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Belated medals reward secret Cold War Mission

November 09, 1998

Don SneckenbergerBy BRYN MICKLE / Staff Writer

photo: RICHARD T. MEAGHER / staff photographer




Three days into a 14-day trip aboard the USS Breckenridge in September 1958, Don Sneckenberger knew he had embarked on a secret operation to help fight the Chinese Communist threat.

What the U.S. Army private first class didn't know was that the mission was so secret it would take almost 40 years for the U.S. government to recognize his role in the mission.

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"Our service records just showed we were in El Paso," Sneckenberger said.

Texas was a far cry from the monsoons and the artillery shells that rained down off the Chinese coast.

Sneckenberger, 63, was part of a 710-member U.S. Army battalion sent to Formosa, now Taiwan, to help Gen. Chiang Kai-Shek and his Chinese Nationalist forces defend themselves against the communists.

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Members of "Operation Hurry Up," Sneckenberger and his fellow members of the 2nd Missile Battalion, 71st Artillery had some 40 Nike-Hercules anti-aircraft missiles to protect against a massive Chinese Communist offensive.

Sneckenberger said the ground-to-air missiles were 60-feet long with booster rockets that could knock several closely grouped enemy planes out of the sky.

Sneckenberger spent almost a year on Formosa working to put the missiles in place and train his Chinese Nationalist counterparts to fire them.

Aware that the communists could launch missiles at Formosa at any time, Sneckenberger listened as troops on the Chinese mainland constantly shelled the islands of Quemoy and Matsu.

"They shelled one day and cleaned their guns the next," he said.

The mission came to an end in August 1959 when Sneckenberger's battalion boarded a ship for the return trip to the U.S., leaving the missiles behind for the Nationalist Army.

Back in the states, Sneckenberger finished his active duty in April 1960 and spent four more years in the Army Reserves.

Now the vice president of Hagerstown Block Company and a member of the Morning Star Singers gospel trio, Sneckenberger never knew his government had not recognized his service in Formosa until he got an e-mail from a fellow battalion member earlier this year.

Some members of the battalion, now high-ranking military officers, had realized the mistake and set out to rectify it.

The Army searched morning attendance reports from the battalion's days on Formosa and the error was corrected.

The result was a pair of medals from the U.S. and Taiwan governments and an amended military record that makes Sneckenberger eligible for membership in the Veterans of Foreign Wars and burial in a military cemetery.

The battalion reunited in El Paso in September, giving 86 serviceman and their families a chance to talk about the experience.

Sneckenberger, who said the error did not make him bitter, said Veterans Day is a day of pride for him.

During his time on Formosa, Sneckenberger said, he was just trying to get through the rain and sloppy weather. Now, he said, he realizes he played a role in protecting free China from communism.

Sneckenberger said he thinks we in this country take our liberties for granted and suggested people need to do more to ensure those liberties are not lost.

"We're in a time when we're letting down and not dedicated enough to protection," he said.

Sneckenberger's fellow gospel group singers, Ann Garland and Carolyn Everitts, said they are proud of their friend and grateful for the service of all veterans.

"We consider it a privilege to have our association with Don," Garland said. "We're proud of the veterans and we appreciate the sacrifice they've all made."

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