This Day in History: Two Marines and their Medals of Honor
During this week in 1966, two Marines are involved in an action that would ultimately earn them Medals of Honor. The men were then serving together in Operation Hastings, an effort to stop the North Vietnamese from penetrating further south.
Robert Modrzejewski was commanding officer of his company. It was the same company in which John McGinty was serving.
“The operation started out as a helicopter assault,” Modrzejewski later recalled. The helicopters unfortunately came under attack by small arms fire, and the landing zone wasn’t big enough. Two helicopters crashed.
“It wasn’t a very auspicious beginning,” Modrzejewski concluded.
The Marines were in for several tough days. They successfully captured an enemy position, but they were outnumbered, under attack, and surrounded. Ammunition was dwindling and reinforcements were nowhere in sight. There was no way to evacuate the dead and wounded.
On their last night in the area, the Marines were attacked by a large enemy force. Modrzejewski directed air and artillery fire to strike close to his position. At one point, he managed to crawl “200 meters to provide critically needed ammunition to an exposed element of his command.” He was already wounded by then and exposing himself to enemy fire, but he went anyway.
Amazingly, the Americans survived the night, but they were soon ordered to move. Modrzejewski’s company was to serve as rear guard for the battalion.
“I don’t have enough Marines here to protect the little sisters of the poor,” Modrzejewski later recalled, “let alone protect the rear of the battalion. But, nevertheless, that was my mission.”
If anything, McGinty was in an even worse position. “Company K was covering the rear,” Modrzejewski would tell a New York Times reporter in 2014, “and Sergeant McGinty’s platoon was providing cover for the rear of the rear.”
Both men got in trouble on their way out. Modrzejewski again found himself calling in artillery strikes close to his position. But McGinty ran into a different kind of challenge.
His platoon was supposed to cover the Marine engineers as they finished destroying the helicopters that had crashed a few days earlier. Sensitive information aboard could not fall into enemy hands.
Fortunately, McGinty had made a decision that would save lives. Company K had been resupplied with ammunition the day before. “The other two platoons had taken off in front of me,” he later recounted, “and they left a lot of ammunition there. . . . I made [my platoon] pick up all the ammo because I wasn’t leaving it for the North Vietnamese.”
His platoon wasn’t too happy about it at the time! But that ammunition would end up saving their lives.
The platoon was attacked on its way out. They were forced to fight a multi-hour battle! McGinty was seemingly everywhere. He fired at enemy combatants, killing them at point-blank range. He risked his life to run toward men who had been separated from the rest of the platoon. He quickly reloaded weapons for wounded men who could still fire at the enemy. He ordered air and artillery strikes close to his position.
His left eye was badly wounded, but he fought on anyway.
Wouldn’t you know that those outnumbered Americans finally drove off the Vietnamese?
Both Modrzejewski and McGinty were awarded the Medal of Honor in the same March 1968 ceremony. Modrzejewski later expressed the sentiments of both men: “I never looked at it as something that belonged to me, personally. It was always for the wounded and those that died and the sacrifices that they made.”
Paul Vitello, John J. McGinty III, Who Gave Away His Medal of Honor, Dies at 73, New York Times (Jan. 22, 2014)