Column: Navy destroyer named for local Korean War hero

On Friday, Huntington Ingalls Shipbuilding of Pascagoula, Miss., will host the keel-laying ceremony for what’s to become the 509-foot Arleigh-Burke Class Flight III destroyer George M. Neal.

The ship capable of fighting air, surface and subsurface battles simultaneously is named for the late Springfield native whose heroism in a helicopter rescue mission on July 3, 1951, earned him the Navy Cross, a military honor eclipsed only by the Medal of Honor.

As official sponsor of the ship, daughter Kelley Neal Gray, a Springfield native living in Columbus, will have her initials welded to the vessel’s keel.

Thrust into that role by the recent passing George Neal’s third wife, she feels a sense of responsibility and pride on behalf of her father, who died Dec. 1, 2016 and is buried in Arlington National Cemetery, unaware of the honor that would be bestowed on him.

A brief biography Gray wrote of him describes a childhood spent in heavy seas.

Born Aug. 29, 1930, he was 10 when his mother, Marinette Edwards Neal, passed away. His father, George Washington was already deceased, so “he along with his (three) siblings were separated into different homes for the balance of his childhood,” Gray writes.

Taken in by John and Emma Williams, “who already had seven children to feed,” she adds, “George grew up in a home with love, but little else.”

Before graduating from Springfield High School, Neal had begun his five-and-a-half years of service in the U.S. Navy.

Springfield-born Paul Metz, a career test pilot first for the Air Force then for Lockheed-Martin, said that while helicopter combat search and rescue was standard procedure when he served in Vietnam, in Korea the day Neal earned his Navy Cross the helicopter was essentially “a new toy” for the military.

“There was no book about it, there was no manual,” he said. “They were pioneers.”

Compared to today’s helicopters, the one Neal boarded with Lt. John Koelsch that day seems like a buggy being pulled by an untamed horse.

The ships had minimal range, due to small fuel tanks – a sacrifice to weight -- and “the center of gravity was extremely critical,” Metz said. Just to keep the helicopter steady, Neal would have had to secure weights in the place he hoped downed Marine fighter pilot Capt. James Wilkins would occupy on a return flight.

Metz added that as the ship lifted off in the coming twilight, Koelsch and Neal were fully aware that their helicopter had no lights to illuminate either the cockpit dials or the mountainous Korean terrain.

All this adds the intensity of high definition to a mission that, to Neal’s son, Van, “seems like a movie (script) every time I read it.”

Here are excerpts of the story as it’s told in Neal’s Navy Cross citation:

“Despite a low overcast of clouds which prevented their being protected by fighter aircraft, the helicopter crew descended below the clouds where the downed aviator’s parachute was located.

“Not finding the aviator during their first tour of the valley, the helicopter crew entered the area a second time in the face of intense enemy fire, approaching darkness, and adverse weather, any one of which made the mission extremely hazardous.

“(In the face of that fire),” it continues, “Neal fearlessly exposed himself to the intense enemy gunfire and guided the rescue sling to the downed aviator. “As Neal was hoisting him up to the helicopter, the enemy fire became so effective that the helicopter was disabled and crashed. Neal then assisted his pilot and the Marine aviator, who was seriously burned, in attempting to escape.”

While all this impresses Metz, he considers their ability to survive and evade capture for nine days “with a wounded person who could not walk … an unbelievable accomplishment.”

To Kelley Gray, “Just the bravery of anyone going into battle knowing you could be captured or killed is just mind blowing to me. He was a machinist … he was a machinist with a captain that was flying the helicopter. I sometimes wonder: How did that happen?”

The answer in the medal citation is that he volunteered – and, as a result, was taken from the Korean fishing village the three reached to a prisoner of war camp.

“I can’t even imagine being a POW in a foreign country that people don’t speak a lot of English and being treated poorly,” added.

Kolsch’s valor made him the first helicopter pilot to win the Medal of Honor. He died in captivity after repeated beatings, which led Van Neal to ponder how his father and Wilkins came to know of his pilot’s death.

“You see somebody and then you don’t see them the next day --- and you know they didn’t go home. That would have to live with them forever.”

On the other hand, they did survive long enough to be freed in a prisoner exchange in 1952.

“After returning from the military,” Gray’s account reads, “George graduated from Springfield South High School and became a U.S. Postal carrier. George married Barbara Trimble in 1954 and Van Eric and Kelley Elaine were born from that union. At the end of that marriage, George moved to Los Angeles to be closer to his siblings.”

Kelley, who was 6 at the time their parents divorced (Van was 8), then “moved closer to my grandmother on Innisfallen (Ave.) in Springfield,” the start of a long period of estrangement between Neal and his children.

More of that story — along with comments from Gray about the keel dedication ceremony — will be told in my column on Dec. 24.

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