Growing up in Pittsburgh, Jim McNally graduated from high school with an interest in art. He received a scholarship to art school and set off to follow in the footsteps of his childhood hero, Norman Rockwell.
But shortly after graduating from art school in 1968 he received word from the draft board that his number was up.
“I remember going down to the Federal Building and going up to that department. And there was a lady there with a great big giant book,” he said. “Everything was done by hand in those days. She opened up the giant ledger, and everybody was handwritten in there with their birthdate and information. And she looked at my name and said: ‘Oh, it looks like they’ll be calling you in about 90 days.’”
Jim went home and talked it over with his father. His father suggested he consider signing up for a specific job.
“I went and I talked with a recruiter and he said, ‘You know we have an excellent program where you can sign up to be an Army photographer. You’d go to basic training and then you would go to school to learn the skills of an Army photographer.’”
So in November 1968, Jim packed up and left for basic training at Fort Jackson. Right away he started to make his mark in the Army.
“I wound up being senior field leader of the company through an incident,” he said. “You’d train all day then you’d get in the chow line and wait an hour to eat. And invariably there was always a half-a-dozen hooligans who would run up jump in the front of the line. That happened to me, I was just ready to go in and eat and there were six tough guys or so who decided to push their way in. And I guess I snapped at that time, and I picked up an Army tray and beat all six of them up with that tray.
“The next day, I thought I was going to go to jail for sure, but the First Sergeant called me and says, ‘You’re our senior field leader for our company’ because I showed some kind of a spunk.”
“You got to realize,” he explained, “that Fort Jackson in ’68 was filled with thousands of recruits. It was organized mayhem. They were kind of glad to have someone who could bring a little order. I was never proud of it, but one thing leads to another.”
The need for manpower at Fort Jackson was so great that Jim ended up staying over after basic training for a few months, guiding newer soldiers through grenade and hand-to-hand combat before his slot opened up at photographer’s school.
After finishing photographer’s school he went home on leave, where he asked his art school sweetheart to marry him. “Everyone else told us to wait but we were in love.” They went to religious classes to prepare for marriage.
“I remember we were in the first class and Father Feldmeier said there would be another class the next week and for the next three weeks. And I said ‘Father Feldmeier, I leave for Vietnam in four days.’ And he said ‘Well, you’ll get married tomorrow.’ So that’s what we did, we got married, and off I went to Vietnam.”
Jim flew in to Tan Son Nhut Air Base near Saigon. “We were held up in Japan because the airbase was on red alert. We went in the dark and you could see everything all lit up, flares and helicopters and searchlights on. It really looked like well, here we are, we’re in the war zone. We got off the plane and had to do a zig-zaggy run to the hangar, which was just sandbags and a quonset hut with a lightbulb in it. We spent the night in there. In the pre-dawn hours we loaded on buses wrapped in wire (to prevent anyone from throwing grenades in the window) and drove to the 90th Replacement Battalion.”
With no place to stay there, Jim and a group of about 16 soldiers lay their duffle bags in a ring, “circled the wagons” as Jim put it, and bedded down on the tarmac.
“We hadn’t eaten in a long time, and I remembered my mother had given me a bag of chocolate chip cookies just in case. I forgot about them. And I remember breaking those cookies out and passing them around. I’ll never forget the guy next to me says ‘Boy, talk about a way to go: eat a chocolate chip cookie and die.’ Because the whole place was lit up with incoming rounds. We thought that would be it for us right there and then, only to realize that was business as usual. No one at the 90th was upset.”
After three days Jim was assigned to the 53rd Signal Battalion at II Field Force in III Corps at a place called “Plantation,” the home base for the photographic corps. From there, photographers went throughout the III Corps area to provide photographic support for all Army operations. The work included aerial photography, combat photography, covering special stories and documenting the day in and day out activities of the Army.
“This was the summer of 1969,” he said. “A lot of the major operations, if I recall correctly, were no longer happening. I think the NVA and Viet Cong had all pulled back because the Paris peace talks were going on. Of course we thought that any day the war would be over, and did not realize it would drag on for quite a bit longer.
“A lot of our operations were trying to find enemy supplies, and every now and then rounds would come at us and there were ambushes and things like that. We did a lot of work up in the rubber plantations, but no major battles anymore. Most of the Viet Cong and the enemy, if we saw them at all, were shadowy figures. Or you found them when they were left behind and KIA’d.
“I remember tragedy and death could come at any time. I had a real good friend, Bill from West Virginia. He had finished his tour of duty and was going to go home, and I told him ‘Best of luck’. He said ‘I’ll be back’. I said ‘Don’t come back, go home, go home.’ He said ‘No, these are the best friends I’ve ever had in my life.’ And Bill came back a month later, and I don’t think he was back more than a week when he was killed in an accident in our motor pool. A deuce-and-a-half (truck) was stuck in the mud, and we had this great big gravel the size of grapefruits, and the wheels were turning and he jumped out to get a look and a rock came up and hit him in the head and the truck ran over him. It was that kind of a place. You didn’t have to be on patrol in the field to find the Angel of Death.”
Nearing the end
As more and more units pulled back, Jim’s unit ended up with responsibility for patrolling their own area and guarding their own perimeter. One night Jim volunteered to take charge of the guard so a friend could go on R&R.
“That night was uneventful, but in the pre-dawn the captain came around and said to be careful because none of the Vietnamese who worked on the base were coming in to work. That was usually a sign that there was going to be some kind of activity. The captain said ‘Jim, make sure you keep all the boys in the bunkers.’ Because what happens is that after a long night on bunker duty you’re stinky from all the mosquito repellent, you’re tired because you can’t sleep, and you want to get back in and get cleaned up. The captain said ‘Make sure they boys stay in the bunkers’ because as soon as dawn would break they’d get out of the bunker and sit on top of it and have a smoke.
“So I’m walking down the bunker line just at the crack of dawn, and I’m sort of double timing it, and I’m telling the boys ‘Get back in your bunker, we expect to get hit.’ And of course a lot of the guys, their response was ‘You lifer!’ or they’d give you the salute with their middle finger, pretty much disgruntled. But I made them get back in, and as soon as I turned to go back to the lead bunker everything opened up.
“All the rounds started coming in and I can still see them exploding purple. Anybody in their right mind would have hit the dirt and stayed there, but something told me I had to get back to the head bunker. So I ran that football field as the rounds were coming in and got back to the bunker without a scratch. I always felt so good that there were 24 guys that never got hurt that day. And you know what, all those guys that called me those names, very quietly afterwards I’d see them and they’d say ‘Thanks, Jim’ very quietly.”
But Jim rejects any notion that he is a hero. “There were acts of courage every day, we were just doing our duty, not looking for awards, we just wanted to win the war, save lives, and go home.”
When his time was up, Jim’s commanding officer wanted him to stay. But one afternoon a friend came flying up in a jeep. He had stolen Jim’s transfer orders, the papers he needed to board a plane, from the orderly room. They jumped into the jeep and drove off.
“All the way back to Tahn Son Nhut I expected to see MP’s behind me. I didn’t breathe a sigh of relief until that plane was up in the air. And the neatest thing was, I got home the day before I left because of the international Date Line.”
Jim returned to the United States and met his 4-month-old son for the first time. He finished his enlistment working as a photographer at Carlisle Barracks. Jim still lives in the Carlisle area today, where he works as the Art Curator at the U.S. Army Heritage and Education Center.