John James McGinty III, whose fierce leadership of a Marine platoon during a bitter assault by hundreds of North Vietnamese soldiers earned him the Medal of Honor during the Vietnam War, died Friday of cancer at his home in Beaufort, S.C. He was 73.
His death was confirmed by his son, Michael McGinty.
In July 1966, McGinty was a platoon sergeant in the 4th Marine Regiment's 3rd Battalion when it was sent into Quang Tri province to explore enemy trails, unaware that the territory was occupied by a North Vietnamese army division estimated at 1,000 strong.
After three days of steady combat, the badly outnumbered Marines were ordered to withdraw, with McGinty's platoon providing rear guard.
During a four-hour battle, McGinty and his 32 men repelled wave after wave of enemy soldiers.
At one point he braved intense fire to reach two squads that had become separated from the rest of the platoon.
"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," according to the Medal of Honor citation.
Despite shrapnel wounds in his leg, back and left eye, McGinty killed five enemy soldiers at point-blank range with his .45-caliber pistol. He then called in naval air strikes to within 50 yards of his position. The napalm strikes routed the North Vietnamese, who left an estimated 500 bodies on the battlefield.
"He was a very cool guy, very competent, very smart ... the kind of guy who would set the example for the men in his platoon," said retired Col. Robert J. Modrzejewski, who was McGinty's company commander. Modrzejewski also received the Medal of Honor for his heroism and leadership during the three days of combat.
Promoted to lieutenant, McGinty returned stateside and was a drill instructor at the Marine Corps training center at Parris Island, S.C., when he received the Medal of Honor from President Johnson in a White House ceremony in 1968.
In 1976, after doctors removed the eye that had been injured in battle, he retired as a captain and went to work at the Veterans Administration medical center in San Diego.
Born into an Irish Catholic family in Boston on Jan. 21, 1940, McGinty grew up in Kentucky and joined the Marines in 1958 after graduating from high school.
In the early 1980s he became a born-again Christian and stopped wearing his Medal of Honor because it featured the image of the mythical Roman goddess Minerva. Citing the biblical commandment against idolatry, he told the Los Angeles Times in 1983 that he "could never stand before God as a Christian with that thing around my throat."
"He didn't have a problem with the honor," his son Michael McGinty said in an interview this week. "But like a lot of Medal of Honor guys, he realized the reason he was still alive is the one true God."
In recent years McGinty joined other medal recipients on several trips to visit troops in Iraq and Afghanistan. He lived in the San Diego area until 2011, when he moved to Beaufort.
In addition to Michael, of Beaufort, he is survived by son John James McGinty IV of Tennessee.