Remains of Army sergeant killed during Vietnam War in 1969 will return to Cabarrus County Saturday.
The bronze plaque planted in the ground has marked Donnie Shue’s grave in Concord since 1979. It’s been empty all that time, awaiting the body.
Unknown to his family, Shue was killed a decade earlier on Nov. 3, 1969, a fearless 20-year-old Army Green Beret on a secret, dangerous mission during the Vietnam War.
For those 10 years, the military listed Shue as missing in action. His father, Wesley, blamed himself for letting his son enlist and died of “a broken heart” in 1971. His mother, Nellie, pushed the Army to keep searching for answers.
She never got them.
Yet Saturday, 41 years after he died in an ambush in the jungled mountains of Laos, the remains of Sgt. 1st Class Donald Monroe Shue will be returned to Cabarrus County in a procession from Charlotte’s Army National Guard Armory that will be led by hundreds of motorcycle riders.
Sunday, Shue’s surviving sisters will hold a funeral, then bury the remains. And, finally, the grave at Carolina Memorial Park will be empty no more.
“It’s been a long journey,” said sister Peggy Hinson, 73, of Kannapolis, wiping away tears at her brother’s grave this week. “But I’m at peace now that Donnie’s coming home and not in a foreign land, thrown up on some hill.”
They say Donnie Shue had a smile that lit up a room.
He was the baby, born in Concord 12 years after twin sisters, Peggy and Nancy, a generation after oldest sisters, Betty and Helen.
When Donnie was born, brother Billy was dying of diphtheria. He became his parents’ pride and joy, Peggy said.
Like many Carolinas mill-town boys, Donnie grew up fast. He loved powerful cars. Girls. And dancing to the Tams at Park Center (now Grady Cole) in Charlotte. Best of all, he loved drag racing his 160cc Ducati motorcycle, or sister Nancy’s powder blue Pontiac Bonneville convertible, with its three double-barrel carburetors.
Monty Clark met Donnie riding motorcycles. He instantly was impressed with Donnie’s ease with girls.
They’d ride to Myrtle Beach, or to Park Center, and wherever they stopped, Donnie drew a crowd. “He was charismatic, handsome. Blond,” said Monty, now of Albemarle.
It was 1967. Donnie was in 11th grade at A.L. Brown High, where he’d transferred from Concord High after his parents – lifelong workers at Cannon Mills – moved to Kannapolis.
Vietnam was heating up, and so were anti-war protests.
Donnie and Monty talked about joining the Army together. Donnie dreamed of fighting in Special Forces, wearing their green beret.
He started pestering his father to sign enlistment papers.
His father resisted. “But Donnie would get on his knees and beg, or throw his arms around Daddy’s neck,” Peggy said. “Daddy finally signed.”
Soon Donnie was puttering off to Fort Bragg on his Ducati. He was barely 18.
The Green Beret
Donnie consumed Army life, and became a Green Beret.
While Monty learned history and algebra, Donnie was learning guerrilla warfare, Morse code and the cultures and dialects of Vietnam.
On leave, he’d ride home to be with his family.
During one visit, Donnie went to see Monty early one morning. Monty, bleary-eyed and “in my skivvies,” opened the door and found himself on the ground wrestling Donnie.
“He said, ‘I just finished guerrilla warfare training and I wanted to show you I could whup ya,'” Monty said. “He loved everything about being a Green Beret.”
On another leave, Donnie met Carol Hughes in Myrtle Beach and, on an impulse, married her. Soon, he was sent to Okinawa, Japan, to prepare for Vietnam. Carol followed.
In the last letter to Monty, Donnie wrote he was headed for Vietnam for 90 to 120 days.
“The next word I got, he was MIA,” Monty said.
Donnie’s parents never knew what happened. Until now, his sisters didn’t either.
John Meyer was a Green Beret on his second tour when he met Donnie at a Special Forces operations base in Da Nang in South Vietnam.
“He could have been a Green Beret poster child,” said Meyer, now of Oceanside, Calif.
At that time, Special Forces troops were involved in the CIA-backed “secret war” in Laos and Cambodia, both neutral, but overrun by communist troops from North Vietnam, said Meyer, who’s written a book about the missions.
Teams of Green Berets and native troops were secretly inserted into Laos to gather information on the enemy. The Americans went without identification, agreeing not to discuss the missions for 20 years.
Donnie was assigned to “team Maryland” with two other Green Berets, Gunther Wald and Bill Brown, and six Montagnards, natives who helped U.S. forces. On Nov. 3, 1969, they were inserted by helicopter 30 miles inside Laos.
That day, word came that they’d been hit. The last radio transmission – “here they come again” – could have been Donnie or Wald, Meyer said.
“Then we heard the AK-47s,” he said.
Four Montagnards escaped to report the ambush. Bad weather delayed a rescue by eight days. By then, there was no sign of the Americans.
When the Army officers knocked at the door in Kannapolis, Wesley Shue cried. He was never the same, blaming himself for Donnie’s death. He died two years later.
His mother, too, was devastated. But she became a POW/MIA activist and sold bracelets with Donnie’s name and the names of other Americans missing or held captive in Vietnam – designed to bring attention to their plight.
In the early 1970s, Ann Hooper of Charlotte wore a silver-colored MIA bracelet with the name: S/Sgt. Donald Shue. And a date: 11-3-69.
Hooper had graduated from college in 1971. Her roommate was from Concord, so she spent a lot of time there and met many of Donnie’s friends.
“Several of us wore his bracelet,” she said. “The idea was to wear it until the soldier came home.”
Eventually, she took hers off, but kept it in a jewelry box. She never knew Donnie, but plans to attend the funeral – and offer the bracelet to a relative.
The harsh truth
In 1973, his mother persuaded the Concord post office to install a plaque honoring her son and the other American MIAs and POWs. She picked out a cherry tree to plant beside it.
And she kept pursuing answers. In 1979, after 10 years as an MIA, the Army’s 11th report officially changed Donnie’s status to “presumed dead.” Donnie’s wife, Carol, bought a plot and a bronze plaque at Carolina Memorial Park.
After his mother died two years later wearing Donnie’s MIA bracelet, the sisters accepted a harsh truth: They might never find their brother.
The Vietnam War ended 36 years ago Saturday when the last Americans were plucked from a fallen Saigon.
Yet for families of POWs and MIAs, it still goes on.
They rely on what is now the Joint POW/MIA Accounting Command and its searches for Americans lost in conflicts.
After boundaries were redrawn and the region where Donnie and his two comrades were killed was transferred to Vietnam, forensic teams were free to search.
Over the years, villagers found human remains. In 2008, a team found Bill Brown’s dog tag. A year later, an American team found real evidence: Donnie’s Zippo cigarette lighter with his name engraved. Soon, JPAC called his sister Betty Jones of Kannapolis. They believe they’d found Donnie’s remains and wanted her DNA to confirm.
“Betty screamed into the phone: ‘No! No, no, no!’ She didn’t want to be put through this again if it wasn’t Donnie,” Peggy said.
Another relative sent DNA. The remains were confirmed.
Each Memorial Day, Monty Clark plants flags at Donnie’s plaque in Concord. Saturday, he’ll be on his motorcycle alongside the hearse.
And Sunday, John Meyer, the former Green Beret from California, expects to be with other Green Berets at Whitley’s Funeral Home in Kannapolis. He is scheduled to speak.
“When I heard that Donnie was coming home, I knew we had to be there to salute him,” he said.