By Paul Wood
ARMSTRONG — Marine John McNeely held off three attacks by the Viet Cong in a short period, and survived a grenade and a shrapnel wound.
The shrapnel gradually worked its way out of his wrist, but his hearing was permanently damaged by the blast of the grenade, which landed just on the other side of a rice paddy dike.
It was June 4, 1965, and McNeely was not long out of Rankin High School. He was one of 14 kids; all the boys ended up serving.
The lance corporal was a machine gunner and at the front of a squad near Da Nang. That battle and several others are still kind of a blur, even now.
“Everything happened all at once,” he said.
McNeely, 74, had some fame at the time, with a large spread in Life magazine in 1965 and a write-up about the attack he survived — that managed to misspell his name.
The Life magazine? He later bought a copy at a garage sale in Gifford, 18 years after he had been in Vietnam.
McNeely said the real hero of the attacks was Curtis R. Jackson, another lance corporal.
Jackson earned the Silver Star “for conspicuous gallantry and intrepidity in action” while in “combat operations against the enemy in the Republic of Vietnam on June 4, 1965,” the citation reads. It goes on:
“By his courage, aggressive fighting spirit and steadfast devotion to duty in the face of extreme personal danger, Lance Corp. Jackson upheld the highest traditions of the Marine Corps and the United States Naval Service.”
Pulitzer Prize-winning AP journalist Hal Boyle wrote about the attack (reprinted in The News-Gazette), in which he said 50 Viet Cong surrounded a Marine platoon that had recently adopted a puppy.
At 2:45 a.m., Boyle wrote, the puppy started growling and woke the Marines.
McNeely isn’t convinced that the article got everything right — for instance, he said, the machine guns were at the front facing the enemy, not at the rear — but he agrees Jackson was a hero.
“They hit my position first,” McNeely said. “Helter skelter. There was death coming in from every direction. Jackson took three guys out right away. I wouldn’t be here without Curtis Jackson. I’m pretty lucky.”
The Texan was wounded five times, McNeely said, and the Rankin grad helped write him up for the Silver Star.
He isn’t sure how many Viet Cong he killed, McNeely said, in the confusion in the middle of the night. The rice paddy ran red with blood.
McNeely was sent back to a safe base for a week, but then spent another eight or so months in country, including in the 1st Battalion, 9th Marines. They were later known as the Walking Dead Marine Battalion, after he’d moved on.
Several of his friends from that unit are on the Vietnam Veterans Memorial, he said.
“Too many friends on that wall,” he added, including three squad leaders.
“I was glad to be going home,” McNeely said, but saddened to learn of his friends who later died.
Then McNeely pursued several careers, including machinist, printer, claims adjuster and owner of his own business. He has three children.
Do you know a veteran who could share a story about military service? Contact Paul Wood at email@example.com.