Several weeks ago I had the fabulous opportunity to spend time with this week’s featured guest. My guest still possesses a stature and presence that command immediate respect.
John Mennitto served his country with distinction, extreme pride and bravery for 24 years in the US Army. Raised in Somerville (his dad was a World War II Navy veteran), Sergeant Major Mennitto grew up in a strict military family. “I learned discipline, how to march in parades and was involved with the Sons of The American Legion at a very young age,” he recalled.
He had met a WWII vet at an event and the man talked about his military service, which Sgt. Maj. Mennitto found "intriguing.” So on December 7, 1965, at age 17, he enlisted in the Army. He was sent to basic training at Fort Dix in New Jersey. His first duty assignment was at Fort Lewis in Washington state, where as a private he was assigned to the 4th Infantry Division as a company clerk. At age 19 he became a drill sergeant.
He recalled his first sergeant was “a really tough guy. He had a 'Merrill’s Marauders' patch on his arm.” Merrill’s Marauders was an Army long-range penetration special operations jungle warfare unit that fought in the Southeast Asia Theater during WWII, often engaging Japanese forces that were superior in number.
He was sent to drill instructor school, which he described as “basic training on steroids.” After becoming a drill sergeant, his career began to take off. He was sent to Thailand and other countries, performing “highly classified duties” (he is still unable to speak about details). He was promoted to staff sergeant in four years, then in early February 1972 he was sent to Vietnam.
I asked him what it was like to spend the holidays away from his family and he said, “It was tough. Good thing was, we were all in the same boat.” After a while he was able to talk about a couple of very powerful memories. “We were in Eastern Long Binh. There was supposed to be a ceasefire during the holidays. The VC (Viet Cong) never got the memo and crawled under a wire to our base and used a satchel charger to blow up helicopters and fuel tanks. Our choppers corralled about 40 VC in a place we called Monkey Valley and let loose on them.”
He also recalled being in Cant Hot: “The VC had hijacked an American ambulance and killed everyone in it. They broke through the initial barriers of our air base and were throwing grenades out of the ambulance. We found out minutes before. I had my M-72 Laws Rocket and let loose…and they were no more.”
He enjoyed an impressive record as a military recruiter; at one point he was in charge of seven recruiting stations. He had stops at West Point and the Army War College, and was stationed as a first sergeant in the 25th Infantry Division in Hawaii. While there he was promoted to sergeant major and went to the US Army Sergeant Major Academy in Fort Bliss, Texas. He was then sent to the 7th Infantry Division at Fort Ord in California, where he was the G-1/A6 sergeant major.
I asked Sgt. Maj. Mennitto about mentorship and he offered this: “It’s a good thing. Without them, I wouldn’t have been successful. Ted Jackson was my mentor. A great one. Still is.”
When asked about his return from Vietnam, Sgt. Maj. Mennitto shared the type of story that you never forget. “I flew into an airport in San Francisco in my uniform. We had to take a short helicopter ride to Oakland. The people onboard started to glare at me and make some nasty comments. Then, God sent me two angels—Hell’s Angels. I was sitting in between two massive Hell’s Angels guys. Right before takeoff, they yelled 'Enough! Now you people apologize to the sergeant.' It was unbelievable. I’ll never forget that.”
When asked about his overall military experience he said, “I wouldn’t have done it any other way. If I could have stayed in the Army til I died, I would have. Two things I’ll never forget—my recruiter and my drill sergeant.”
Of all the awards he has, Sgt. Maj. Mennitto is most proud of two; the Army Ring (the highest award in recruiting), presented by General Maxwell Thurmond in 1980; and his Sergeant Major Ring, which he received in 1987.
Sgt. Maj. John Mennitto, thank you for your service to our great country.
Waynes Soares can be reached at email@example.com