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Navy Commendation Medal with Valor
Navy Commendation Medal with Valor

Thanksgiving in Chu Lai,
Vietnam — 1967

Cpl. Joseph Daniel McNeil, USMC:
A Remembrance

Milton, Massachusetts

By Lawrence C. McNeil, Jr.

Turner's Pond in Spring, by Beth Neville
Cpl. Joseph Daniel McNeil USMC Memorial
"Turner's Pond in Spring," Milton, Massachusetts
Beth Neville — Milton Artist
For more on Joseph visit
www.thevirtualwall.org/thewall/Wall_Id_No=37185

Marine Corps Hymn Lyrics
From the Halls of Montezuma
To the Shores of Tripoli;
We fight our country's battles
In the air, on land and sea;
First to fight for right and freedom
And to keep our honor clean;
We are proud to claim the title
of United States Marine.

Our flag's unfurled to every breeze
From dawn to setting sun;
We have fought in ev'ry clime and place
Where we could take a gun;
In the snow of far-off Northern lands
And in sunny tropic scenes;
You will find us always on the job
The United States Marines.

Here's health to you and to our Corps
Which we are proud to serve
In many a strife we've fought for life
And never lost our nerve;
If the Army and the Navy
Ever look on Heaven's scenes;
They will find the streets are guarded
By United States Marines.

Cpl. Joseph McNeil, USMC
Cpl. Joseph Daniel McNeil, USMC

Thanksgiving in Chu Lai, Vietnam — 1967
Cpl. Joseph Daniel McNeil, USMC: A Remembrance
Milton, Massachusetts

Vietnam Map
Map of Vietnam, copyright 1999 The History Place
Showing Go Cong — Saigon — Chu Lai

My younger brother Joe and I were both in Vietnam during the same time period. Joe was with the First Marine Division, Third AmTrac Battalion in Chu Lai 300 miles north of Saigon on the coast. I was with Army MAC V Advisory Team 83 assigned to Go Cong Provence 58 miles south of Saigon in the Mekong Delta.

We had written to each other and made plans to have Thanksgiving together in Chu Lai. I was granted several days leave. Joe had permission from his command people for me to come visit. I would head for Chu Lai Thanksgiving day.

Getting around in Vietnam during the war was difficult. The distance was only about 350 miles; but there was no direct way to get to Chu Lai from Go Cong. The only travel plan I could make was to try to catch a series of hops northward in hopes of somehow ending up in Chu Lai.

Thanksgiving morning I took the mail plane, a DeHavilland Otter, out of Go Cong. It was going to Ton Son Nuit Airbase outside of Saigon. There I learned of a C-130 cargo plane going directly to Chu Lai later in the day. This was my best option. I hung around until late in the afternoon when it finally took off. It was almost dusk when we landed.

Chu Lai was a huge Marine base. It had its own airfield capable of handling jet aircraft. Joe's AmTrac battalion was on the beach way over on the other side from where the C-130 landed. I caught a Marine shuttle bus and then a jeep ride to get there. It was dusk now, but I could still see well enough to make it out. The AmTracs were parked on a beautiful wide sandy beach with sand dunes. It was just like Crane Beach in Ipswich, Massachusetts only with Marines and big tents everywhere.

Joe was out on patrol but due back shortly. His platoon sergeant gave me the lieutenant's bunk, as he was away for a few days.

He took me over to the operations tent. There were numerous radios and a large map depicting their operating area. The sergeant showed me on the map where Joe's patrol was several miles away down the beach. They called Joe on the radio and said he had a visitor and then handed me the mike. I said "Hi Joe, it's Larry, hurry up and get in or you will be late for dinner."

A short time later Joe's AmTrac rumbled in along with several others following. The crews all jumped out, and Joe introduced me around. They were a friendly bunch.

We headed for the mess tent. It was dark outside now; but the mess tent was all lit up and open 24/7.

