Retired Marine Capt. John J. McGinty, who died Jan. 17, helped save fellow Marines and repel waves of enemy attackers, despite being wounded, as a staff sergeant in Vietnam. (Marine Corps)
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President Lyndon B. Johnson shakes hands with 2nd Lt. John J. McGinty III of Laurel Bay, S.C., at the White House on March 12, 1968. Johnson conferred the Medal of Honor, for heroism in Vietnam, to McGinty and a fellow Marine officer, Maj. Robert J. Modrzejewski, center, of Annapolis, Md., in an East Room ceremony. (AP Photo)
Retired Marine Capt. John James McGinty III, whose heroic actions in Vietnam against impossible odds were recognized with a Medal of Honor, died Jan. 17 in Beaufort, S.C.
The 73-year-old warrior had been battling bone cancer, his son told reporters. He was buried Jan. 23 during a ceremony at the Beaufort National Cemetery.
Despite serious injuries, McGinty, then a staff sergeant, led his platoon through a pitched battle July 18, 1966, that resulted in heavy casualties, including nearly 500 enemy dead.
The company he served with, including his platoon of just 32 men, faced off with more than 1,000 regular North Vietnamese Army soldiers in a four-hour assault. Those around him, including his commanding officer, then-Capt. Robert Modrzejewski, who was also awarded the nation’s highest valor award for his actions that day, credit the survival of the platoon to McGinty’s calm demeanor and selfless disregard for his own well being.
During the fight, McGinty crawled across hundreds of meters of terrain that was swept with machine gun and mortar fire to reach two squads that had been cut off from the rest of the platoon.
“He came over to our squad, which was separated, to let us know where to direct our fire,” said Earl Bucko, a rifleman in one of the squads McGinty worked to save despiteinjuries that would later cost him an eye. “He did all this jumping around and coordinating, not taking any issue with his safety. When it got really bad — it got hand to hand in some places — he killed some really close himself.”
The fateful battle was the culmination of a four-day-long mission in Quang Tri province as part of Operation Hastings. His unit — 3rd Battalion, 4th Marines — was deployed to the area July 15 to investigate intelligence that Viet Cong guerillas were in the area. Instead, they found aregiment of well-supplied North Vietnamese Army regulars.
“It was a hot landing zone when we came in,” Bucko said. “There were bullets coming through the helicopter as our company was landing. As two more helicopters were coming in, they wrapped props and crashed. It was a pretty terrible situation.”
Bucko said the company took to the jungle, but kept losing its point men to snipers. After a large firefight, the Marines killed the sniper and took a North Vietnamese field hospital, where they set up security and hunkered down for several days.
“We didn’t sleep for three days. We got hit every night. We had no help,” he said.
Fight of their lives
When the unit was ordered to move out, Bucko and another rifleman were dispatched to head across an open, bombed-out area and fill canteens. He sensed something wasn’t right.
“I told the guard I felt like there were 1,000 eyes looking at us,” he said. “It seemed too quiet. We headed back to our squad, handed out canteens and started to move out. When our platoon got into that bombed-out area, I heard ‘boom, boom, boom.’ The mortars started to go and, at that moment, I knew we were being ambushed. There were mortars, machine gun fire, small-arms fire.”
Bucko, McGinty, Modrzejewski and the rest of the company found themselves in the fight of their lives.
When the attack started, McGinty’s platoon, which included Bucko’s squad, had already taken a number of casualties and so had been assigned to rear security as the battalion attempted to leave the area.
“We thought it was going to be a pretty easy deal. Wait for the engineers, blow up the helicopters and leave,” McGinty said during a 2011 video interview with the publishers of the book “Medal of Honor: Portraits of Valor Beyond the Call of Duty.”
“We had been resupplied with ammunition the day before. They just piled it in on us,” McGinty said. “And the other two platoons had just taken off in front of me; they left a lot of ammunition there.
