Actions that make heroes

Medford man returns rare handgun to Medal of Honor winner
History buff George Berry, of Medford, has a Colt .45-caliber, semiautomatic pistol he has long coveted, which he received after returning a similar pistol that had been stolen from a Medal of Honor recipient in 1978. Mail Tribune Photo / Jamie LuschJamie Lusch

A historic Colt .45-caliber, semi-automatic pistol stolen more than 30 years ago from a Medal of Honor recipient in South Carolina has been returned to its rightful owner.

The gun and owner were reunited after a history buff in Medford, who bought the old handgun in an online auction last month, tracked down the retired Marine whose name is engraved on it.

Marine John J. McGinty's brave act on March 12, 1968

President Lyndon Johnson presented John J. McGinty with the Medal of Honor during a ceremony at the White House on March 12, 1968. In the presentation, then Marine Staff Sgt. McGinty was cited for "conspicuous gallantry and intrepidity at the risk of his life above and beyond the call of duty" during Operation Hastings in July of 1966.

The troops had been battling toe-to-toe with a larger force of North Vietnamese army troops attempting to push south near the demilitarized zone. McGinty was commanding a 32-man platoon serving as a rear guard as the Marine battalion withdrew at the end of a three-day battle.

For four hours, his platoon was attacked by small arms, automatic weapons and mortar fire, the citation reads. At one point, two squads became separated from the main body of the platoon.

"With complete disregard for his safety, McGinty charged through intense automatic weapons and mortar fire to their position," it read. "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.

"Although he was painfully wounded as he moved to care for the disabled men, he continued to shout encouragement to his troops and to direct their fire so effectively that the attacking hordes were beaten off," it continued.

The citation mentions his Colt .45 pistol.

"When the enemy tried to out-flank his position, he killed five of them at point-blank range with his pistol," it concluded.

— Paul Fattig

"I knew if I found him and it was his gun, I couldn't keep it," said George Berry, 71, who knew little about the history of the gun when he purchased it from an auction house in Pennsylvania.

The story begins when Berry, a retired Navy warrant officer who also served in the Marine Corps, decided this summer to fulfill a lifelong dream of owning one of the historic handguns.

"I've always wanted to own a Colt Model 1911 .45 automatic — always wanted one," he says. "John Wayne had one in every World War II movie I've ever seen him in."

Early in July, he began searching the Internet and discovered that Alderfer Auction, a well-known auction firm in Hatfield, Pa., would be offering three of the Colt .45s in a July 12 auction.

In particular, lot No. 78 caught his eye: "Colt 1911 A1 semi-automatic pistol. Cal. 45. 5" bbl. SN 0103889. Reblued finish on all metal, plain walnut Colt grips, after-market rear sight, no magazine," the description read.

"Faint 'USMC' stamped on right side of slide, partial 'United States Property' wording is visible," it continued. "The name 'John J. McGinty USMC' stamped on left side of slide. Very good."

Berry was hesitant because it had been "reblued" and no longer had its original sights or grips, all factors decreasing its value.

"And it had somebody's name engraved on the left side of the slide," he observed.

He had no idea that McGinty was a war hero, let alone a recipient of the nation's highest military medal for valor.

Still, the gun was manufactured in 1914, making it an early model. And there was the USMC stamp he coveted.

"I decided to buy it in spite of the knocks against it," Berry said. "It was the only one I knew of with 'USMC' stamped on it."

Berry paid less than $1,000 for the pistol. The two other Model 1911 Colt .45s in the auction went for roughly $4,000 and $6,000 each, he noted.

Curious about who this McGinty fellow was, he began an Internet search. Up popped numerous articles on a John J. McGinty, a retired marine who was awarded the Medal of Honor for his courage in South Vietnam in 1966.

"The value of the gun just went up five-fold — that was my first thought, anyway," Berry recalled.

As he read more about McGinty and his story, he knew he had to locate him to see if he was the same man who once owned the gun. He also wanted to find out how he parted with the pistol, and whether the former Marine wanted it back.

"His medal citation actually mentions the pistol," Berry observed, referring to the fact the wounded McGinty used it to kill five enemy soldiers attacking his position.

However, Berry did not yet know whether it was the same McGinty associated with his newly acquired pistol. He used the Internet to track down McGinty, 71, in Beaufort, S.C. McGinty had retired from the corps as a captain in October 1976.

The retired Navy warrant officer called the retired Marine Corps officer and asked him if it was his pistol.

"He said, 'Do you mean 0103889?' " Berry recalled, noting McGinty had just recited the gun's serial number.

That's when McGinty informed him the pistol had been stolen in 1978 when it was on display along with his uniform and sword. It was the very same pistol McGinty had used in Vietnam to repulse that final assault.

Berry sent the pistol to Beaufort. After receiving it, McGinty called and wanted to pay Berry for all his expenses.

"I told him I didn't want any money, that I had just wanted a Model 1911," Berry said.

Turns out that McGinty had a completely original Colt 1911 manufactured in 1918 that had been owned by John Finn, a longtime friend. Out of gratitude for having received his pistol back, he sent the Finn pistol to Medford for Berry to pick up last week.

"Can't thank you enough for your kindness," read a July 24 note accompanying the weapon. "I have enclosed some cards and a (Medal of Honor) challenge coin. The John W. Finn card was printed on the occasion of his 100th birthday. John passed away last year. Thank you again, George."

With his signature, McGinty, who could not be reached for comment by the Mail Tribune, added "Semper fi."

Finn, who died in the spring of 2010 at age 100, was the last survivor of the 15 Navy sailors who received the Medal of Honor for heroism during the Japanese attack on Pearl Harbor on Dec. 7, 1941. Wounded nine times, Finn, who acquired the pistol during the war, was the oldest living recipient of the medal.

"I am absolutely deliriously happy it turned out this way," Berry said.

With the Finn pistol he finally acquired a Model 1911 Colt, but he will tell you that's not the point.

"John McGinty could have just said, 'Thanks, have a good life,' " Berry said. "But no matter what was going to happen, I knew I would feel good about getting that gun back to him.

"Concern yourself with what is right and you'll never second-guess that decision," he concluded.

Berry and his wife, Lilliana, plan to visit McGinty later this year.

Reach reporter Paul Fattig at 541-776-4496 or email him at pfattig@mailtribune.com.



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