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This Day in History: Finnis D. “Mac” McCleery's Medal of Honor

On this Christmas Day in 1927, a hero is born. Finnis D. “Mac” McCleery would go on to serve in World War II, Korea, and Vietnam, but it was an action in Vietnam that earned him the Medal of Honor.


By then, he was a 40-year-old platoon sergeant. Astonishingly, his service in Vietnam was the first time he’d been in combat. Indeed, he’d been nervous about his orders to go, later saying that he had “some doubts about my ability to fight. I’d been in the service for a long time but had never been in combat.”


 “I’m just a farm boy,” he concluded.


This “farm boy’s” heroism came on May 14, 1968, as Americans attacked the enemy on a hill in Quang Tin Province. Unfortunately, our boys became pinned down by heavy fire. It made McCleery mad! He remembered that Americans had already taken the hill once. What had happened? 

“I was mad at the time,” he later chuckled, remembering these moments. “I thought they should have held their objective. I thought, ‘Hell, I can take that hill by myself, if I have to.’”


So that’s just what he did.


His Medal citation would later describe his “one-man assault” as “bullets struck all around him and rockets and grenades literally exploded at his feet.” McCleery ran across nearly 70 yards of open ground until he reached the first enemy bunker. He was firing from the hip and throwing hand grenades.


Naturally, he was wounded by this point, but he didn’t seem to notice as he took out the first bunker.


His citation explains that he then turned and “encouraged” his fellow soldiers to join him, but McCleery remembered it a bit differently. “You son of a bitch, get up here and fight like a man,” he recalls yelling to other soldiers.


Having said that, he also remembers that his fellow soldiers “fought like hell” once they got going. “Those people can’t whip American soldiers if they fight the way they’re trained to fight,” he concluded proudly.


Americans retook the hill, of course—but McCleery is credited with much of the Americans’ success that day. His bravery had inspired everyone around him.


Nevertheless, McCleery didn’t understand why he was awarded a Medal. “I didn’t think they gave medals for things like that,” he explained. “I thought, ‘Well, you fight and you fight as long as you can. You’re a soldier. That’s just what you’re supposed to do.’ I thought they had me mixed up with someone else.’”


Yet this soldier wasn’t just brave: He was shy. In fact, he wanted the Medal shipped to him. “I asked them just to ship the Medal to me,” he told a reporter. “I’ve never been comfortable around crowds of people.”


In the end, he accepted his Medal in person, but he also retired from the Army and returned to civilian life.


“I keep pretty quiet,” he said. “I can go anywhere I want and nobody recognizes me. That’s the way I like it.  People say I look more like a farmer than a soldier, and I guess I do.”


He’d been a career soldier for decades at that point, but he shrugged that off, too.


“Somebody has got to work to keep the country free,” he concluded.


Enjoyed this post? More Medal of Honor

stories can be found on my website, HERE.

Primary Sources:

  • Erin Quinn, Local Medal of Honor Recipient Dead at 74 (San Angelo Standard-Times; July 12, 2002) (p. A1)

  • Finnis Dawson McCleery (Texas State Cemetery website)

  • ‘Finnis McCleery Day’ to Fete CMOH Winner (San Angelo Standard-Times; March 12, 1971) (p. B1)

  • Jan Tomas, Bashful Hero’s Got It, But He Won’t Flaunt It (San Angelo Standard-Times; Nov. 16, 1985) (p. A1)

  • Medal of Honor citation (Finnis Dawson McCleery; Vietnam)

  • Norma Joe Williams, Sgt. Finnis McCleery: ‘Someone Had to Start Firing,’ (San Angelo Standard-Times; March 11, 1971) (p. 1)

  • Rick Smith, San Angelo Medal of Honor Winner Downplays Heroics (Abilene Reporter-News; May 27, 1991) (p. 9A)

  • Rick Smith, True Hero’s Story Deserves Retelling (San Angelo Standard-Times; Dec. 1, 1996) (p. B1)

  • San Angelo Native Given Medal of Honor by Nixon (San Angelo Standard-Times; March 3, 1971) (p. A1)

  • Uncommon Valor part five: Platoon Sgt. Finnis McCleery (Goodfellow Air Force Base website)



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