“Being mister drill instructor, I went around and made them pick up all the ammo because I wasn’t leaving it for the North Vietnamese. Everybody bitched at me all the way back to the LZ about having to carry this. I promised them, ‘When we get back there, I’ll make those platoon leaders take this ammo.’ When I got there, there were no platoon leaders, and we had a lot of ammunition. If we hadn’t had all that ammunition, I don’t know whether we would have made it or not,” he said.
“We were assaulted by, I think, about a regiment plus of North Vietnamese troops who got on line in front of us, about 400 yards away, dressed to the right and blew bugles and waved flags. [They] whistled and charged at us and I thought I was in a John Wayne movie or something,” he said in the interview. “It was almost Civil War stuff.
“I turned to the radio operator before he was wounded and I said, jeez, look at this, it looks like a real war movie. And he went, ‘Oh, you crazy thing you.’ But it did. It was amazing. They never stopped. They made three assaults. The platoon — I had 32 men because we had taken some casualties earlier — had no place to go, no place to hide, so we just took the assaults. We broke the first wave, and I think we broke the second wave up pretty well.”
After braving what seemed like certain death to reach Bucko’s squad, McGinty began assisting.
“Finding 20 men wounded and the medical corpsman killed, he quickly reloaded ammunition magazines and weapons for the wounded men and directed their fire upon the enemy,” his Medal of Honor citation states.
When a determined enemy attempted to outflank his position, he personally killed five with his .45-caliber 1911 pistol. On the verge of being overrun, he redirected artillery fire to within 50 yards of his position.
“The destructive firepower routed the enemy, who left an estimated 500 bodies on the battlefield,” according to his citation.
Bucko said it was a sight to behold.
“I remember Captain Modrzekewski and Staff Sergeant McGinty over by a small tree,” Bucko said. “They were on the radio together.”
In his 2011 interview, McGinty recalled a colonel overhead in a helicopter asking if he needed close-air support.
“He asked me what I wanted first, and I said ‘napalm.’ All my troops say, ‘Thank God for napalm.’ That’s one of the mantras. But the Navy and Marine pilots put those things right on the button, and we were able to hold off the assault,” he said.
Bucko vividly recalls the terrifyingly close bombardment.
“When the airstrikes came in, the bombs were so close they would throw you up off the ground, the shockwave was so terrible,” Bucko said. “And I remember seeing the napalm come in from the east side. The [F-4] Phantoms came in and dropped bombs almost on us because we were almost being overrun. And like I said, Staff Sergeant McGinty was keeping everything under control. And Modrzejewski was calling in air support. It lasted most of the afternoon. It finally ceased. We regrouped and prepared for a counterattack that never happened. We checked out our wounded and our dead. Not a lot of us got out of there alive.”
Modrzejewski credited McGinty, one of two enlisted platoon commanders in the company, with playing a central role in repelling the enemy.
“John was kind of the rear guard of the rear guard,” Modrzejewski recently told Marine Corps Times. “That’s where he lost his eye. Through John’s efforts he really helped with rear guard action. He inflicted a lot of casualties on the enemy by his leadership and calling in close-air support.
A life of service
McGinty enlisted in the Marine Corps Reserve in 1957, then transferred to active duty the following year. A stint as a drill instructor with 2nd Recruit Training Battalion at Marine Corps Recruit Depot Parris Island, S.C., in 1962, had a profound effect on him and helped mold him into such an effective leader, Modrzejewski said.
“He was close to his troops because he was enlisted and a drill instructor and spent some time at Parris Island,” he said. “So the men in his platoon respected him and looked at him as one of them. He knew what they were capable of doing. He was always the guy who was very firm, but also very fair. He treated everybody equally.”
After his service in Vietnam, McGinty returned to Parris Island for a second tour as a DI before his promotion
to second lieutenant Aug. 8, 1967, according to the Marine Corps History Division.
