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Obituary: David H. McNerney, 79, received Medal of Honor for Vietnam actions

  • Friday, October 15, 2010 18:56
    Message # 444919
    Deleted user

    Obituary: David H. McNerney, 79, received Medal of Honor for Vietnam actions

    (Courtesy Of Eric Dow And John Ponsoll)
    By T. Rees Shapiro
    Wednesday, October 13, 2010; 10:33 PM

    David H. McNerney, a retired Army first sergeant who was awarded the Medal of Honor for leading soldiers out of a Viet Cong ambush in 1967, died of lung cancer on Oct. 10 at a veterans hospital in Houston. He was 79.

    Sgt. McNerney was not supposed to be in Vietnam on March 22, 1967. At 35, he'd already served two tours in those jungles and had spent most of the previous year training young troops to go to war.

    "Let me tell you how things are in this company," Sgt. McNerney was said to have told his men, who admitted they were afraid to look him in the eye. "You do what I tell you to do and you do it when I tell you to do it, because you will die in Vietnam if you don't."

    He bonded with the soldiers during their training, and when the company received orders to ship out, Sgt. McNerney negotiated with the unit's commanding officers to be included on the outbound manifest, and he started his third tour in Vietnam.

    The company's mission that March day was to rendezvous with a reconnaissance unit that had reportedly disappeared in a remote area near Polei Doc in South Vietnam, close to the Cambodian border.

    While trekking through thick vegetation, the company's front column was hit with heavy fire and the rear platoon was surprised from behind.

    Before the company's 108 soldiers could organize into defensive positions, they were surrounded and outnumbered at least three to one.

    In the first minutes of battle, 22 Americans were dead and about 40 were wounded. The company's commanding officer and the forward artillery observer were both killed in the ambush.

    As the senior enlisted man, Sgt. McNerney took control of the remaining soldiers and coordinated their counterattack.

    In order to get a better perspective of the battle, Sgt. McNerney began to sprint toward the front lines as bullets kicked up dust around his boots. He hit the ground and returned fire, killing a group of Viet Cong soldiers in front of him.

    Then Sgt. McNerney's attention became focused on a small orb about the size of a pine cone that seemed to be floating toward him in slow motion.

    When the grenade exploded just a few feet away, Sgt. McNerney was blown in the air and suffered a laceration on his chest.

    Ignoring his wounds and sensing the approaching enemy soldiers, Sgt. McNerney recovered the artillery observer's radio and called in heavy rounds to within 65 feet of his position - dangerously close to the artillery's margin of error.

    In order to mark the area that his troops occupied, Sgt. McNerney searched for colored smoke canisters but realized they had all been used.

    Improvising, Sgt. McNerney grabbed his unit's brightly colored insignia panel and headed through substantialenemy fire to a tall tree in a clearing. He climbed up and tied the panel to the highest branch in the canopy, so it could be seen by friendly aircraft.

    He continually checked on the wounded soldiers and provided support to the men defending their positions.

    The jungle was so dense that when Sgt. McNerney called for an evacuation of the wounded, he was told helicopters could not land nearby.

    Undeterred, he crawled to an exposed area beyond his unit's defensive line to collect demolition materials from rucksacks that had been dropped by soldiers. He wrapped the explosives around the trunks of several trees and blew them up to create a landing zone.

    When the helicopters finally arrived to pick up the wounded, Sgt. McNerney refused to be evacuated, despite his severe injuries, and stayed on the battlefield until he was relieved by a new commanding officer a day later.

    David Herbert McNerney was born June 2, 1931, in Lowell, Mass., and grew up in Houston.

    He joined the Navy after graduating from high school in 1949 and served a tour in Korea. After his enlistment ended in 1953, Sgt. McNerney enrolled at the University of Houston but never attended a class.

    While walking around campus, he spotted an Army paratrooper recruiting poster and signed up the next day.

    After he received the Medal of Honor from President Lyndon B. Johnson in 1968, Sgt. McNerney volunteered for a fourth tour of combat in Vietnam.

    When he retired from the Army in 1969, his decorations included five awards of the Bronze Star Medal and two awards of the Purple Heart. A documentary based on his Army career, "Honor in the Valley of Tears," was released in May.

    Sgt. McNerney worked as a U.S. Customs inspector in Houston from 1970 until his retirement in 1995.

    His wife, the former Parmelia "Charlotte" Moeckel, died in 2002. Survivors include a brother and a sister.

    As a career soldier whose father had received the Distinguished Service Cross in World War I, Sgt. McNerney was aware of the risks of his chosen profession.

    "I was a professional soldier. That was my job," he told Texas Monthly in 1986. "That's why I did what I did. It wasn't a normal day. I was fighting for my life.

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