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Friday, May 7, 2010
Sgt. John Scott Pinney (1942-1969)

He would have been 68 years old today.

I'm taking a brief break from politics today, and for good reason: It's John Scott Pinney's birthday. Or it would have been, if he were still alive.

For Veterans Day last year I wrote a brief tribute to Captain John F. Whitaker, US Army (Retired). He's a former Special Forces guy who moved into my neighborhood a few years ago. That short essay led in a direction I had not planned. I've been working on a book about Capt. Whitaker for the past few months.

In that essay, I told a story Capt. Whitaker has told in my hearing several times, about Sergeant Pinney. Here's what I wrote:

Sergeant John Pinney

I know from experience that one of the first stories you're likely to hear from Captain Whitaker is the story of Sergeant John Pinney. He was "smart as a whip" and a graduate of UC-Davis, so the Army made him a sergeant and gave him a squad of regular infantry to command in Vietnam. Competent, generous, moral, reflective, and kind, he belonged on a recruiting poster or in a Normal Rockwell painting. He cared about his men, looked after them. I have heard Whitaker speak of him on several occasions with great admiration and affection -- and with grief. If the grieving survivor in the Lynn Teter painting were Whitaker, Pinney would be one of the soldiers whose reflections he would see in the polished black granite.

The regular infantry battalion of which Sergeant Pinney's squad was a part had no demolition specialist, so Whitaker was temporarily assigned to them. They were on a mission one day, when Whitaker heard chickens acting strangely in several directions in the distance. He had some training and experience the commanding officer didn't have, and he knew that the chickens were making noises chickens don't usually make in the daytime. He also knew that the Viet Cong carried live chickens for food, and he figured that two and two pretty clearly added up to four. The enemy was all around them.

He went to the CO and quietly told him there was a problem, that the jungle was full of VC. The CO ordered him to be silent, so he went back to finding and disarming booby traps. Whitaker was with Sergeant Pinney's squad four hours later, when the VC finally attacked from every direction, with rifles, mortars, "and everything else." The Americans eventually escaped, but not without casualties. The remarkable and beloved Sergeant Pinney was hit and killed. Drenched with Pinney's blood, Whitaker carried the body to the CO, where a conversation ensued which included the words, "If you had listened."

At the time, I didn't have the correct spelling of Sgt. Pinney's name, so I was having some difficulty finding information about him and making contact with his family. Last weekend, I got the clue I needed. This week, I found him and made contact with his son and grandson. I also discovered that today is his birthday.

I found two photos; here's one. He looks like he belongs on a recruiting poster, as advertised. There's also a swimming pool named in his honor in Ridgecrest, California. In connection with that, I found this tribute to Sgt. Pinney by a former comrade at arms, Rich Cardillo of Allentown, New Jersey:

I just want to tell you about my friendship with John Pinney. I didn't know him when he lived in the desert, but I heard much about his life and family when we were in Vietnam together. John was one of my squad leaders and I was his Platoon Leader, but he was a good friend even more. We would often talk about his experiences at Bakersfield College and all about his Dad and sisters in China Lake. He was very proud of his Dad's service in WW2 . Being from New Jersey, John would always tell me that what I needed was to live a year in California to round out my education. . . . Though I was not with him when he became a casualty, I know he was a hero because he was one of the finest men I have ever met.

I didn't know until two days ago that today would have been the 68th birthday of a very good man, John Scott Pinney, who instead gave his life in our defense on February 16, 1969, in the Tay Ninh province of Vietnam.

This seems like as good a day as any to remember Sgt. Pinney and his sacrifice. Thanks for helping with that.

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