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John McNeil: Professor and WWII Veteran Learned Importance of Collaboration in Battle

By Joanie Harmon
Professor John McNeil WWII

The emeritus professor shares recollections of life on an attack cargo ship that played a pivotal role in the Battle of Normandy.

When John McNeil drove with his parents from their home in San Diego to enlist in the U.S. Navy in 1940, he was initially turned down for being underweight.

“They weren’t going to take me because you had to weigh 120 pounds; I only weighed 119,” quips McNeil of his attempt to sign up at the UCLA Men’s Gym, which was being used as a recruitment center. “It was late in the afternoon and they were closing, so I said, ‘Let me come back tomorrow and I’ll weigh enough.’

“That night, my mom gave me all these bananas. The next day, I was up bright and early, and I weighed enough.”

Playing a role in history was just about to begin for McNeil, emeritus professor of education in the Graduate School of Education & Information Studies at UCLA. The Iowa native was stationed on the battleship USS New York for a basic training cruise to Panama and Cuba, and then on to midshipman school at Northwestern University. In the wake of the attack on Pearl Harbor in 1941, McNeil served as armed guard officer on board a merchant ship, the MS Stephen Field, which was on its way to Port Moresby, New Guinea. McNeil noted that the ship carried Black troops – who at that point in history were mainly assigned to duties such as menial tasks and cooking – and supplies from Northern Australia to the port, which was an advantageous spot for Japanese forces to seize and gain control of the South Pacific.

In 1943 McNeil was assigned to the USS Achernar, an attack cargo ship that was deployed to Europe to lead Operation NEPTUNE. He was on board as a gunnery officer when the ship was headquarters for the Allied Forces’ invasion of Omaha Beach on the Normandy coast of France on June 6, 1944.

The early morning invasion, which was overseen by Gen. Omar Bradley from on board USS Achernar, was delayed for a day due to bad weather. McNeil remembers the Battle of Normandy for its many horrific casualties.

“We had encountered submarines and a German bomber that came up on us that morning,” he recalls. “The terrible losses were from the soldiers disembarking the ship. Hundreds and hundreds of those soldiers never made it out of the water, never made it out. Finally they had to stack up the bodies. For days, the stench of bloated bodies was unbearable.”

Despite the horrific conditions of war, McNeil admitted that he felt empathy for the German and Japanese pilots who flew to their deaths as enemy forces. He remained on the USS Achernar for several months while it supplied containers of materials to build floating landing platforms for the U.S. forces. When the ship took part in another invasion into the south of France, he was promoted to the position of USS Achernar’s executive officer, and later was on board when the ship arrived in Okinawa in April of 1945 to support the U.S. takeover of the island. McNeil reminisces about the intensity of the Battle of Okinawa, which lasted 82 days and was the largest amphibious attack of WWII. McNeil notes that the Navy’s greatest losses of the war occurred in the duration of the battle, the USS Achernar alone sustaining 200 kamikaze attacks not only from the air but from speedboats manned by Japanese suicide bombers.

“It was 10 o’clock when we got to Okinawa,” he recalls. “Most of the men sensed it was a moment in history. One man had wanted to get off the ship – I couldn’t let him go. But most of them felt it was something they wanted to [do] at the beginning, before they were hit.

“At about midnight, I was above the bridge when it began. There was a nice fellow from Kansas; he had a post up there next to a boom. I was talking to him about where he’d come from. I walked down from there to the bridge. Then immediately, this Japanese plane hit the boom, driving the Kansan into the deck and killing him and the Japanese pilot.”

According to McNeil, those who managed to stay safe on board the USS Achernar did so because they responded as trained for contingency.

“The ship caught on fire and it was listing,” he remembers. “Just for a moment, somebody thought we ought to abandon ship, but they stopped that idea right away. We had lost 56 fire and damage control people who were trained to fight the fires, because they were the ones nearest the explosion. Six or eight of them were killed, the rest of them were severely wounded or maimed. But [others] were able to right the ship and put out the fires. It was just incredible the way that people… responded very well. In the month to come while under nightly attack, [the crew] even improvised booms so that the ship could fulfill its mission.”

Upon coming home to San Diego when the war ended, McNeil returned to San Diego State University under the GI Bill to complete his bachelor’s and master’s degrees in English, as well as to earn his lifetime teaching credential. He achieved his doctorate in curriculum and instruction at Columbia University and embarked on a teaching career, which included establishing a new combination junior-senior high school in San Diego in 1947 and teaching history, science, English, and social studies to the children of families that had migrated west since the Depression.

Called back to service at the beginning of the Korean War, McNeil was assigned to the staff of Admiral James Doyle, Sr., commander of Amphibious Group One. His first assignment was to create a war diary to record all units, equipment, and artillery under the admiral’s command in Korea. McNeil recounts with humor the fact that his teaching experience up until that point had not prepared him for the exacting style of writing that was required.

“I didn’t know anything about writing a war diary [so] I wrote a narrative of what was happening in our sectors,” McNeil says. “We had to monitor submarines and the air; (Gen. Douglas) MacArthur was in charge of the whole arena. I turned in what I thought was a war diary and they were upset. They said, ‘You taught English, we thought you could write a war diary.’ So I learned the correct way to write it quickly – in 24 hours, to be exact.”

McNeil earned four battle stars for his duty on board USS Achernar, USS New York, and MS Stephen Field, and retired from the military after serving as commander of the Underwater Demolition Team in the Navy Reserves. Joining the faculty at UCLA in 1956, he presided as co-director of Teacher Education along with Professor Jesse Bond. McNeil taught curriculum and instruction, specializing in the advancement of literacy, mathematics, and educational evaluation. In addition, his interest in the development of bilingual materials led him to work as a consultant with schools throughout the United States, Jamaica, Nicaragua, Guatemala, and Mexico.

While the perils of war could not be compared to an academic career, McNeil maintains that he has applied elements of his combat experience to his work in elementary and higher education, which spans more than seven decades. When asked how his military experiences influenced his career in education, McNeil stated that the most valuable thing he learned was that, “A new situation doesn’t frighten you too much.”

“The one thing you know is that you’re on borrowed time, always,” he says of making decisions while in combat or in the academic world. “You realize it’s just the luck of the draw that you’re even here. Whatever happens – you can’t take it so seriously.”

McNeil also emphasized the value of collaboration – in battle as well as in academia.

“I became accepting of those who are very different from me,” notes McNeil. “I’ve come to value them. I like the variation and the controversies in people. There are so many great people who have their individual ways of making something work. I saw that it’s not just on me – it’s about [working] with others’ knowledge and piggybacking on their good sense and competency.

“Those are probably the lessons I got out of Normandy and Okinawa,” McNeil observes. “Nothing would have succeeded if only a few had been making the decisions on that ship. It had to be inclusive. And whether it’s a ship or a school, everybody’s got to be open to different ideas.”