Sandpaper Sgt. leaves 1 final gift for troops
By Tom Roeder - The Gazette via the AP
Posted : Saturday Oct 8, 2011 8:31:31 EDT
FORT CARSON, Colo. — First Sgt. David McNerney was a small man with a legendary temper and a stare that would blister paint.
His soldiers in a 4th Infantry Division company say they were terrified by him and compare him to John Wayne, only meaner.
But there was another side to McNerney. One that will be on display after his most prized possession was given to the soldiers of Fort Carson.
The crew-cut, 5-foot-8 sergeant earned the Medal of Honor in Vietnam, but said it was never really his.
He stood by that statement in his last will and testament.
Born in Massachusetts and raised in Texas, McNerney earned his sandpaper reputation at Fort Lewis, Wash., in 1966. He was sent there to train a company of men in the division’s 1st Battalion of the 8th Infantry Regiment for combat duty in the jungle.
Friends and family say he probably picked up some of the salty language he used from a hitch in the Navy before joining the infantry.
“He didn’t suffer fools,” said Rick Sauer, of Lone Tree, who was a second lieutenant in the same company as the formidable McNerney.
“I guess he had a dominating streak in him,” said his little brother Dick McNerney, of Texas, a Vietnam veteran who learned to be tough from his older sibling.
McNerney drilled his men on ambushes, booby traps and every other thing he thought they would need in Vietnam.
“He wanted everything done by the book,” said Leonard “Mac” McElroy, of Texas, who remembered McNerney’s cold eyes watching his every move during training. “There are no excuses, no lies. He would rip your toes off, man.”
On the long sea journey to Vietnam, McNerney didn’t let up. As one of the first large units to head for Vietnam, the battalion traveled together on a transport ship. He gathered his men on deck and told them to look at their comrades.
“Half of you won’t be coming home,” he said.
Yet soldiers saw another side of McNerney.
He was meticulously fair. Not diplomatic but honest. And he taught men to stand up for each other, in barroom brawls, in combat and in life.
“He was fatherly,” McElroy said.
But the soldiers in A Company had no idea how much McNerney loved the green-clad draftees he would later call “my sons.”
There must be something in the genes of the McNerney clan that makes heroes.
Army Sgt. Edward McNerney, the 1st sergeant’s father, earned the nation’s second highest award for valor in France during World War I.
“Sgt. McNerney, with one other soldier, went to the rescue of a wounded comrade, through a severe machine-gun fire at a direct range of only 350 yards, and carried the wounded man to safety,” the award citation for his Distinguished Service Cross reads.
David McNerney’s eldest brother, Ward, served in submarines during World War II.
The submariner “was the hero of the family even more than my father,” Dick McNerney said.
That’s why David McNerney headed to sea and went to Korea during a four-year hitch.
After the Navy, he tried college and learned to loathe it before dropping out to join the Army.
Married in 1961, McNerney volunteered to be one of the first American soldiers in Vietnam, arriving there in 1962.
He went again in 1964 and knew every trick of jungle warfare before he showed up at Fort Lewis.
Sauer said McNerney knew how difficult it would be for draftees, so he was hard on them.
McNerney knew that a little bit of basic-training terror would save lives.
The danger McNerney foresaw came on the steamy morning of March 22, 1967.
McNerney’s company was sent to find a lost reconnaissance unit in the Ia Drang valley of Vietnam’s central highlands, a place of dense jungle, towering hills and large formations of enemy troops.
Sauer remembers marching near McNerney that morning as the company picked its way through the underbrush.
“There was an odd lack of sound,” Sauer said. “There wasn’t the typical jungle noise, with some of the birds and some of the bugs.”
Just after 7 a.m., it started.
McElroy said the enemy hit hard, with AK-47 rounds, machine gun bursts, rockets and mortar fire.
“We got a full dose of it,” McElroy said. “They had snipers up in the trees and they were tied to the trees.”
Five miles away, Victor Lopez, of Colorado Springs, heard the firefight while on patrol with the battalion’s B Company.
Lopez’s soldiers tried to come to the rescue, but were blocked by the terrain.
“You have to get on your hands and knees and crawl through that stuff,” Lopez said.
Sauer said McNerney was strangely calm amid carnage that most people can’t imagine.
“He had a job to do,” Sauer said.
American blood flowed freely that morning.
“We lost 22 and had 43 wounded,” McElroy said. “Most of those 22 got it in the first 10 minutes.”
Every officer in A Company was among the dead and wounded.
That included Sauer, who was shot through the legs.
McNerney, now in command, kept working.
Sauer and McElroy remember him single-handedly attacking an enemy machine gun nest and braving enemy fire to drag wounded soldiers to safety. He ran head-on into one North Vietnamese soldier, who missed with his rifle before McNerney shot him dead.
“We thought he was Superman anyway,” McElroy said. “If he was there we weren’t afraid.”
Calmly, McNerney told his troops to form a defensive perimeter and pour out fire in all directions as the enemy surrounded the company. He called in artillery fire to within 60 feet of his troops. He was blown from his feet and wounded when a grenade detonated.
It was clear that A Company was badly outnumbered. It was later learned that the company was ambushed by a full North Vietnamese battalion — a unit three times its size.
The draftees had seen nothing like this.
“Hell yeah, I was scared,” McElroy said.
McElroy remembered the 1st sergeant’s admonition when they were training at Fort Lewis: “You guys have to take care of each other.”
A key to survival was getting air support to bomb the enemy. But the jungle was so thick that smoke grenades used to mark the company’s position couldn’t be seen from the air.
McNerney solved the problem with an act so heroic that soldiers remain in awe.
“I would say only a crazy man would do that, but he knew what he had to do,” Lopez said.
Despite shrapnel wounds, McNerney grabbed a bright orange piece of canvas, making him the biggest target in the jungle and headed for a small clearing.
“In spite of enemy fire he remained exposed until he was certain the position was spotted and then climbed into a tree and tied the identification panel to its highest branches,” says the citation that accompanied his Medal of Honor.
McNerney also made his way through enemy fire to gather explosives from the rucksacks of wounded American troops. He used them to blast away trees so a helicopter could drop supplies and evacuate the wounded.
The firefight lasted until evening. McNerney stayed in command until it was over. It’s estimated that as many as 120 North Vietnamese troops died.
Lopez saw McNerney that night.
“This guy was really fearless,” Lopez said. “To him it was a natural thing.”
After being turned over in a Thursday ceremony, Fort Carson commanders will use McNerney’s medal to explain to soldiers what is expected of them on the battlefield. They’ll also use it to tell new sergeants how they should care for troops in their charge.
That’s just what McNerney wanted.
“He wanted it to stand as an example to all the soldiers,” McElroy said.
The boys from A Company were there.
More than three dozen of the soldiers from the Vietnam unit were at Fort Carson to see McNerney’s medal to its new home at The Mountain Post Historical Center.
The men who went to war beside McNerney say anyone who survived the March 22 fight owes their life to that scary sergeant who trained his men so well. Men he stayed in touch with after he retired from the Army in 1970. Men he considered the children he never had.
Sauer was with McNerney when he died in Texas from lung cancer on Oct. 10, 2010. He chokes up when he talks about the man who became a second father for him.
Sauer held a phone to the old sergeant’s ear so a tearful McElroy could say three final words.
“I love you.”