Friday, October 15, 2010

Heaven gained another Hero - Sgt. David McNerney, MOH recipient from the Vietnam War

Back from the road trip.....not too bad and very good to be back in the home AOR.

Heaven gained another hero....and one worth posting about -

Local boy from Lowell, Massachusetts.....Rest easy made us proud!

Sgt. David McNerney; saved unit ambushed in Vietnam, Medal of Honor recipient - passed away at 79

The US Army sent David McNerney’s unit to an isolated region near Polei Doc in South Vietnam in 1967 to find a missing US reconnaissance team. The 108 soldiers began moving through a jungle of vegetation the morning of March 22 when the North Vietnamese attacked the front of the column and ambushed a platoon at the rear, killing about 22 Americans, including the company’s commanding officer and an artillery forward observer.

“As first sergeant, I had to take over,’’ Mr. McNerney told Texas Monthly magazine in 1986. “We held on as best we could. There was no way out until B Company could move up to assist us.’’

Leading the surviving US soldiers through the battle, Mr. McNerney killed North Vietnamese soldiers, crawled from position to position while bullets ripped the ground around him, and retrieved explosives from exposed areas. He even climbed a tree to secure in plain view a brightly colored panel with the unit’s insignia so that when he called in air strikes, US pilots could see where the Americans were located. Along the way, the force of a nearby explosion lifted Mr. McNerney off the ground.

“My chest had been lacerated by a grenade,’’ he told Texas Monthly, “but unless you’re really hurt bad, your adrenaline keeps you going.’’

For his valor, he received the Medal of Honor from President Lyndon B. Johnson at the White House the following year.

Mr. McNerney, who was born in Lowell and whose name is on a black marble tablet at the Massachusetts State House, died of lung cancer Sunday at the VA Medical Center in Houston. He was 79 and had lived for many years in Crosby, Texas.

“If, in fact, he were not there, everyone would have gotten massacred that day,’’ said Dennis Thompson Sr. of Acton, who was in Company A of the First Battalion, Eighth Infantry, Fourth Infantry Division. “People have to know that the man was a genuine hero.’’

Earlier this year, the documentary “Honor in the Valley of Tears’’ premiered in Washington, D.C., at the GI Film Festival, highlighting Mr. McNerney’s leadership and featuring interviews with him and other survivors.

The Medal of Honor citation summarizes some of Mr. McNerney’s bravery after being wounded, as he kept his troops alive and readied a rescue area where helicopters could land.

“In spite of this injury, he assaulted and destroyed an enemy machine-gun position that had pinned down five of his comrades beyond the defensive line,’’ the citation says.

After ensuring that US aircraft could see the location of his company, the citation says, Mr. McNerney “moved among his men readjusting their position, encouraging the defenders, and checking the wounded. As the hostile assaults slackened, he began clearing a helicopter landing site to evacuate the wounded. When explosives were needed to remove large trees, he crawled outside the relative safety of his perimeter to collect demolition material from abandoned rucksacks. Moving through a fusillade of fire he returned with the explosives that were vital to the clearing of the landing zone.’’

Mr. McNerney refused medical evacuation and “remained with his unit until the next day, when the new commander arrived,’’ the citation notes.

These actions occurred during Mr. McNerney’s third tour of duty in Vietnam, and he volunteered for a fourth tour before retiring from the Army in 1969. He then spent 25 years as a US Customs inspector in Houston.

David Herbert McNerney was the third of five children. His family moved from Lowell to Cincinnati and then to Houston, where he graduated from St. Thomas High School in 1949.

Serving in the military ran in the family, as did heroism. Mr. McNerney told the Houston Chronicle in 2001 that his father, Edward, lost part of a leg and was exposed to poison gas while serving in the Army during World War I. He was awarded the Distinguished Service Cross.

Mr. McNerney’s older brother, Edward, served on a submarine that sank enemy ships during World War II, and his younger brother, Richard, was awarded the Distinguished Flying Cross for his Air Force service during the Vietnam War.

Even among family members, Mr. McNerney stood out.

“He was the toughest hombre in the city,’’ said Richard, who lives in Houston.

After high school, Mr. McNerney joined the Navy and considered college when he got out four years later, but joined the Army instead.

In the years following the 1967 ambush, the men in his company became more than fellow soldiers.

“That was his main family, after that,’’ his brother said.

He kept in touch with the men of A Company, offering advice through life’s travails. Whenever he wanted to gather them for a reunion, they dropped what they were doing.

Mr. McNerney earned that loyalty by joining his troops when they marched into their own inferno. Having served two tours in Vietnam, he was back in the United States preparing soldiers for combat in the mid-1960s.

Thompson said that when he and dozens of others reached their last day of training, Mr. McNerney said, “ ‘Since I trained you boys, I want to bring you home,’ and he decided right then and there he was going over with us. He didn’t have to go.’’

Along with regularly visiting extended family in Lowell, Mr. McNerney traveled to Massachusetts in 1987 for the State House ceremony when the marble tablet bearing names of Medal of Honor recipients was unveiled.

Mr. McNerney’s wife, Charlotte, died in 2002. In addition to his brother, Mr. McNerney leaves a sister, Susan Mauro of Los Fresnos, Texas.

A funeral Mass will be said at noon tomorrow in Sacred Heart Church in Crosby, Texas. Burial with full military honors will follow in Houston National Cemetery.

Last month, many soldiers who survived the ambush traveled to Texas for the dedication of a monument to Mr. McNerney at the American Legion post in Crosby, Texas.

“David wanted us all to come down because he wanted to say his goodbyes,’’ Thompson said.

They had lunch after the ceremony at one of Mr. McNerney’s favorite restaurants, and when it was time to leave, the aging soldiers followed him outside.

“We all stood and lined the parking lot and saluted him as he left,’’ Thompson said. “He had tears in his eyes. He just had this look in his eye like: ‘Thank you guys. Thank you very much.’ ’’

Bryan Marquard can be reached at

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