David H. McNerney, a retired Army first sergeant who was awarded the Medal of Honor for leading soldiers out of a Viet Cong ambush in 1967, died of lung cancer on Sunday at a veterans hospital in Houston. He was 79.
McNerney was not supposed to be in Vietnam on March 22, 1967. At 35, he'd already served two tours in those jungles and had spent most of the previous year training young troops to go to war.
He bonded with the soldiers during their training, and when the company received orders to ship out, McNerney negotiated with the unit's commanding officers to be included on the outbound manifest, and he started his third tour in Vietnam.
The company's mission that March day was to rendezvous with a reconnaissance unit that had reportedly disappeared in a remote area in South Vietnam. While trekking through thick vegetation, the company's front column was hit with heavy fire and the rear platoon was surprised from behind.
Before the company's 108 soldiers could organize into defensive positions, they were surrounded and outnumbered. In the first minutes of battle, 22 Americans were dead. The company's commanding officer and the forward artillery observer were both killed in the ambush.
As the senior enlisted man, McNerney took control of the remaining soldiers and coordinated their counterattack. He was wounded by a grenade, yet called in heavy rounds to within 65 feet of his position - dangerously close to the artillery's margin of error - and continually checked on the wounded soldiers. To evacuate the wounded, he wrapped explosives around the trunks of trees and blew them up to create a landing zone.
After he received the Medal of Honor from President Lyndon B. Johnson in 1968, McNerney volunteered for a fourth tour of combat in Vietnam.