CONWAY — “He was a true leader. You just knew it when you first saw him. We would have gone to the gates of hell if he had said that was the thing to do. Our loyalty was to him; loyalty to country and even the Marine Corps all came secondarily — the greatest shame you could have had was to screw up in front of him (and you didn’t even want to come close to even remotely finding out what that might be like). He brought the best out of all of us. He was my hero.”

So spoke Gary Neely, 73, of Pennsylvania, who was an 18-year-old Marine lance corporal and company gunner when he first met Lt. Frank McCarthy on Neely’s first tour of duty in Vietnam in 1967.

A veteran of two tours in ’Nam, the second as a gunner on helicopters, Neely went on to college after his service, working as a petroleum geologist before founding his own geology company.

He shared his story about McCarthy after attending a book-signing party held by McCarthy and wife, Terry, at the Lobster Trap on West Side Road in North Conway on April 10 to celebrate the launch of McCarthy’s new book, “LIMA-3 and the Mustang Grunt,” published by FriesenPress.

It was the first of several launchings by McCarthy, now 83, as he made the rounds to promote the book, including at the Conway Public Library; at Marine Corps Base Camp Lejeune in North Carolina, where he spoke at a Vietnam Veterans Appreciation Day and then had a book signing at a nearby Barnes & Noble, and most recently this Thursday at the breakfast meeting of the North Conway Rotary Club.

McCarthy lives up to the adage, “Once a Marine, always a Marine,” in almost everything he does — whether doing yard work, hiking the Appalachian Trail with Terry (in 1988); serving for many years as American Legion Post 95 and Post 46 commander; representing Conway in the state Legislature; or writing a book.

McCarthy spent 30 years in the Marine Corps, both active duty and reserve. His tenure included two combat tours in Vietnam as a platoon commander and combined action company commander plus an additional tour with the Joint Casualty Resolution Center, searching for prisoners of war and MIAs (Missing in Action).

During his service, he earned three Bronze Stars for valor and two Purple Hearts for wounds received in combat. He has been married for 42 years to Terry (Wade) McCarthy, a Conway native whom he met in Massachusetts after his military service. She currently chairs the Carroll County Board of Commissioners and has long been an active volunteer in the community.

Frank McCarthy’s love of country, the Corps and most of all, the men he was responsible for training and leading burns across the pages of the book, which is written in a first-person salute to those courageous young men who, like Neely, revered him.

“I wrote the book for them. It took me 30 years to write it, and now that it’s done, I am proud to have told the story of the honor of having served with them,” said McCarthy in a recent interview.

“At first it was just going to be sort of a memoir for my grandchildren, great-grandchildren and so on. But as I started researching, going through action reports, command chronologies and talking to other Marines who were with me at the time, it finally dawned on me that it can’t be about me. It’s got to be about the troops. The suffering that they went through, that we all went through, but particularly them.

“And the fact that up until now, the truth has never been told about Vietnam — you go to a theater and you see a movie like’ ‘Platoon’ or ‘Apocalypse Now’ — a bunch of madmen running around raping women and killing kids. That’s not how it happened,” exclaimed McCarthy.

“These kids put in so much, suffered so much, sacrificed so much. And then when they got home, you know what happened? They got spit at! And I said, ‘No, that’s what I got into. It’s got to be about them; that they were good.’ We’ve got to change this John Kerry stuff going around. And that’s why I wrote it. It took me a long time to do it, more than 30 years. And I can tell you, in the foreword of the book, it says all of that, that I just said to you, but it says a little more.”

In an early chapter, McCarthy recounts the start of his military career as an enlisted man and brings readers along on his journey, of how through grit, hard work and field smarts he was promoted to an officer — hence the word “mustang” in the 280-page book’s title, referring to the military term used to describe those who rise up through the ranks of enlisted personnel to become an officer and leader of a platoon.

It takes readers in gripping detail of what it is like to not only battle the Viet Cong in the thick jungle-like maze of Vietnam but also getting caught in a typhoon in a “harrowing sea voyage that nearly ended their tour before it began,” as the book jacket notes.

Then they got in country.

