This Day in History: David McNerney, the Valley of Tears, & the Medal of Honor
On this day in 1967, a soldier participates in an action that would earn him the Medal of Honor. David McNerney came from a long line of war heroes: His father and older brother served in World Wars I and II, respectively. His sister served as an Army nurse.
McNerney followed in their footsteps, joining the Navy in 1949 and the Army in 1953.
By the mid-1960s, he was training soldiers to serve in Vietnam. “Let me tell you how things are in this company,” McNerney reportedly told one in the 4th Infantry Division. “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 was tough! But they loved him. “I would follow him straight to the gates of hell if I had to,” one of his men would later say. The feeling was mutual. First Sergeant McNerney loved those boys like they were his own sons.
He ultimately went to Vietnam with them. It was his third tour of duty.
Early on March 22, 1967, McNerney’s company was looking for a reconnaissance team that had disappeared near Polei Doc. Something wasn’t quite right. “There was an odd lack of sound,” then-2nd Lt. Rick Sauer would later describe. “There wasn’t the typical jungle noise, with some of the birds and some of the bugs.”
Suddenly, the Americans came under attack. The ambush left our boys badly outnumbered. They were dropping quickly.
McNerney decided to see what was going on. “I’m going up to where the action’s at,” one soldier remembered him saying. “And he disappeared in the jungle in front of us,” another soldier added. “And there was nobody out there except the bad guys.”
McNerney sprinted to the front lines, where he found himself under fire. “I know [bullets] were going by my head, and I could feel ‘em,” McNerney later said, smiling. “But the [SOB] missed me.”
“He went out there and destroyed that machine gun by himself,” Sauer summarized.
Suddenly, a grenade landed right next to McNerney. The explosion threw him into the air, injuring him—but not stopping him, either.
The battle continued for hours. Every officer in the Company had been killed or wounded. McNerney had taken command.
He called in artillery support to within 20 meters of his position—dangerously close! He needed to help friendly aircraft know where he and his men were, so he moved out into a clearing, making sure he was spotted. Then he scaled a tree and tied an identification marker to the top branches.
He was in full view of the enemy the whole time.
Later, McNerney risked his life to ensure that wounded Americans could get onto evacuation helicopters. There was no place to land! McNerney crawled outside the defensive perimeter, working his way toward rucksacks with demolition materials that had been dropped during the fighting. He used those materials to blow up trees, creating a landing zone.
Other wounded Americans got out, but the injured McNerney refused to go. He stayed until the next day when a new commanding officer came to replace him.
McNerney would receive the Medal of Honor the following year, shortly before retiring. He would serve as a U.S. Customs Officer in Houston for many decades before being diagnosed with lung cancer. When he passed away in 2010, he asked his good friend, Sauer, to deliver a eulogy.
“He told me to keep it short and simple,” Sauer said. “[He said] ‘Just tell them I was just doing my job.’”
Andrea Sutherland, Officer remembers Medal of Honor recipient (U.S Army website; Sept. 30, 2011)
David Taylor, McNerney laid to rest (Houston Chronicle; Oct. 19, 2010)
Edward F. Murphy, Vietnam Medal of Honor Heroes (rev. ed. 2005)
Honor in the Valley of Tears (documentary)
Medal of Honor citation (David H. McNerney; Vietnam)
Medal of Honor oral histories (David McNerney; Vietnam)
Peter Collier et al., Medal of Honor: Portraits of Honor beyond the Call of Duty (2d ed. 2006)
David Herbert McNerney: Biography (Texas State Historical Association website)
Sandpaper sergeant leaves 1 final gift for troops (Denver Post; Oct. 7, 2011)
T. Rees Shapiro, Obituary: David H. McNerney, 79, received Medal of Honor for Vietnam actions (Wash. Post; Oct. 13, 2010)