Everyone besides Joe's patrol had already eaten, so the mess tent was empty except for the staff. The AmTrac crews went through grabbing sandwiches and pies. They quickly chowed down and then headed for their bunk area to relax. Joe and I opted for the full course Thanksgiving dinner.

We took a table. We were the only ones there. The mess steward came over and served us a traditional Thanksgiving turkey dinner. We enjoyed the dinner and talked for a long time. We spoke of how we missed being at home at this time.

Joe talked to me at length of his plans for when he got back home and his hitch was up with the Marines. He had decided that he wanted to design cars. He would get a degree in automotive engineering from Wentworth Institute of Technology in Boston. He had saved some money and would use that and the G.I. Bill for tuition. He would then go to work for Ford Motor Company. He was motivated and focused on this as his life's career choice.

That was Thanksgiving in Chu Lai, 1967. Joe and I were 10,000 miles from home and our family's Thanksgiving table. Yet we were thankful to be together. After a while we both went to our bunks exhausted.

The next two days we just hung out and Joe showed me around the base. There were no operations planned; and Joe's sergeant had given him time off from other duties.

Joe was the crew chief on his AmTrac. An AmTrac is an armored amphibious assault vehicle capable of transporting thirty-five combat ready Marines. It is manned by a crew of four. AmTracs are amphibious and have tracks: hence the name AmTrac. They are capable of running in water at 6 mph and over land at 30 mph. They weigh 39 tons, have a V12 gas engine and automatic transmission.

AmTracs are designed to bring Marines from troop ships offshore across open water to a beach head. They ride low in the water for protection. Once ashore they maneuver around on land with the tracks and function as an armored personnel carrier.

Joe was selected for AmTrac duty by the Marines because he was mechanically gifted and had a special talent for automotive repairs. He developed these skills working after school and during the summer months in the shop at the Ford dealership where our father worked. AmTracs needed constant maintenance to keep them running and ready. Joe was good at that. He had his tool box on board and could repair all the mechanical components including the engine and the tracks even in the field during operations.

He had permission to take me for a ride. We launched from the beach and went out a short distance into the ocean. I was amazed that this big heavy, noisy piece of machinery would float and maneuver as well as it did. Joe handled it with ease.

I realized as we visited that Joe was no longer my kid brother. He was all grown up. He was a Marine. He had solid values and he knew what he wanted to do. I had confidence in his abilities.

There was very real danger in Vietnam; and it was tough, difficult duty. He loved the Marines, though; and he had that pride of accomplishment of someone who is highly competent at what he does. Joe drove his AmTrac loaded with Marines into combat. His AmTrac battalion also participated in numerous non-combat MEDCAP operations. During these they brought medical teams of doctors, nurses, and medics into the outlying villages to provide badly needed medical care to the Vietnamese civilian population.

I was concerned for Joe's safety; but I also felt that he would make it through his tour. We would always remember this Thanksgiving.

Joe died at Chu Lai May 31, 1968. He was struck by lightning. It was evening, and the AmTrac crews were all sitting in their new hut. This was an open sided building with a roof that they built to keep out of the sun. Joe headed to another nearby hut where they kept some cokes in a refrigerator. His M16 rifle with a webbing sling was hanging on his shoulder as required. There was no storm, just a few clouds. It was a bolt from the blue. His M16 was the lightning rod.

There was a loud bang. Joe had left just a minute before. They thought they had taken an incoming mortar round. Everyone ran to the sandbag berm and looked out. They saw Joe on the ground just forty feet away.

Realizing what had happened, they quickly went to Joe's aid. Mouth to mouth resuscitation was started. His lieutenant felt a pulse. The battalion doctor came running over and applied a pressure technique to his chest to keep Joe's heartbeat going . A medivac helicopter was called for. However, a supply helicopter already in the air landed within minutes. First aid was continued in flight as he was transported to a nearby Naval hospital. Despite their best efforts to save Joe's life, he was pronounced DOA. Joe was just 21.

