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Veteran Spotlight: Army Sgt. John Magnarelli

By Wayne SoaresSpecial to iBerkshires
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PLYMOUTH, Mass. — John Magnarelli served his country in the Army's 82nd Airborne Division and the 11th Armored Cavalry Regiment in Vietnam from May 4, 1969, to April 10, 1970, as a sergeant. 
He grew up in North Quincy and was drafted into the Army on Aug. 12, 1968. 
"I had been working in a factory, Mathewson Machine Works, as a drill press operator since I graduated high school. It was a solid job and I had fallen into a comfortable routine," he said. "That morning, I left home with my dad, who drove me to the South Boston Army Base, where all new recruits were processed into service. There was no big send off — he just dropped me off on his way to work. He shook my hand and said, 'good luck and stay safe.'"
He would do his basic training at Fort Jackson, S.C., which was built in 1917 and named after President Andrew Jackson. 
"It was like a city — 20,000 people, 2,500 buildings and 50 firing ranges on 82 square miles," he said. "I learned one thing very quickly, that you never refer to your rifle as a gun. That would earn you the ire of the drill sergeant and typically involve a great deal of running." 
He continued proudly, "after never having fired a gun in my life, I received my marksmanship badge at the expert level."
He was assigned to Fort Benning, Ga., for Combat Leadership School then sent to Vietnam.
It would not only be lack of sleep that would plague him and his fellow soldiers, Magnarelli said, but mosquitoes, leeches and red ants.
"Their bites were worse than a bee sting," he recalled. 
Magnarelli would go out on ambush patrols and recon sweeps.
"You could never bunch up in open spaces. We kept off of well-traveled paths too. We spent a lot of time walking through rice paddies and small streams which made us soaking wet and uncomfortable," he remembered. "Nighttime was the
worst — there's no sound except by the buzzing insects. 
"I was anxious and scared, didn't know what the hell was out there and my eyes keep moving because if I stare at something too long, I'll swear it's moving."
Magnarelli spoke with admiration of one of his regimental commanders: Col. George S. Patton IV, son of Gen. George S. Patton, the World War II hero. 
"From all accounts, he was exactly like his father as a military tactician and leader," said Magnarelli. "He was absolutely fearless and would often leave his command helicopter and jump on an Armored Cavalry Assault Vehicle to lead a
battle directly from the ground. He had two Silver Stars, the Distinguished Flying Cross and two Purple Hearts."
He recalled the tragic story of another mentor, his 1st Sgt. Willie Johnson. 
"He was a career military soldier from South Carolina, had a wife and six kids. He was firm but fair and full of life. We always called him 'Top,' which is a sign of affection for a first sergeant," Magnarelli said. "He was killed by a rocket propelled grenade just a few feet from me …
"One thing about combat is there is no rhyme or reason why some men survive and others don't. It's difficult as I recount the events of that night, but it is a step closer to the closure that I will never ever achieve ... memories start to fade about events and even the names of comrades we were close to and now are forgotten. 
"But for the rest of my life I will remember Willie and all that he taught me. Mostly I'll remember him as a friend."
Magnarelli was awarded the Bronze Star for Valor, Combat Infantryman's Badge, Vietnam Cross of Gallantry and the Army Commendation Medal. He has written about his time in Vietnam in the memoir "11B10: Memories of a Light Weapons Infantryman in Vietnam." 
Sgt. John Magnarelli, thank you for your service to our great country and welcome home.
Wayne Soares is the host of the popular new veterans cooking show, "The Mess Hall" that airs Saturdays on NBC's NECN at 9:30 a.m. He also entertains our troops around the globe and is the host and producer of the Vietnam veterans documentary "Silent Dignity – The Chapter That Never Ends." He can be reached at


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