“Though a ‘cherry’ unit with no combat experience, within three short months that all changed. Eighty-two of those first 90 nights were spent in the mud-filled foxholes or ambush positions, covered with leeches, shivering through the limitless — and cold — monsoon rains and incessant enemy fire. Days of endless patrols, in an area laced with thousands of mines and booby traps as well as the ever-present but often unseen enemy. As difficult as those first three months were, McCarthy says it was a picnic compared to what was to follow.”

The book jacket adds that “recounting his first 14 months in Vietnam in gripping detail, McCarthy draws on his own memory as well as official records to provide an unflinching firsthand account of what was like to serve — and lead — as a Marine during the Vietnam War.”

McCarthy, both in the book and his recent interview with the Sun, recounts just how shocked he was the first time he met his platoon at Camp Pendleton in San Diego. They were so young, he thought.

“I had about 10 years in the Marine Corps when I first met my platoon at Camp Pendleton, California. And they were just for me, they were all right out of boot camp. The first day I ever saw them in formation, they looked like 13- or 14-year old kids standing there, you know? I questioned myself, having become an officer and up through the ranks, do I really have what it takes? You’re taking those guys to Vietnam! They’re going to be in my hands for the next 14 or 15 months. I was not sure that I did have what it takes. And I just stood there in awe for about two or three minutes — they were not what I expected (though what I expected, I don’t know). But they turned out to be terrific people,” said McCarthy.

Of the original 46 men with whom he deployed from the States, all but four made it home to their loved ones.

It is his proudest achievement, as he writes at the end of the book. “To the last breath I take on this earth, I shall think of them always and cherish my time with each of them, including the Marines of Hotel Company, 7th Marine Regiment (for whom he had the “distinct honor to serve as their company commander” on his second tour in Vietnam from 1969-70). Brothers all,” he writes.

He notes that during World War II, the average number of days per year a Marine spent in combat was approximately 45 days.

“Granted, they were 45 days of terribly violent combat,” McCarthy wrote. “However, for those in the Pacific Theater, once the island they landed on was secure, they went back to Australia for 10 months or more to prepare for the next beachhead to be taken. The average length of combat for thousands of young men in Vietnam averaged eight times larger, or more than 300 days.

“In Vietnam,” he continued, “the Marine Corps casualty rate was more than double that of any other service. Marines suffered a total of more than 103,000 killed or wounded. One-quarter of all Marines who served in Vietnam were either killed or wounded, almost double the percentage of any other service. Not many Americans are aware that the Marine Corps sustained 13,000 more casualties in Vietnam than during all of World War II.

“Finally, as a result of  Agent Orange, every American veteran is still fighting the war. Notwithstanding the fact they were considerably younger, Vietnam veterans, for the past 30 or more years, have been dying from cancer and other diseases at a considerably higher rate than WWII or Korean war veterans.

“Once I realized all the above,” he concludes in the book’s foreword, “my overall purpose in writing this manuscript changed, as did the audience for whom it was intended.”

A sample selection from the book brings the reader right into the heat of the moment.

“Just prior to mortar-round hitting, the word was passed to the squad leaders that we were in condition red, meaning that the enemy was inside our defensive parameter. Contrary to the instructions regarding condition red and convinced my corpsman had been hit by that mortar round, I jumped out of my fighting hole and began searching for what I was certain was a wounded corpsman. I couldn’t see very well due to the pitch blackness coupled with the partial loss of my night vision from the flash of the mortar round ...”

McCarthy tells each tale with a command for remembering the action, smells and emotions of being there.

From stories about ambushes, mortar attacks, sniper fire, momentous hill assaults and selfless combat cohesiveness, as well as humorous tales about company camaraderie, quirks of fate and platoon idiosyncrasies, “LIMA-3 and the Mustang Grunt” is a fascinating, truthful tale that belongs on every military historian’s bookshelf as well as anyone who has ever wondered just what it is like to be engaged in dedicated service to one’s country.

Copies are available at Amazon, Barnes & Noble and North Conway’s White Birch Books and through McCarthy by calling (603) 356-9160 or emailing serendipity922@gmail.com.

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