam and track down all the boys in the neighborhood, and just give them a beer."
Donohue (played by Zac Efron) pipes up, "I can do that."
So, Donohue signed on to an ammo ship bound for Vietnam, and set out to find six guys (which became four, when one was killed and another sent home with malaria).
Martin asked, "Did it occur to you that this might be pretty hard to find four guys?"
"I thought it would be impossible," said Donohue, "but I had to try, and if I failed, I failed."
According to Donohue, Efron nailed him. Martin asked the actor, "What do you think you nailed about Chickie?"
"I think I understood a part of why he did it," Efron replied. "It comes from a pure place inside of him."
Incredibly, Donohue had barely stepped off his ammo ship when he found Tommy Collins. "I said, 'What the hell are you doing here?'" Collins recalled. "He says, 'I came to bring you a beer.' 500,000 soldiers and Marines in country at that time, and he finds four of us. Amazing!"
"What are the odds?" asked Martin
"Million to one," said Bobby Pappas, another of the four.
"As crazy as this idea was, it just seems to have been blessed with good luck," said Martin.
"I don't believe in coincidences anymore," Donohue said. "Somebody wanted it to happen."
Sticking out like a sore thumb in his Madras shirt and jeans, Donohue got around Vietnam by talking his way aboard military flights. When asked Who the hell are you?, he'd whisper, Major, if I told you the truth, you wouldn't believe me.
"And it worked!" Donohue exclaimed. "It worked!"
If you don't believe him, ask Rick Duggan, who took a picture proving Donohue was there. Duggan and his platoon were manning an ambush site near the border with North Vietnam: "He found me, which is a miracle in itself. We were never in the same place for more than two or three days at a time."
The moment when Donohue found Duggan was a turning point for Farrelly in his direction of the movie. "It's light in the beginning because you think, how silly is this?" he said. "But the reality of it is not silly."
Like the rest of America, Donohue found out it was easier to get into Vietnam than get out. But his incredible luck held. He was walking down a jungle road, and who should drive up? Kevin McLoone.
"This is like a free fire zone," McLoone recalled. "And I pulled up next to him and said, 'Where the hell are you going?' I said, 'Get in. Get in. Chick, Holy Jesus, Mary and Joseph!'"
When the 1968 Tet Offensive hit, Donohue still had one more name on his list: Bobby Pappas, based at a huge ammunition dump attacked by the Vietcong. "They blew up $8 million worth of ammunition in eight seconds; $1 million a second," Pappas said.
It was a rude awakening. The Vietnam War was nowhere near won, and Pappas started taking it out on Donohue. "I start giving him the business: Oh, yeah, the war is over. The war is over. Take a look at this place. It just looked like a horror show."
Donohue said, "When he was yelling at me, I'm smiling. I had a big grin, 'cause I thought he was dead. And here he was cursing me! Nothing wrong with this guy!"
Pappas' character has the best line in the movie: "You got a good heart, but it's your brain I'm worried about; it's going to get you killed."
Martin asked, "Did you really say that?"
"Yes. I was scared for him, you know? I didn't know how he was going to get home, where he was going to go."
You know by now Chickie did get home. Martin asked him, "What effect did this long, strange trip have on you?"
"I was a staunch supporter of the war," he replied. "But when I got there, I saw things that just weren't right, and it was just false, totally false."
"Fair to say you came home with a different view of the war?"
"Yeah: the truth."
"So, which is more improbable? Your trip? Or the fact that after all these years a movie gets made out of it?"
"The movie," Donohue replied. "That's more improbable."
"This movie is going to be how most people remember you; you good with that?"
"Oh yeah!" he said. "I did the right thing. I was letting these kids die without me helping them, and that's what I wanted to do."
To watch a trailer for "The Greatest Beer Run Ever" click on the video player below:
For more info:
- "The Greatest Beer Run Ever" premieres September 30 in theaters and streaming on Apple+ TV.
"The Greatest Beer Run Ever: A Memoir of Friendship, Loyalty, and War" by John "Chick" Donohue & J.T. Molloy (William Morrow), in Hardcover, Trade Paperback, Large Print, eBook and Audio formats, available via Amazon, Barnes & Noble and Indiebound
Story produced by Mary Walsh. Editor: Karen Brenner.
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