He remained in uniform through retirement in October 1976, then went to work for the Veterans Administration, the precursor to today’s Veterans Affairs Department. Despite leaving uniform, he maintained a strong connection to Parris Island, Modrzejewski, said. Eventually, he decided to settle in Beaufort. He would hang out around the base and surrounding towns, and he loved speaking with troops. He even made trips to Iraq, including one in 2006, to speak to deployed service members.
“He was also very good with the Wounded Warrior Project. He would visit troops at Balboa [Navy Medical Center] here in San Diego,” Modrzejewski said. “I don’t think I’ve ever heard anyone say a bad word about him.”
Above all, McGinty is remembered as a gentleman who left a lasting impression on those who met him, even if briefly.
Veteran Marine Cpl. Kevin Conroy, a combat engineer who served from 1975 until 1978, said he met McGinty at a Marine Corps birthday luncheon in Boston. Conroy was playing Scottish and Irish music on his bagpipes outside the hotel where the event was being held. As he turned to head back into the building, someone — whom he later recognized as McGinty — asked him if he would play him and a few other Marines a tune.
“I said, ‘I think I know something you’ll like,” Conroy told Marine Corps Times. “I fired the pipes up and played The Marines’ Hymn, of course! When I finished, each of the guys shook my hand and we wished each other a happy birthday. Mr. McGinty was the last one to shake my hand. He slipped one of his challenge coins into my hand and said, ‘Happy birthday, Marine! Semper Fi!’ I won’t ever forget the grin on his face — a true gentleman.”
He left a similar impression on retired Navy Warrant Officer and former Marine George Berry. In 2011, Berry, a history buff and firearms aficionado, made one of his dream purchases at auction – a .45-caliber 1911 pistol. The pistol was in rough shape, but had a name stamped on the slide, “John J. McGinty.”
Berry did some research and found there was a Medal of Honor recipient by that name, but he wasn’t sure it was the same person. He finally managed to get in touch with McGinty, who immediately recited the pistol’s serial number from memory. It was the 1911, mentioned in his Medal of Honor citation, which he had used to kill at least five enemy combatants.
It had been stolen from a display case that also included his sword and uniform.
“As soon as he read back the serial number off the side of the gun, I was blown away. I said, ‘John I’ve got your gun,’ ” Berry said.
McGinty offered to pay Berry what he had spent in the auction, but Berry refused, saying he didn’t want money.
To express his gratitude, McGinty sent Berry another 1911, but it wasn’t just any pistol. It had belonged to another Medal of Honor recipient, Navy Chief Petty Officer John Finn. McGinty’s long-time friend has been recognized for heroic actions during the 1941 attack on Pearl Harbor, which drew the U.S. into World War II.
“I have the best memory and feeling for John McGinty,” Berry said.
Even as he struggled with cancer, Modrzejewski said, McGinty had a positive outlook.
“John was kind of a jokester, always upbeat,” he said. “I understand from people who saw him in his last days, before he passed away, that he was still joking around. So fun to be around, always smiling. I could really count on him for anything. He really took care of the men and looked after their welfare. If every leader I had was like him, I couldn’t have been happier.
“He was a gentleman, a good leader, a good father and just all-around good guy,” Modrzejewski said.
McGinty’s actions were the stuff of Marine legend, but he was forever humble about the medals he had earned, which also included the Purple Heart, the Good Conduct Medal with two bronze stars, the National Defense Service Medal, the Vietnam Service Medal with two bronze campaign stars, the Vietnamese Cross of Gallantry with palm, and the Republic of Vietnam Campaign Medal.
In the 2011 interview, McGinty insisted he wasn’t a hero. He credited his men for their determination and said he wore the medal for them.
“I am proud of the platoon. We all thought we were going to die that day for sure,” he said. “And all the folks that were in the platoon, if you talk to them, they thought that was Judgment Day, that day. But they hung in there and took it and ate their pain and their wounds and shot North Vietnamese. If it were me alone, I probably wouldn’t give a damn. But I wear this [medal] for that platoon.”