KENLY — The excitement in Mike McNeely’s voice Tuesday was palpable as he guided people to a table in the back of the restaurant at Big Boy’s Truck Stop off I-95.
For the first time in 45 years, McNeely was face to face with a fellow Marine he hadn’t seen since July 21, 1966 in Vietnam.
McNeely, who lives in Bailey, tracked down Bernard J. “B.J.” Fowler via information provided by McNeely’s former company commander and an online telephone directory. The first Fowler McNeely called listed in Keshena, Wis., turned out to be Fowler’s son. A granddaughter, who answered the call, offered up a cell phone number. It was November and Fowler, a long-distance truck driver, was in Louisville, Ky., on a run.
“Once he told me his name, I knew who it was,” Fowler said recalling the phone conversation. “I wondered if he made it back or who made it back.”
The two men talked for about 45 minutes and made plans to meet whenever Fowler made a run through this area. On Tuesday, Fowler was in Garner and took time to stop in Kenly on his way to Savannah, Ga.
Over a glass of tea, the men talked about battles fought, remembered fellow soldiers who didn’t make it home and shared the Cliff’s Notes version of what’s happened in their lives since Vietnam.
Operation Hastings started July 15, 1966. McNeely and Fowler, who were assigned to 2nd Battalion, 1st Marine Division, went in the following day. McNeely said there was action every day and every night. Both were slated to leave Vietnam on Aug. 1.
Operation Hastings was meant to drive the North Vietnamese Army back across the Demilitarized Zone or DMZ.
McNeely, who served as squad leader for a group of M60 machine gunners, remembers having Fowler “on a listening post” trying to determine the enemy’s position and trying to keep the enemy from completely surrounding them. McNeely said Fowler later told him he was so close to North Vietnamese soldiers that he could have reached out and touched them.
“B.J. came in shaking,” McNeely recalled.
“I wanted to open up (and fire) but someone said to hold your fire,” Fowler recalled.
“They (North Vietnamese) were going to surround us and overrun us,” McNeely said. “But we’re proof they didn’t get the job done. We were even taking hits by our own guys.”
McNeely was one of 13 soldiers injured July 21, 1966. Overall, some 128 U.S. soldiers were killed and 162 wounded in Operation Hastings. He was airlifted out. After several weeks of recovery, McNeely remembers trying to hitch a ride to catch up with his company. It was then he found out his company had moved 10 miles south of Da Nang, which was miles away from where he had been wounded. Within two days of catching up with his company, McNeely caught a “Freedom Bird” ride to Okinawa, Japan. After returning to California, McNeely took a 45-day leave before getting reassigned to Camp Lejeune here in North Carolina. McNeely finished his Marine career at Lejeune. Fowler escaped injury during Operation Hastings because he wasn’t on the hill. He was sent to Da Nang before heading home. Fowler also made a stop in Okinawa, then returned to California. He got out of the Marines in 1967. Fowler is now 67 years old.
Life back home
Once home, Fowler said he got married and “raised a dysfunctional family.” He’s been driving trucks since 1971.
Originally from Illinois, McNeely met his wife here and decided to remain in North Carolina. He took a job at Sylvania in Smithfield then worked with IBM in Research Triangle Park. He retired in 2001.
Both men enlisted in the Marines instead of being drafted. Fowler remembers signing up with a friend, a fellow high school senior, in a tavern. McNeely enlisted because he said it was expected at that time that young men spend some time in the military. He chose the Marines because otherwise his father wouldn’t think he had what it took to be a man.
“And the rest is history,” McNeely said.
Over the years, McNeely has actively worked with veterans and veterans’ issues, such as POW/MIA. He’s a member of the Vietnam Veterans Chapter 990 in Smithfield. He’s attended reunions and tracked down other soldiers he served with or their families.
“I try to help other veterans out,” McNeely said.
McNeely, 65, said people often talk about losing World War II veterans but we’ve been losing a large number of Vietnam veterans, too, since the latter part of the 1980s due to their lifestyles.
McNeely said it’s hard to understand the bond between soldiers unless you’ve been shot at or spent time in rice paddies together.
“I love my country,” McNeely said. “I think the American people need to show more patriotism.”
McNeely said he has one more soldier he wants to locate. The two served together in 1964-1965. His name is Bill Schwab and was a kickboxer from Arizona.
“I remember him, but I can’t picture him,” Fowler said.
It’s curiosity about who made it home and life after Vietnam that keeps McNeely searching.
“One more and I’m happy,” he said. “These are some of the best warriors this country ever provided.”