John McGinty always liked the recruitment slogan "Join the Navy and See the World," but he wasn't fond of Navy uniforms, so right after high school he joined the Marines. It was 1957, and over the next few years, besides doing a stint as a drill instructor at Parris Island, South Carolina, he got to see varied and exotic places, including having a posting in the Far East, and another as a military policeman in Kodiak, Alaska.
By the summer of 1966, McGinty, a staff sergeant in the 3rd Battalion, 4th Marines, was in Vietnam. On July 15, the battalion was helicoptered into an area along the demilitarized zone where infrared photos taken by air reconnaissance showed enemy activity. Coming into the landing zone, the choppers came under heavy fire; three were lost off-loading the Marines.
Once he was finally on the ground, McGinty saw that the enemy was not the pajama-clad Vietcong guerrillas the Marines were used to fighting, but rather, for the first time, uniformed and well-supplied North Vietnamese Army soldiers. U.S. intelligence had drastically underestimated their numbers: The Marines were facing an entire NVA regiment.
That first day, the Americans captured a 250-bed enemy hospital dug into a hill under the heavy jungle canopy. For the next two days, the North Vietnamese tried to dislodge the Marines from that position. On the morning of July 18, during a pause in the fighting, the battalion was ordered to withdraw, with McGinty's company acting as the rear guard. The previous day, U.S. troops had been heavily resupplied with ammunition; the other two platoons in the company took some of it and moved out. McGinty ordered the men in his platoon to pick up the remaining ammunition. They grumbled, but this decision would save their lives.
McGinty's was the last platoon out, staying behind to cover the Marine engineers as they destroyed the downed American helicopters in order to keep sensitive equipment aboard out of enemy hands. The North Vietnamese attacked again; only the fifty or so men in the platoon stood between the enemy and the rest of the Marine battalion, vulnerable in its withdrawal.
McGinty and his men opened fire and held back the first wave of North Vietnamese. The second wave was stopped by U.S. fighter planes dropping napalm before it could charge. For the next six hours, McGinty rallied his men repeatedly, receiving wounds in his legs and left eye. The ammunition he had earlier forced his men to carry out allowed them to fight off the enemy.
Seeing two squads cut off from the rest of the platoon, McGinty ran to them through intense machine-gun and mortar fire. Finding twenty men wounded and the corpsman dead, he reloaded weapons for the injured men and organized a defense. He killed five enemy soldiers at point-blank range with his pistol. Then, as North Vietnamese troops again threatened to overrun his position, he called in air strikes to within fifty yards of his men.
As night fell, the enemy withdrew. When choppers arrived to evacuate the Marines, only nine of the fifty were still able-bodied. There were more than five hundred enemy dead left behind.