Just because you don’t have the best upbringing doesn’t mean you can’t go on to do great things.
That was the case for Marine Corps Private 1st Class Melvin E. Newlin. He didn’t have the ideal life growing up, but the actions he performed in Vietnam to save his fellow Marines during combat made him a name that will forever be remembered. For his sacrifice, he received the Medal of Honor.
Newlin was born Sept. 27, 1948, in Wellsville, Ohio, a small town about an hour west of Pittsburgh, Pennsylvania. Newlin’s parents, Joseph and Ruth, had seven other children and struggled to support them all, according to a 2004 article in the Pittsburgh Post-Gazette. So, Newlin spent time in foster care growing up.
By his senior year of high school, Newlin had briefly reunited with his parents. According to his brother Joe, that ended after a bout of apparent domestic violence, he told the Post-Gazette. So, the teenaged Newlin moved in with Joe and his wife.
Newlin graduated from Wellsville High School in 1966 — the only one of the siblings to get a diploma, said another brother, Richard.
About a month later, at the age of 17, Newlin enlisted in the Marine Corps. He became a machine gunner with Company F of the 2nd Battalion, 5th Marine Regiment, 1st Marine Division.
In November 1966, Newlin was sent to Vietnam. According to a 1969 edition of the Ohio newspaper The Evening Review, he had been wounded a few times in various battles before his Medal of Honor-earning actions. He was also given the opportunity to take a desk job but refused, the paper said.
On the night of July 3, 1967, Newlin’s unit was at an outpost at Nong Son Mountain, southwest of Da Nang, when about 400 Northern Vietnamese Army and Viet Cong fighters launched a savage and well-coordinated attack. Newlin and four other members of his platoon were manning a key position on the outpost’s perimeter. Quickly, all four of his comrades were killed.
Newlin himself was seriously injured, but he kept fighting. Propping himself against his machine gun, the 18-year-old blasted the enemy charging at him with a deadly stream of fire. Newlin was repeatedly hit by small-arms fire, but his efforts repelled the enemy’s attempts to overrun his position twice.
During a third attempt, a grenade explosion knocked Newlin unconscious. The Viet Cong guerrillas assumed he was dead, so they charged past him and continued their assault on the main force behind Newlin’s platoon.
When Newlin regained consciousness, he crawled back to his machine gun and sprayed fire into the backs of the enemy soldiers, who were thrown off by the unexpected attack. Newlin then noticed more enemy soldiers trying to use a recoilless weapon they’d captured from the Americans, so he shifted his fire onto those men, inflicting heavy casualties and keeping them from firing the captured weapon.
Newlin shifted his focus back to the main enemy force. They were keenly aware of him now, so the enemy soldiers stopped their assault on the Marines’ bunkers and turned their fire toward him. Newlin fought off two more assaults before enemy fire finally killed him in the early hours of July 4, 1967.
Newlin’s efforts singlehandedly threw the enemy’s assault into chaos, causing them to lose their momentum. The slowdown was long enough for more Marines to organize a defense and beat off the secondary attack.
For his selfless courage and unwavering devotion to duty, Newlin posthumously earned the Medal of Honor. President Richard M. Nixon presented the medal to his parents during a White House ceremony on March 18, 1969.
Newlin’s remains were returned to the U.S. and interred in Spring Hill Cemetery in his hometown. His medal was eventually donated to the Museum of the Soldier in La Porte, Indiana.
Newlin’s name is a recognizable one for people in his town and for Marines who serve today. The Marine Corps Warfighting Lab is housed in Newlin Hall in Quantico, Virginia. A section of highway between his native Wellsville and East Liverpool, Ohio, was also named in his honor.
This article is part of a weekly series called “Medal of Honor Monday,” in which we highlight one of the more than 3,500 Medal of Honor recipients who have earned the U.S. military’s highest medal for valor.