Today's Monday Mourning is Master Sargent Donald W. Duncan (March 18, 1930 - March 25, 2009). Duncan was a U.S. Army Special Forces soldier who served during the Vietnam War, helping to establish the guerrilla infiltration force Project DELTA there.
Donald Walter Duncan, known to his friends as "Don," was born in Toronto on March 18, 1930, but was a US citizen. Duncan was drafted into the U.S. Army in December 1956, serving as a non-commissioned officer in Germany in the field of operations and intelligence.
Duncan transferred to U.S. Army Special Forces (the "Green Berets") in the first part of 1961, where he continued to work in the field of operations and intelligence. During this interval Duncan received additional training in communications, weapons, and demolitions. Duncan served as an instructor at the United States Army Special Warfare School at Fort Bragg, North Carolina for a year and a half, teaching courses to Special Forces members on intelligence tactics and interrogation methods.
Duncan was deployed in Vietnam in March 1964, serving in a variety of capacities with the 5th Special Forces Group and Project DELTA, which he helped to organize. In addition to briefing and debriefing incoming and outgoing soldiers in the theater, Duncan directly participated in 8-member intelligence and "hunter-killer" teams.
As a result of his combat activity, Duncan was heavily decorated, receiving two Bronze Stars, the Air Medal, and the Vietnamese Cross of Gallantry with Silver Star. He was additionally recommended for the Silver Star and the Legion of Merit as well as a field promotion to captain. Duncan was also tapped to help write the official history of U.S. Special Forces in Vietnam, spending the last 6 or 8 weeks of his tour engaged in this task.
Disillusioned with the reality of the military situation, Duncan declined the offer of promotion and ended his military career, returning to America. Back home in the United States, Duncan moved to Berkeley, California with his wife. There he became active in the anti-war movement and became a writer for Ramparts magazine, one of the leading publications of the New Left in America.
In the February 1966 issue of Ramparts, Duncan published a fierce critique of American participation in the Vietnam conflict, entitled "The Whole Thing was a Lie!" In this article Duncan explained his opposition to the war by providing details on the American connection to the corrupt government of South Vietnam as well as atrocities in the American conduct of the war effort, including training in the use of torture in interrogations and the use of Vietnamese proxies for the summary execution of prisoners.
In 1967 Random House published a book written by Duncan entitled The New Legions which was sharply critical of the American military campaign in Vietnam.
Duncan also presented testimony on American war crimes in Vietnam to the Russell Tribunal in Roskilde, Denmark in November 1967, where he was one of the first three former American soldiers to testify. There he detailed a de facto class in torture techniques conducted for members of the Special Forces entitled "Counter-Measures to Hostile Interrogation."
Duncan settled in Indiana around 1980 and in 1990 founded a nonprofit group that provided services for the poor. Duncan died in a nursing home in Madison, Indiana on March 25, 2009.
It was not unusual that The Times decided to publish an obituary about Donald W. Duncan. By the newspaper’s standards, he was deserving of one. Mr. Duncan made an appreciable impact on the national discussion of the war; he had for a time been a newsmaker, and by The Times’s rule of thumb his death was thus newsworthy. The obituary ran online on May 6, 2016 and in the paper on May 8, 2016.
What was unusual about the obituary, however, was how belated it was. Mr. Duncan had died seven years earlier, on March 25, 2009. And therein lies a tale, about a life in which notoriety gave way to its flip side, obscurity, and about a journalistic decision in which one imperative of reporting — to be timely — deferred to a greater one: to simply get the story out.
Mr. Duncan had actually been on the obituary desk’s radar for about two years. He had been brought to my attention by Jeff Roth, who oversees the Times’s “morgue” — a vast archive of newsprint clippings and photographs, housed in bank upon bank of file cabinets deep in a basement redoubt.
Mr. Roth suggested at the time that we might want to prepare an advance obituary on Mr. Duncan, something the obits desk routinely does on people of note. I agreed and we put Mr. Duncan on our “to do” list.
Months went by. Finally, in late April, I got around to making the assignment. By my calculation, Mr. Duncan had just turned 86, and by that measure, I thought, we had better not wait for too much longer. If we’re going to be ready for the unforeseeable deaths of others, I have found, it is never wise to toy with Fate.
The assignment went to Robert D. McFadden, a Pulitzer Prize-winning reporter and gifted storyteller who has done hundreds of advance obits for The Times, most of them not as yet published. (To the relief of their subjects, to be sure.)
