Max E. Donatelli Jr., 67
Branch: Air Force
War zone: Vietnam
Years of service: enlisted, 1968 – 1972
Most prominent honors: National Defense Service Medal, Vietnam Service Medal, Republic of Vietnam Service Medal
Specialty: aircraft mechanic
By Lou Michel
News Staff Reporter
Max E. Donatelli Jr. opposed the Vietnam War and yet enlisted to serve.
He says that it was torturous decision to fight for America in a war that had polarized the country.
But generations of patriots in his family pulled him to duty.
There was a great-great grandfather who was a colonel for the North in the Civil War. There was a grandfather who fought in the Spanish American War.
And there was Donatelli’s dad, Max Sr., who survived two Japanese kamikaze planes that had crashed onto the deck of the USS Bunker Hill aircraft carrier in World War II.
“I briefly considered going to Canada because of the war. It was obviously a very unpopular war. I wanted to follow my conscience, but I didn’t want to let my parents down. That’s why it was such a conflicting situation,” he said of what ultimately prompted him to serve.
He chose to make his parents proud.
And to his relief, in Vietnam Donatelli worked in a non-combat position, as a mechanic on C-123 cargo planes.
“They called them trash haulers because they carried everything. All kinds of things. Troops into the field, equipment and food. Everything they needed. But what really struck me was that they also carried those who had been killed in action,” Donatelli said. “That was very disturbing, and it made it very real for me.”
While serving at Tan Son Nhute Air Base, Donatelli befriended a South Vietnamese non-commissioned officer.
“I was invited for dinner to his home a couple times. I met his wife and four children. People don’t realize in the United States how much we have compared to the Third World. His home was very humble, but they were very welcoming,” Donatelli recalled.
The friendship provided him with not only a glimpse into the lives of that country’s people, but perspective on the war, as well.
“Sgt. Dung was college educated and he felt we should be there and that we were really helping the South Vietnamese, but that there was a downside. He said Vietnamese were originally an agrarian culture. With the Americans, it started to change the culture in a not so good way. They could make more money shining shoes, doing laundry and other household things for the GIs than working in the rice paddies.
“The other dark side was that there was the prostituting of the women and the black market that involved some Americans. You could get just about anything from pure grade heroin to merchandise on the streets of Saigon. But it was the prostituting that really disturbed him. I felt very bad about that. I had the chance to really get to know the Vietnamese, and they were very eager to learn.”
Donatelli learned that firsthand by teaching English classes to Vietnamese children.
“For almost the entire year that I was over there, I was teaching, and it was very fulfilling. I felt like I was making a small difference of spreading goodwill with the Vietnamese people,” he said.
Yet those positive feelings were often interrupted by the fact that he was in the middle of a war, he said.
“At night I could hear the B-52s dropping bombs on the Ho Chi Minh Trail, and that was very scary.”
So in 1971, when his deployment concluded, he was eager to return home, even if it was to a country still at odds over the war.
“Fortunately, I survived the war, and when I came home, I was not called ‘baby killer’ as some veterans were,” he said. “But it was not welcoming, not like it is for the service men and women coming back now.”
He did, however, find someone who was very glad to see him – Joyce Morrison. They married on July 15, 1972.
“I’d had a casual relationship with Joyce before I went away, but hadn’t wanted to commit because I wasn’t sure how things would turn out in Vietnam,” Donatelli said.
But he made it home and the couple fell in love and raised a daughter, Connie, and a son, Craig.
Donatelli also brought something unexpected home from the war, an awareness that he wanted to be of service to others rather than an aircraft mechanic.
“I started as a night attendant at Baker Hall, responsible for 11 young adults who had been identified as juvenile delinquents. That gave me a chance to study for my undergraduate degree at Canisius College,” he said. “After I got my degree, I started counseling young people and helping them to stay out of the criminal justice system and become productive adults.”
Forty-two years later, he retired from Baker Victory Services as the head of the organization’s Bridges to Health Program.
These days Max and Joyce Donatelli volunteer as advocates for the developmentally disabled.
“Our son Craig is developmentally disabled, and we’re trying to help create a system that is more responsive to people with developmental disabilities,” the veteran said.
Of going to war, Donatelli says he does not regret it, despite his misgivings as a young man.
“I grew up a lot, and I learned a lot. The GI Bill helped pay for my undergraduate and graduate degrees.”
But even more important, he says, was the chance to help the South Vietnamese by teaching them English.