Letter: Poignant story paying tribute to veterans

A Family of Veterans

In the name of the “Father, and the Son and Holy Spirit,” Father Fred O’Connor said as he was blessing himself at the beginning of a Mass of Christian Burial in the Sacred Heart Catholic Church in Crosby, Texas. Father Fred was a tall lanky white haired booming voiced Irish Priest and could be heard throughout a standing room only church. He was going to conduct the service, with four other Priests at the altar.

I should have known this was going to be one of those funerals that would not soon leave my memory, if ever. The entrance was manned by US Army members from the 4th Infantry Division and more “Patriot Guard” motorcycle riders, than I have ever seen, standing at parade rest manning American flags at the entrance.

Sitting in the dignitary section of the church were a four star, a three star, a two star, two one-star Generals, a Colonel, a Lieutenant Colonel, a Command Sergeant Major and three Medal of Honor recipients. All the uniform personnel were in full dress blue uniforms. When you read “full military honors” this would have been the epitome of that statement. There was more Army “brass” dispersed throughout the church than I have ever seen in one place. The NCO’s were well represented throughout the church.

On March 21, 1967 Company “A”, 1st Battalion, 8th Regiment, 4th Infantry Division were dropped into Polei Doc, Vietnam to search for an overdue reconnaissance patrol. There were one hundred and eight soldiers in the company. The next morning the company was ambushed by a battalion of Vietnamese regulars. All the officers were almost immediately killed except Lt. Rick Sauer who was gravely wounded. The 1st Sergeant, a two tour Korean War navy veteran and now in the Army was on his third tour in Vietnam, took command of the company. It should not come as a surprise what the outcome was going to be as the 1st Sergeant came from a long line of military members in his family. His father was a decorated WW I veteran having received the Distinguished Service Cross, Silver Star and two Purple Hearts. His older sister was an army nurse and his older brother was in the navy submarine service during WW II. His younger brother was a Navy and Air Force fighter pilot serving in Vietnam and was awarded the Distinguished Flying Cross.

Father Fred continued with the mass and it came time for the homily and eulogy. It was now time to remember the deceased, 1st Sergeant David H. McNerney, recipient of the Medal of Honor. (June 2, 1931-October 10, 2010)

It was obvious Father Fred was not scripted by a cue card and was giving his thoughts on David’s life and last days as one that knew David well. I guess that would be an understatement. You see Father O’Connor graduated from St. Thomas Catholic High School in Houston the year David started. Father Fred went on to tell the congregation that there were four other classmates of David that entered the Priesthood, three of whom were at the altar with him. The fourth was too ill to attend. All had kept in touch over the years through the alumni association.

LTC Rick Sauer gave the eulogy. He was the surviving officer of the 1967 ambush in Vietnam. He recognized the surviving members of the 1st Sergeant’s company that were in attendance and 35 to 40 stood at attention to a long-lasting standing ovation from the attendees. There were not many dry eyes in the church. (Citation for the Medal of Honor attached to the end of this story.) Sgt. McNerney was buried at Houston National Cemetery under full military honor.

The Internet has news accounts of the life and funeral of David but this part of what I’m about to say, most likely, will not be written about.

Father Don Schwartling, my parish priest, retired from the Navy where he served as a chaplain. I decided to tell him the story of the Funeral Mass and the five Priests from McNerney’s high school class because of his military background.

I went into the short version of “who” McNerney was and the facts of the funeral. I spoke of the five priests from St. Thomas HS and how we will probably never hear of this ever happening in the future. He thought that also was unlikely. “I know about McNerney,” he said, and “read about his death in the school newsletter, as I also attended St. Thomas High School in the 1950’s.”

We talked about how six men became Priests and one man became a soldier. The soldier guarantees their right to be free and preach the Gospel. The fact they all came from one school is just a unique story. This is now a small part of history, certainly Catholic history, and thought it should be passed along.

“A” company lost twenty-two soldiers that day and forty-two were wounded including 1st Sgt. McNerney. In the aftermath two Distinguished Service Cross, seven Silver Star, twenty-five Bronze Star and sixty-five Purple Heart medals were awarded to those who were in the fire fight. The NVA lost a staggering five hundred thirty-nine whose graves were located at or near the site. In May of 2010, shortly before McNerney’s death the film documentary, “Valley of Tears,” was released at the GI Forum. I’ll do my best to quote what McNerney said in the film, “I knew I wasn’t going to die that day.” What gave him the inner strength to know he would survive? I know the answer, belief in God.

Company “A” became a family of veterans that day and I doubt they will ever forget each other. Let us not forget our veterans and our religious beliefs.

1st Sergeant McNerney’s Medal of Honor was returned to Fort Carson Colorado on October 6, 2011 and given back to Company “A” 1st Battalion, 8th Regiment of the 4th Infantry Division. This was McNerney’s wish because the medal belonged to the men and, as he often stated, “He was only privileged to wear it.”

 

Jim Middleton

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