Mr. McFadden quickly discovered that there was plenty of material to be had about Mr. Duncan’s wartime and antiwar exploits; what Mr. Duncan had written himself and what others had written about him. Of particular use was Mr. Duncan’s own memoir, “The New Legions” (subtitled: “By the Green Beret Hero Who Said ‘I Quit’ ”). Mr. McFadden found the book, long out of print, on a used-books website, ordered it and read it cover to cover.
As for accounts of Mr. Duncan’s early years, however, and, crucially, his later ones, the trail went cold. Mr. Duncan, it seemed, had at some point wandered off the national stage into an exceedingly private life, leaving behind large biographical holes in the public record.
To fill them, Mr. McFadden knew, he would have to do what he had often done in preparing an advance obituary: find the very subject of the piece, presumably still very much alive, and just ask.
But that was not to be done so easily; there were hundreds of Donald Duncans across the United States listed in online phone directories. Rolling up his sleeves, Mr. McFadden cold-called each, but came up empty. So he enlisted help from the Times’s newsroom researchers, sleuths who use a computer screen as a magnifying glass. Doris Burke took on the task.
Ms. Burke soon found an item in The Missoula Independent in Montana concerning a 2005 documentary film about Mr. Duncan titled “Sir! No Sir!” She noticed the name of Jerry Lembcke, a fellow Vietnam veteran, who had been interviewed in the film and who is now an associate professor of sociology at Holy Cross College in Massachusetts. Mr. McFadden called him. Professor Lembcke obligingly gave him a contact number for the film’s director, David Zeiger. Mr. McFadden called Mr. Zeiger, who remembered that Mr. Duncan had been living in Indiana when the film was being made.
Now, Ms. Burke could narrow her geographic field and zero in on the most likely databases in which some trace of Mr. Duncan might appear. Sure enough, she promptly found one: his obituary, or rather an obituary that seemed to be about our Mr. Duncan. It appeared in The Madison Courier, the local paper in Madison, Ind., a small city on the Ohio River, on March 26, 2009. The facts in the obit seemed to align with what little Mr. McFadden knew about Mr. Duncan’s personal life, mostly gleaned from the memoir: his birth year, 1930; his Roman Catholicism; and, the clincher, his relationship to the entertainer Mitzi Gaynor, a stepsister.
What the Courier’s obituary didn’t mention, though, was what had made us want to write about Mr. Duncan in the first place: his past as a Green Beret-turned-antiwar activist. Not a word.
Mr. McFadden’s curiosity was piqued. Had Mr. Duncan’s death been reported elsewhere? Not that he and Ms. Burke could find. Only The Courier had noted his passing, but apparently without fully understanding who he had been.
The news media silence was critical. If another news organization, particularly one with national reach, had run an obituary in 2009, we would have stood down, acknowledging that we had been napping back then and that it was way too late now to make up for the lapse. A competitive daily newspaper isn’t keen on reporting something that happened seven years ago.
Unless, of course, virtually no one else had reported it.
We decided to pursue the obituary, the seven years notwithstanding. The thinking was, We would have written about Mr. Duncan immediately after he died had we known, so we should apply the same standard now. His death, in a sense, was still news, and his story still deserved to be told. What’s more, in an odd way, the very obscurity of his death added an unexpected, even poignant, element.
The immediate task at hand was to fill in the gaps in Mr. Duncan’s biography. Mr. McFadden called Mr. Duncan’s former parish priest in Madison to see what he knew. He called River Valley Resources, an antipoverty agency that Mr. Duncan had helped found and that had been mentioned in the Courier obituary. More important, he reached the next of kin. Two daughters had been identified in The Courier, along with their towns of residence, in New Jersey. Mr. McFadden found their phone numbers and called.
Not unexpectedly, the daughters, Valerie Casey and Luise Wilson, were completely nonplused that The Times would be calling about their father after all this time. They also proved to be unhesitatingly cooperative and even eager to help The Times remember him. Before their father’s death, they told Mr. McFadden, they had lost track of him for many years, and their own knowledge of his past was sketchy, but they retained memories.
“Dad did not talk a whole lot about the war,” Ms. Wilson recalled. “But he was involved in a lot of antiwar things. We were young, but he wanted us to understand. He instilled in Val and me a sense of what’s right.”
Readers, too, were grateful that Mr. Duncan had not been forgotten. Mr. McFadden said that of all the obituaries he had written, few had generated such a large and overwhelmingly positive response as this one.
One reader spoke for many when, in an email to Mr. McFadden, she wrote: “I was shocked to know he died seven years ago, but was very pleased to see The Times and you honor him and his activism. So many stories are lost, so many heroes overlooked.” --NYTimes