David Herbert McNerney, Vietnam War Medal of Honor recipient, was born to an Irish-Catholic family in Lowell, Massachusetts, on June 2, 1931. He was the fifth of five children of Edward and Helen McNerney. A combat veteran of World War I, Edward McNerney, having earned the Distinguished Service Cross, Silver Star, and two Purple Hearts, served as a role model for his children. David McNerney’s brother and sister served in the military during World War II, and another brother flew combat missions as a United States Navy pilot during the Vietnam War. The McNerney family moved to Houston in 1940. David McNerney graduated from Houston’s St. Thomas High School in 1949 and enlisted in the United States Navy. After McNerney completed his service, he returned to Texas in 1953.
David McNerney was briefly enrolled at the University of Houston but enlisted in the United States Army after seeing a recruitment poster on campus in 1953. McNerney excelled as a combat infantry soldier during his military career. He volunteered for special warfare training in 1962. He served as one of the first American advisers sent to Vietnam in the early 1960s and did a second tour of duty in 1964.
In late 1965 McNerney was assigned to Fort Lewis, Washington, to train draftees for combat in Vietnam. In 1966 Company A, First Battalion, Eighth Infantry Regiment, Fourth Infantry Division received much of their basic training and advanced infantry training from Drill Sergeant McNerney. McNerney talked tough and demanded respect from draftees as well as officers. “Let me tell you how things are in this company,” McNerney informed his men. “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.” Although an imposing figure, McNerney developed a bond with the soldiers during their training. At the end of the training in September, he announced that he would be going to Vietnam with them, and in early October 1966 McNerney and Company A arrived in South Vietnam.
On March 21, 1967, David McNerney was serving as a first sergeant of Company A in a remote region near Polei Doc in Kon Tum Province in South Vietnam near the Cambodian border. Radio contact had been lost with a reconnaissance unit operating in the area, and McNerney’s company had been sent in to find them. The company, consisting of 108 soldiers, was surprised by a North Vietnamese Army (NVA) battalion and heavy machine gun fire at 7:30 A.M. on March 22. Moving quickly, McNerney aided the company commander in establishing a defense perimeter and a base of fire. McNerney then saw several NVA moving through the thick jungle and killed them at close range. He suffered a chest injury when an exploding grenade knocked him to the ground. Unhindered by his wound, McNerney then attacked and eliminated an enemy machine gun nest that had pinned down five of his men outside of the perimeter. Within a few minutes about forty Americans were wounded, and twenty-two others had been killed, including the company commander and the forward artillery observer; both were killed as a result of a direct hit from an enemy rocket. The North Vietnamese force also had surrounded the Americans and outnumbered them at least three to one.
First Sergeant McNerney took control of the company and began to issue orders just as panic set in among some of the men. In a daring move, he called for artillery fire to within twenty meters from his position to curtail enemy assaults. On his own, McNerney “moved into a nearby clearing to designate the location to friendly aircraft.” Although exposed to 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.” McNerney proceeded to move among his men and offered encouragement, readjusted their location, and looked after the wounded. As the enemy attacks declined, he sought a location where a helicopter could land and remove wounded. He then ventured away from the perimeter to secure explosive materials in abandoned rucksacks. Constantly on the move from hostile fire, McNerney used the devices to clear a landing zone for the medevac helicopters. Although wounded and declining medical aid, McNerney supervised the evacuation of the wounded and remained in the battle zone until relieved the following day. Many veterans of Company A attributed their survival to the heroics of David McNerney.
President Lyndon Johnson presented the Medal of Honor to McNerney for his “outstanding heroism and leadership” that was ‘inspirational to his comrades” in a ceremony on the White House lawn on September 19, 1968. President Johnson, in a meeting in the Oval Office before the ceremony, told McNerney, “You’re a good Texan.” McNerney volunteered and was granted a fourth tour of duty in Vietnam. He retired from the military in 1969. During his distinguished military career, he also received five Bronze Stars and two Purple Hearts.
McNerney settled near Houston in Crosby, Texas, after retiring from the army. From 1970 until 1995, he served as a U.S. Customs inspector in Houston. In Crosby, he remained active in the local American Legion and the Crosby High School Junior Reserve Officers’ Training Corps (JROTC). McNerney married Parmelia “Charlotte” Moeckel in 1961; they had no children. She died in 2002. In his final years, McNerney battled lung cancer. On October 10, 2010, McNerney died at the Michael E. DeBakey VA Medical Center in Houston. First Sgt. David H. McNerney was buried with full military honors at Houston National Cemetery.
McNerney’s heroics that won him the Medal of Honor were detailed in a documentary Honor in the Valley of Tears that was released in May 2010. In Crosby, the American Legion Post was renamed the David H. McNerney Post 658. On March 22, 2013, the post office in Crosby, Texas, was renamed the Army First Sergeant David McNerney Post Office Building in a public ceremony.