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Movie tells true story of man delivering beer to friends fighting in Vietnam War


Notice: Transcripts are machine and human generated and lightly edited for accuracy. They may contain errors.

Judy Woodruff: Just how far will a man go for his friends?

A new movie based on an astonishing true story answers that question, while paying homage to those who served in the unpopular Vietnam War.

As special correspondent Mike Cerre shows us, the loyalty of those brothers in arms are critical to how younger generations remember their service and their sacrifice.

It's part of our arts and culture series, Canvas.

Bill Murray, Actor: Do these protesters not know that our soldiers see that on TV? I'd like to go over to Vietnam and track down all the boys from the neighborhood and bring them a beer.

Zac Efron, Actor: Because I'm going to Vietnam, and I'm bringing them beer!


Mike Cerre: Zac Efron's character taking up bartender Bill Murray's challenge to make the greatest beer run ever to support the troops from their working-class neighborhood at the height of the Vietnam War and a very divided America.

Zac Efron: Hey, Chief, no chance you have a ship going to Vietnam?

Speaker: Seventeen hundred hours?

Zac Efron: Tonight?

It's not going to be easy, but I'm going to show them this country is still behind them.

Speaker: You're going to get yourself killed over there.

Mike Cerre: What makes "The Greatest Beer Run Ever" film even more remarkable is that it really happened.

Speaker: With "Chickie" Donohue, who lived the life.


Mike Cerre: John "Chickie" Donohue, a former Marine from Manhattan's Inwood neighborhood, really did hitchhike and connive his way the length of war-torn Vietnam in 1968 to deliver beers to his hometown buddies serving there, as his ultimate support our troops gesture, which they will never forget.

Speaker: Chickie, Chickie, Chickie, what the hell are you doing here?

Guys, this is my buddy from back home, Chickie Donohue.

Speaker: Hey, Donohue.


John "Chickie" Donohue, Author, "The Greatest Beer Run Ever": What's this, the USO?

Mike Cerre: Chickie Donohue reuniting with the four veterans he delivered beer to in Vietnam, who rarely get together since they all moved out of their old neighborhood over the years.

John "Chickie" Donohue: Holy (EXPLETIVE DELETED), 47 years.

Speaker: Ricky had to give up his poncho for you.


Mike Cerre: It took more than a half-century, Chickie's bestselling book co-authored with reporter J.T. Molloy, and this documentary sponsored by Pabst Blue Ribbon beer before most people outside of his neighborhood ever heard, yet alone believed his story.

It began with a little lie he often told the military while navigating the Vietnam War as a civilian.

John "Chickie" Donohue: The basic story was, I had a stepbrother over there, and he was -- that could explain our different name. And our mother died. And I promised mom that, before she died, that I would get over to see Timmy or Frankie or whoever.

Mike Cerre: Did you have an Irish tear in your eye when you said that?

John "Chickie" Donohue: I tried. I tried very hard.

I was always looking for the red-faced people.


Andrew Muscato, Producer: My generation -- I'm 36 -- I think most of what we know about Vietnam comes through what we have seen in films: "Apocalypse Now, "Platoon," "Forrest Gump."

Mike Cerre: Andrew Muscato, the producer of both the documentary and now the dramatic film, believes Chickie Donohue story of friendship and loyalty might change the conversation about the war between different generations.

Andrew Muscato: Our intent going into making this film was to show these soldiers as they were, as just young men from their neighborhoods that were plucked from their homes and sent to the other side of the world.

The Vietnam generation never really got the Band of Brothers treatment.

Mike Cerre: The film's parallel story is about how Chickie's original support for the war changes along the way by what he sees and learns firsthand in Vietnam, especially during the 1968 Tet Offensive.

Was that your wakeup call that things were not going right and this may be not a winnable war militarily?

John "Chickie" Donohue: I was not making any judgments on a winnable war. I was making a judgment that this war was stupid, screwy. It looked more like a civil war to me.

Mike Cerre: Lien-Hang Nguyen, a Columbia University Asian studies professor and a Vietnam War refugee, was the film's technical adviser for its historical and cultural accuracy.

Lien-Hang Nguyen, Columbia University: I thought that the film did a great job in terms of having this sort of coming of age narrative for Chickie, for him to realize that this war wasn't this black and white war in the way that the folks in Inwood, the older generation were trying to compare it to World War II.

Mike Cerre: As a historian, how do you rate Chickie Donohue? Was he an accurate observer for what was going on over there?

Lien-Hang Nguyen: I would give him an A-plus.

John Kerry, U.S. Special Envoy For Climate Change: And trying to really carve out a future that was not defined by war.

Mike Cerre: So has former Secretary of State John Kerry, both as a Vietnam veteran and eventual critic of the war. His recent op-ed about the film says it is long overdue and a rare chance for Vietnam veterans to honor the camaraderie and friendships they experienced, but are often reluctant to share publicly.

Thomas Vallely, Harvard Kennedy School of Government: I was in India Company, 3rd Battalion 5th Marines in Quang Nam province in Vietnam.

Mike Cerre: What would have been your reaction if a guy showed up out in the bush near An Hoa in 1969 with some beers for you? How would you have reacted?

Thomas Vallely: We might have shot him.


Thomas Vallely: I mean, that certainly wasn't something we would expect.

Mike Cerre: Tom Vallely, now the director of the Harvard Kennedy School's Southeast Asia program, was a consultant for Ken Burns' Vietnam documentary series.

Thomas Vallely: What I like about the Ken Burns series is that they're very, very good at telling a sad story. So you didn't just go to Vietnam and not laugh, right? There's laughter in Vietnam. Even in the war, there's laughter. There's friendship, and friendship that lasts forever and good times and things you remember fondly.

Mike Cerre: The original bar at the tip of Manhattan, where this incredible story of loyalty began more than 50 years ago, is long gone, but not the memories of the local boys of this neighborhood who were killed in Vietnam. Their names are memorialized in this church garden.

It includes the name of Marine Lieutenant Richard Reynolds Jr., who was killed before Chickie could get him his beer. '

Rick Duggan, Vietnam War Veteran: First of all, this was uncharted territory for the most part. There weren't a lot of military installations that far north, and we were setting up and digging up our foxholes and so on and so forth.

And then I get a message on the radio that I have to come back into the main perimeter. And I walk in and there's the sergeant. And I said: "Yes, Sarge, what's -- you called me back in."

He said: "I didn't call you back in." He said: "This guy did."

And he pops out from out of this thing.

John "Chickie" Donohue: I say: "Hey, Ricky, how are you?"

"What the hell are you doing here?"

Rick Duggan: Chickie Donohue in a madras shirt and light denim jeans. They weren't exactly camouflage. I had to put a poncho on him immediately, because...


Rick Duggan: ... otherwise, it's like: Shoot me. I'm from New York.

Mike Cerre: Chickie's and the veterans' families from their old New York neighborhood were treated to a sneak preview by the film's producers, their three minutes of fame, as they say, after years of 55 privately sharing Chickie Donohue's greatest beer run ever, a story of friendship, loyalty and war.

For the "PBS NewsHour," I'm Mike Cerre in New York.

Judy Woodruff: And what a wonderful-sounding film.

Thank you, Mike Cerre.

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