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This Day in History: John McKinney's WWII Heroism

On this day in 1946, a hero is awarded the Medal of Honor. John McKinney’s story could have easily become lost to history, if only because McKinney himself seemed anxious to forget what he’d been through.

He spent the last decades of his life farming, fishing, and hunting.

“When the Georgian came home, he was invited to many military functions,” a local newspaper reported in 1964, “but he declined most of the invitations. He said he wanted to forget the war.” Indeed, the paper concluded, he mostly “shuns parades and ceremonies.”

McKinney never obtained more than a 3rd-grade education, instead spending most of his younger years hunting and farming for his family. When the Japanese attacked Pearl Harbor, he wanted to join the army, but he couldn’t. His help was needed at home, so he stayed—at least until his draft notice arrived.

McKinney’s heroism came in the Philippines during May 1945. He was at an outpost in Tayabas Province just before dawn on the 11th. He was attempting to sleep in a tent not too far from an American machine-gun position.

Suddenly about 100 Japanese attacked.

“Day was just starting to break,” McKinney later described. “I first heard the kid on the machine gun holler. Next thing I knew, they were chopping at me.” The flap to his tent had been flung open, and a Japanese sergeant lunged inside, wielding a sword. He swung down on McKinney’s head, fortunately missing everything but his right ear. Another Japanese soldier was behind the first, bayonet at the ready.

McKinney took out one with the butt of his rifle. He was soon shooting from his hip, taking the other enemy soldier out as well. But he was getting worried about the lack of response from the American machine gun nearby.

What had happened to the soldiers stationed there? He would soon discover one soldier fatally wounded, one in shock, and one injured. The latter witnessed what followed as McKinney was left to defend the machine gun—alone.

“Pvt. McKinney was confronted by 10 infantrymen who had captured the machine gun with the evident intent of reversing it to fire into the perimeter,” McKinney’s Medal citation describes. “Leaping into the emplacement, he shot seven of them at point-blank range and killed three more with his rifle butt.”

The attacks just kept coming. Wave after wave of Japanese came for McKinney. At some point, the machine gun became inoperative, and he was left with only his rifle—and his hands. Nevertheless, his Medal citation notes that he “cut down waves of the fanatical enemy with devastating fire or clubbed them to death in hand-to-hand combat.”

When help finally arrived, he was surrounded by dead enemy soldiers, and he was in complete control of the area.

“I really didn’t get scared until it was all over,” he remembered afterwards. “Later, that afternoon, I got to thinking about it and got to shaking a little.”

McKinney had “saved his company from possible annihilation,” his Medal citation concluded. He was awarded the Medal by Harry Truman, who called his award a “great citation.”

Naturally, McKinney didn’t think he’d done anything special. “Everybody in the infantry should get one,” he shrugged. “The infantry had it roughest of all.”

“In certain ways, John McKinney was not unlike other Americans who went off to war,” his biographer Forrest B. Johnson concludes. “Most of them had nothing of monetary value or power to return to; they fought because America had an enemy who threatened freedom. . . . In one inspiring moment of courage, John McKinney proved that patriotism, bravery, and resourcefulness can come from a simple country boy.”

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