The news of his death took a week to reach me in Go Cong. I was just days away from another visit to Chu Lai.

Joe's wake was at our parents home in Milton. A two man Marine escort stood by as numerous mourners visited. The next morning a twelve man Marine Honor Guard arrived. They carried Joe's casket to the hearse as we all stood by.

St. Mary of the Hills Catholic Church is just a mile away. Joe had made his First Holy Communion and his Confirmation here. All the pews and the aisles were filled with people. The Marines brought his flag-covered casket to the altar. The Marine Corps hymn was slowly played by the organist. His funeral Mass was concelebrated by Monsignor John Day, Pastor; Monsignor Joseph F. Maguire; Monsignor Charles McCarthy; Rev. Charles Leahy; and Rev. Joseph Benoit.

The graveside service followed at Milton Cemetery. Monsignor Day said his final prayers. The Marine bugler played taps. The Marines fired three volleys; his casket flag was folded and presented to our mother. Joe was laid to rest in his Marine Corps uniform in a new family cemetery plot. He was first to occupy this family grave site.

Shortly after, vandals attacked the new granite headstone with a hammer. They did little real damage. Small chips in the stone are still visible.

John Cronin, a Milton Park Commissioner at the time wanted to dedicate a flag pole and stone monument as a memorial to Joe at Turner's Pond in Milton. He was also the Scout Leader for Milton Explorer Post #4 of which Joe had been a member while attending Milton High School. One of their projects had been to plant conifers off to one side of the pond. John Cronin knew Joe well from his Explorer Scout activities; and he and the Scouts decided to honor Joe's memory in this way.

Turner's Pond is near the end of the street where our parents' house is located. It has special meaning to everyone who lives nearby. In summer we all went fishing there or just hung out. In winter we played pond hockey.

The Town of Milton authorized a site for the memorial by the Central Avenue entrance to the Turner's Pond area. John Cronin and the Explorer Scouts arranged for a large boulder to be excavated from the edge of the pond. They had it engraved with Joe's name, his age, and date of death.

The flag pole and engraved monument were placed in the turn around circle for the parking lot at the pond driveway entrance. The memorial is sited to be visible from the street and is prominent upon entering the driveway to the park.

The memorial was dedicated by past and present members of Explorer Post #4 on Veterans Day, November 11, 1968. There were many people from town in attendance. This was John Cronin's and the Explorer Scouts' way of remembering Joe McNeil with whom they shared so many pleasant times.

Vandals struck again. At night, shortly before Veterans Day 1969, they attached the halyard for the flag to the back of a car and pulled until the flag pole snapped in half. Those responsible were never caught. The remnants of the flag pole were removed; and the American Legion held the Veterans Day wreath laying ceremony at the memorial as scheduled. Our parents provided a replacement flag pole with an internal halyard. The American and Marine Corps flags fly there continuously day and night all year long.

The Turner's Pond area has been greatly enhanced by the Town of Milton. It is now a lovely 26 acre handicapped accessible park enjoyed by many. The Milton Garden Club selected the two red and white blossomed crab apples trees planted in the center of the turn around circle. Brush has been cleared from the edge of the pond; and a wide half mile long walking/jogging foot path encircles it. There are benches to sit on and visit and grassy areas along the pond edge for fishing and feeding ducks and geese.

Our family has long appreciated the thoughtfulness of those who worked to place this memorial to Joe. Our mother would often visit there to tend to the plantings. She would plant spring bulbs of tulips and daffodils, then red and white geraniums for summer, and hardy mums for autumn. Some evergreen shrubs offer year round color for winter. Working on the garden at the memorial gave her enormous comfort in dealing with Joe's death.

Joe's name is engraved on the Wall of the Vietnam Veterans Memorial in Washington, D.C. It is on Panel 62 West, Row 15. I and others from our family have visited there a number of times. It is very moving to see his name and all the names engraved there.

