Veteran was superintendent of Jefferson Memorial Cemetery
By Patrick Cloonan
Published: Saturday, July 6, 2013, 12:01 a.m.
John D. Neel of Pleasant Hills, who died on Wednesday, is remembered for being part of what newsman Tom Brokaw called “the greatest generation,” those who served in World War II.
“I'm not sure if the title ‘Greatest Generation' is the right phrase to use,” Neel said in 2010. “We were just doing our job.”
That job was to fly 50 combat missions over Italy as a B-25 bomber pilot in the 12th Air Force, 37th Wing, 321st Group, 446th Squadron.
“He mostly liked to reminisce about his flying days,” state Rep. Bill Kortz, D-Dravosburg, said of Neel, who would have turned 90 on Aug. 7.
“The service men and women think they were just doing their jobs,” said John F. McCabe, president of the Joseph A. Dugan Jr. Hall of Valor at Soldiers & Sailors Memorial Hall & Museum in Oakland.
Neel did his job well enough to earn the Distinguished Flying Cross, during an April 12, 1945, attack on a railroad bridge at Maribor, Slovenia.
“Upon the commencement of the bomb run, intense anti-aircraft fire enveloped the formation, destroying one B-25 and damaging 17 others,” his citation reads. “Courageously maintaining his plane on course for a perfect run over the objective in the face of this continuing barrage, Lt. Neel enabled his bombardier to release his bombs with precision accuracy on this vital bridge.”
It was recalled in 2010 when Neel joined more than 600 men and women inducted into the Hall of Valor.
“I think it's wonderful that any veteran, especially my father, gets just recognition for what they did in that war,” Neel's son Harry said.
John Neel graduated from McKeesport High School in 1941. He was attending Pennsylvania State College (now University) when the Japanese attacked Pearl Harbor.
“When that happened, everybody wanted to go in,” John Neel recalled. “I enlisted in early 1942, but there was a little problem with my birth certificate. So I didn't get sworn in until June of 1942.”
He didn't get called to active duty for another year. Neel went through advanced pilot training and was commissioned as a first lieutenant in June 1944.
Neel's choice of the Air Force, then the Army Air Corps, was influenced by the years he spent at old Bettis Field, predecessor to Allegheny County Airport.
His father Harry C. Neel was president of the airfield. John Neel recalled seeing Charles Lindberg landing there and airmail flights take off.
When he returned to civilian life Neel became superintendent of Jefferson Memorial Cemetery, which Harry C. Neel founded in 1929. He remained involved with the family enterprise up until the time of his death.
“He was a solid Republican, a good guy, but he always had my signs in his yard,” said Kortz, who knew John Neel and the younger Harry Neel.
“Every year they do a big Memorial Day service (at Jefferson Memorial Cemetery),” Kortz said. “I would have to alternate between McKeesport and Jefferson.”
Kortz said the elder Neel “cared about people, he cared about the community.”
Neel served in numerous roles, including that of chairman of the Pleasant Hills Zoning Hearing Board and president of the West Jefferson Hills Chamber of Commerce.
John and Daisy Jean Neel were married for 62 years. She passed away less than a month after her husband was honored by the Hall of Valor.
The couple had four sons, three of whom survive them, as well as eight grandchildren and four great-grandchildren.
The cemetery's funeral home is handling arrangements.
Services are set for Monday at noon at Pleasant Hills Community Presbyterian Church.
Patrick Cloonan is a staff writer for Trib Total Media. He can be reached at 412-664-9161, ext. 1967, or firstname.lastname@example.org.
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