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Some Enchanted Evening

Tom Needham '60 speaks at his Distinguished Alumnus Ceremony

St. John’s celebrates an uncommon soldier who became a warrior for the common good

With a knowing and sobering gaze, Maj. Gen. Thomas H. Needham ’60 (Ret) recently leveled his deep blue eyes at a student inside X200 on the Prep campus and spoke from the heart about what he saw at the battle of Dak To. 

“Unfortunately, I had to go identify the dead, record the circumstances, and cut their dog tags off,” he explained. “That was the most difficult part of my command.”

Shortly into his second tour in Vietnam, Needham was deployed to replace a company commander who had been killed in action near the border region of Vietnam, Laos, and Cambodia. It was November of 1967. A 25-year-old senior captain, he promptly assumed command of two airborne companies within the 1st Battalion, which sustained 225 KIAs and 775 wounded during an 11-day period of the three weeks of fighting that ensued. 

Now, 55 years later, it’s inconceivable that this kind, good-natured, and lighthearted old soldier could have borne witness to such carnage and inhumanity. And it is Needham’s effortless negotiation of this paradox that makes him the inspiration and force for good that he is today. 

In keeping with a tradition that’s now in its fourth decade, St. John’s Prep feted Needham earlier this month as the School’s Distinguished Alumnus for the 2021-22 academic year. The award honors a St. John’s graduate whose life exemplifies the spirit and values of the Xaverian Brothers and inspires current students to influence every situation they encounter for the benefit of others. 

As is customary, Needham, 79, spent part of the day that followed his award ceremony on campus, engaging in seminar-style discussion with Bill Britton’s War and Peace in a Dangerous World social studies class. He also visited the Brother’s Cemetery, interacted with staff and faculty, and was a guest at a luncheon in his honor.

Tom Needham '60 speaks to Bill Britton's War and Peace social studies class

“In every interaction I’ve had with Tom, I have left it a better person,” said Headmaster Ed Hardiman P’19 ’21 ’26. “He lives the values of the Xaverian Brothers, and his humility and compassion enabled him to engage in difficult and courageous work throughout his military career. Tom modeled simplicity in his focus on the job at hand and by way of his vocation serving his country. He embodies the zeal of the Brothers in both his steadfast commitment to authentic leadership and in his ability to navigate the challenges that life presents as a soldier, a leader, and as a human being. Lastly, Tom models trust—a trust in God, a trust in those who served alongside him, and trust in himself.”

Needham served his country in a decorated military career, and stands among the highest-ranking graduates of St. John’s to have served in the military. He entered the armed services in May of 1961, retired on November 1, 1998, and embodies one of a precious few who have risen from non-college-educated enlisted men to the rank of general. In a clear demonstration of his leadership capabilities, he served as an Executive Officer twice before the age of 25. Across his 30-year military career, he was promoted seven times. He also mailed his first alumni donation to the Prep as a 25-year-old captain in 1967, despite having spent the entirety of that year posted in Vietnam.

During the Vietnam War, Needham served four tours of duty and spent 34 months in-country. In the 1980s, he served as a Brigade Commander at Fort Richardson, Alaska, and he spent the latter years of his career as Deputy Commanding General of the XVIII Airborne Corps and Fort Bragg, N.C. in the late 1990s. He also served as a major base commander in Vicenza, Italy, and Camp Smith, Hawaii, in addition to other commands. He spent almost 14 years of his career at Fort Bragg. 

“I wouldn’t be here today and that (general’s) flag wouldn’t be in my office if not for St. John’s Prep,” said Needham, a native of Milton who boarded at St. John’s. “Because of the principles (the School) instilled in me, that took me from a boy who was bitter about his father’s (untimely) death and turned me into a seasoned, knowledgeable, physically fit man. St. John’s instilled in me discipline, physical fitness, standardization [habits of excellence], and morals. That’s what it takes to make a good combat unit.”

Tom Needham '60 at lunch with students and faculty

Some of Needham’s most important work took place during the early ’90s when he served as commander of Joint Task Force-Full Accounting for POW/MIA cases associated with America’s long, divisive war in three countries of Southeast Asia—Vietnam, Laos, and Cambodia. For 30 months from 1992 to 1994, Needham oversaw efforts to locate, recover, identify, and repatriate American soldiers’ remains via the Department of Defense’s MIA resolution system. 

As task force commander, Needham was part of an initiative that liaised with Vietnam’s Ministry of National Defense and Ministry of Foreign Affairs to negotiate access to crash sites as well as coordinate the logistics of transportation as part of search-and-recovery operations for U.S. servicemen who were unaccounted for. He testified about these operations before the ​​The Senate Select Committee on POW/MIA Affairs in 1992

This solemn and crucial work took place prior to the formal normalization of diplomatic relations between the U.S. and the Socialist Republic of Vietnam on July 11, 1995. The efforts of the task force prior to and during Needham’s command are credited with positively contributing to the eventual restoration of relations between the United States and Vietnam. The Veterans of Foreign Wars presented Needham with the VFW Armed Forces Award in 1994. He was personally recognized in President Bill Clinton’s 1994 Veterans Day address at Elmendorf Air Force Base in Anchorage for his MIA/POW work.

“The work Tom did in the 1990s to build a bridge with Vietnam and bring (the remains of) American servicemen home was instrumental in repairing the severed relationship between our two countries,” said Hardiman.

The Prep’s Distinguished Alumnus Award was established in 1993 to celebrate individuals who demonstrate a commitment to faith, family, and service; who have achieved professional success; and who have made significant contributions to society as volunteers, mentors, or benefactors. Maj. Gen. Needham joins an impressive group of forces for good in the world who have earned the honor, including recipients like Bishop Robert Reed ’77, President of The CatholicTV Network, in 2017, the late ALS advocate Peter Frates ’03 in 2018, Massachusetts Housing and Economic Development Secretary Mike Kennealy ’86 in 2016, and University of Alabama defensive coordinator Bill O’Brien ’88 in 2013.