In a letter to our parents, Joe's Lieutenant wrote that he was an outstanding Marine, very friendly and always helpful to others. He had voluntarily put pavers down for their new sun hut. He wrote "His love of God was shown to me by his high moral character and the religious medals, rosaries, and prayer book he had in his locker box."

The Colonel commanding the 3rd AmTrac Battalion wrote to our parents: "Joseph received the last rites of his faith... from a Catholic Navy Chaplain at the hospital. A memorial service was held in his honor at the Battalion's base camp on June 4, 1968 and was attended by his many friends." The bulletin for this memorial service in Chu Lai stated: "He was noted for his friendly personality and outstanding performance of duty."

The Colonel also wrote:"Joseph was one of the finest Marines I have ever known. His exemplary conduct, pleasant manner, and singular determination to do every job well were qualities that all of us respected. We will miss him and hope you will find some comfort in knowing this."

The Marines awarded Joe the Navy Commendation Medal with Valor: "For Meritorious Service in Vietnam from 14 January, 1967 to 31 May 1968." They presented this to our family at a special ceremony at the Marine Barracks, Boston Naval Ship Yard, Boston, Massachusetts on October 4, 1968.

Different people who knew Joe have introduced themselves to me over the years. They always speak of his love of cars and his friendly good nature. Some have left notes at his grave. It is meaningful to me and our family that they remember Joe in this way.

Robert McCarthy, a friend of Joe's from Marine boot camp at Paris Island recently remarked: "Joe and I were shoulder to shoulder throughout PI and ITR and I remember how often we spoke about our love of family...He was always willing to help others who were lagging behind and give support to those who needed it. Even in those early days in the Corps he lived Semper Fi."

President Ronald Reagan once said "Some people spend an entire lifetime wondering if they made a difference in the world; but the Marines never have that problem." Those who knew Joe and have been to Turner's Pond know that Joe made a difference.

God speed dear brother. We all think of you often.

Lawrence C. McNeil, Jr.
Hamilton, Massachusetts

Larry served as an Army Captain in Vietnam. His younger brother Bob served stateside as an Army Lieutenant. Their father, Lawrence C. McNeil, Sr., went ashore at Utah Beach, Normandy on June 6, 1944 and was an Army Major.

Post script: After Joe's death, the base came under attack later that night; the platoon moved out as part of the reaction force. Cpl. Sather, who had provided the mouth-to-mouth resuscitation effort, was shot in the hand and evacuated to Japan.

USMC AmTrac
USMC Amtrac
Joe's old car

Cpl Joe McNeil fueling an Amtrac
Joe gassing up

Larry and Joe McNeil in front of an Amtrac
Larry and Joe standing on the ramp of Joe's AmTrac. We are going for a ride.

Cpl Joe McNeil fixing an Amtrac track
Joe fixing a track.

Cpl Joe McNeil standing on an Amtrac on the beach

Cpl Joe McNeil kneeling on an Amtrac

List of Contributors to the McNeil Memorial
By Elizabeth Marr DeCourcey (click to enlarge)

Milton Post #4
Explorer Scouts Dedication of Memorial
Veterans Day, November 11, 1968

Explorer Scouts raising the US flag at the McNeil Memorial
Explorer Scouts Rick O'Connell and David Hurley raise the flag. Joe's parents, brothers and sister in background (click to enlarge).

Explorer Scouts at the McNeil Memorial
John Cronin with Explorer Scouts (click to enlarge).

The McNeil Memorial in front of Turners Pond
The CPL Joseph D. McNeil USMC Memorial at the entrance to Turner's Pond Park in Milton.

The McNeil Memorial Stone
The Memorial Stone with engraving (click to enlarge)

Turner's Pond Aerial View
Aerial photo of Turners Pond

Close-up of Cpl Joe McNeil in Chu Lai
Joe in Chu Lai

Cpl Joe McNeil at Marine airfield at Chu Lai
Thanksgiving 1967 — Joe at the airfield waiting for my flight back.

United States Marine Corps flag

First Marine Division patch
First Marine Division insignia