Wily WWII vet slipped away for the final time

James Darwin McNeil Sr.

Jim McNeil Jr. isn't the kind of fellow who beats around the bush. "We wouldn't be having this conversation right now if my dad hadn't drunk some warm beer that night during the war," he said. "This was before their 13th mission, a number that strikes fear into a lot of people. The whole crew drank a little too much."

The warm brew didn't set well with Staff Sgt. James Darwin "Pops" McNeil Sr., a World War II veteran who was a waist gunner on a B-17 Flying Fortress in the Army Air Corps.

"Pops got really, really sick on that mission," his son continued. "When they got back, the flight surgeon sent him to the infirmary. He was terribly dehydrated."

The hangover literally saved the young man. He was grounded when their plane was shot down on its next bombing run. Only the flight engineer, who was taken prisoner, survived the 14th mission.

For some time, I've been intending to interview the senior McNeil, who earned the Distinguished Flying Cross while serving with the 351st Bombardment Group. He flew 37 bombing missions out of England over Germany and the Baltic.

As a fan of WWII vets, I looked forward to chatting with him. I particularly wanted to hear firsthand how a hangover had saved his life during the war.

Unfortunately, Pops McNeil died a week ago today of natural causes in his son's home near Grants Pass. He was 95.

Yet his memories live on in those fortunate enough to have known him along the way. His loved ones also show the rest of us how elderly family members should be treated in the autumn of their lives. "He had a good life — he was very easygoing, optimistic," said his son, a former Air Force captain who flew fixed-wing aircraft in Vietnam.

In the interest of full disclosure, I should observe that my wife and I are friends of Jim and his wife, Sara Versteeg McNeil. In fact, Sara's father was Dr. Charles Versteeg Sr., the medical doctor in the Illinois Valley who once fished a wayward hook out of the back of my head when I was a kid. He had been a flight surgeon, by the way.

"Pops never really said a lot about the war when I was young," his son recalled. "Being a kid, I wasn't really thinking outside my own box. Mom had been the dominating force in the family. It wasn't until he came to live with us that we learned a lot about him, including his funny side."

After retiring from his quality-control job with B.F. Goodrich Co. in 1962 in Ohio, the senior McNeil and his wife, Virginia, eventually moved west to Oregon to be closer to family members. That included Jim and Sara's sons Dave, John and Chris, all graduates of North Medford High School.

When Dave was in junior high, his grandfather, at 77, volunteered to serve as a chaperone for Dave and 13 other junior high students on a trip to Europe.

"Sara and I couldn't go because we were working," Jim said of the 1994 trip. "Pops had been 25,000 feet overhead, so he figured he knew the area. They did some fundraising, and it worked out really well."

In a seventh-grade paper about the European excursion, Dave, now a science teacher at North Medford, indicated he was mighty proud of his grandpa.

"Not only could he keep up physically, walking and sightseeing, but he had a great sense of humor, which all the kids loved," he wrote.

In a freshman paper written in 2000 at North, Chris also wrote about their paternal grandfather.

"A hangover saved Staff Sergeant James Darwin McNeil Senior when his B-17 crew was shot down during a World War II bombing mission," the paper began.

Chris lives in San Antonio, where he plans to become a dentist like his brother John in Anchorage. Judging from his writing ability, he definitely has a career in journalism if he changes his mind.

Pops and Virginia, who were married 68 years, lived in the Medford area for about two decades before she died in 2010 at age 92.

At that point, Jim and Sara asked Pops to come live with them. They were living in Medford at the time but have since moved to the Grants Pass area.

"He said he would, under three conditions: if he could have his own salt shaker, his own room and never had to be cold again," Jim recalled, explaining his mom always kept their house too cool for Pops.

"And he wanted real half and half for his coffee," his son added.

With that happy arrangement, the trio would begin marking off Pops' bucket list with visits to his native Ohio, and on to Texas, Arizona and Anchorage.

"He liked to travel," his son said. "And he knew every place we went because he had been there before. He was sharp to the end."

A celebration of the old warrior's life begins at 2 p.m. Saturday, Nov. 10, at Fountain Plaza, 1441 Morrow Road, Medford.

Reach reporter Paul Fattig at 541-776-4496 or pfattig@mailtribune.com.

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