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More than four decades after Pfc. Melvin Newlin was killed in action during the Vietnam War and posthumously received the Congressional Medal of Honor, his hometown of Wellsville, Ohio, still celebrates his service through its many memorials that keep his story alive.
But when Melvin enlisted in the Marines in 1966, he was only 18, fresh out of high school, and the war in Vietnam was escalating.
“He said he wanted to do something for his country,” said Mary Crago, his sister. “I was — at first — all for it.” Crago was 14 years old, and she remembers Melvin coming home to tell his mother he had joined the Marines, that he was on his way out of the Rust Belt, out of Wellsville, which has a population under 4,000.
One of seven siblings in the Newlin family, he may have been trying to distinguish himself.
“He said he wanted to make a name for himself,” said Joe Newlin, his older brother. “Said people would remember him for what he’d done or what he didn’t do.” Melvin was staying with Joe at the time he enlisted, and Joe was there to see him off when he boarded the bus for basic.
When overseas, Melvin diligently wrote letters to Joe and other family members. The letters warned not to believe how the news was portraying the war, Joe said. He documented the killings, how sometimes they didn’t receive necessary supplies, how the men had to depend on each other, and often about the “tremendous heat,” Crago said.
Their parents were proud, Crago said, but worried for their son as the war drudged on.
“There were some things as kids my mother would not permit us to know,” she said.
But some things couldn’t stay hidden. When Melvin returned to Wellsville on leave, he told those he was close to he wouldn’t return.
“Melvin knew,” Crago said. “When he came home for his 30-day leave, he had a premonition he was going to get killed.
“He told my mom — I’ll never forget it, I was standing there, ‘When I go to ’Nam and I get killed, things will be taken care of.’”
Crago recalls the legend of Melvin, an outgoing person known for wearing a cowboy hat. Crago recalled Melvin turned his hat sideways before walking up the hill toward his fate on July 3, 1967, saying, “This is where I’m going to leave you, because I’m not coming back down alive.”
And it was there, in the Quang Nam Province of Vietnam, he demonstrated what President Nixon would later deem “conspicuous gallantry and intrepidity at the risk of his life above and beyond the call of duty.”
With his four fellow Marines killed and serious injuries sustained from a Viet Cong mortar and infantry assault, Melvin continued an accurate stream of fire at the enemy despite being repeatedly hit. When the Viet Cong attempted to overrun his position a third time, a grenade explosion wounded him and knocked him unconscious.
When he came to, it was clear the Viet Cong had thought him dead. This was a costly error on their part.
Melvin “crawled back to his weapon, and brought it to bear on the rear of the enemy causing havoc and confusion among them,” prevented them from firing a captured 106-recoilless weapon, then stopped the primary assault on Marine bunkers and fought off two more enemy assaults before he was fatally wounded on July 4, according to the Medal of Honor Citation.
Awarded nearly two years after his death, Melvin’s family received his Congressional Medal of Honor from President Nixon during a ceremony at the White House in Washington, D.C.
“I didn’t have him back,” Joe said. “Medals don’t mean everything, I reckon.”
Yet in Wellsville, healing was starting. The town had been coming together to honor its lost son.
“People said his funeral was one of the biggest funerals they’d ever seen,” Crago said.
Melvin, in spite of concern about making a name for himself, had been widely known for being kind and helpful — shoveling snow off sidewalks, cleaning yards, caring for others. Though the town despaired at his death, they believed he was the kind of man to make a sacrifice to protect his friends.
“Melvin was just a nice guy,” classmate FD Leyda said. “I was not surprised that he did such an honorable thing. I’m proud to say I knew Melvin when we were young.”
“It wasn’t difficult for me to believe,” Joe said. “I knew what he’d do. I knew what he was like.”
He said Melvin was the kind of person who would help anybody.
So it was in kind when the Wellsville Memorial Council, the local American Legion and VFW gathered donations from many Wellsville residents to create the Newlin Memorial Chapel. The Chapel, a small brick building with a glass front and pews inside, sits in Springhill Cemetery in Melvin’s hometown.
“The memorial is what we could afford,” Leyda said. “It is about honor, not about display.”
“You got the sense of unity, cooperation with this town,” Crago said. “They have done so, so much — and not just one organization or one person or anything. It was just a community thing, and this community really, really came together.”
Since then, the community has continued to preserve Melvin’s memory. He was inducted into the Lou Holtz Upper Ohio Valley Hall of Fame alongside such honorees as Dean Martin. A portion of Ohio Route 7 is named after him, with a billboard detailing his story. A teacher at one of the elementary schools made sure to tell students about him on Veterans Day each year. Newlin Hall at Quantico, Va., is named after him. Former East Liverpool Review reporter Lucille Huston covered the Wellsville area and worked to get him inducted into the Military Hall of Fame.
“I was just very impressed with what he had done in Vietnam and thought he should be honored,” Huston said. “The fact that he did this and received the Medal of Honor — the village became really proud to know that.”