Mending a Damaged Heart: Gunner McKinney’s Posthumous Purple Heart Medal
Under the cover of early morning darkness on August 7, 1942, John Harris McKinney, Jr., was at his 5-inch gun mount aboard the heavy cruiser USS Vincennes (CA-44) as she steamed slowly in a column formation along the northern coast of the largest southeastern-most island in the Solomons. Reports poured over the sound-powered phones in rapid succession to the bridge-talker relaying manning status of the ship’s crew at their battle stations. When the order to commence firing was given, the ship was rocked as massive fireballs grew rapidly and extended some 50-yards outward as the first shells left the barrels as the large 8-inch projectiles sped towards their targets on shore positions.
Vincennes and her sister New Orleans Class cruisers, USS Astoria and USS Quincy were joined by the heavy cruiser USS Chicago and other ships as the naval guns fired away to soften the enemy positions on Guadalcanal. The naval gunfire bombardment was in advance of sending waves of landing craft that would place the men of the First Marine Division onto the Guadalcanal beach between Koli and Lunga Points.
While the Vincennes’ main batteries sent volley after volley onto Guadalcanal targets, McKinney, was scouring the darkened skies, anticipating the arrival of enemy aircraft. John H. McKinney was a former enlisted man who was appointed to the rank of Warrant Officer (W-1) on January 6, 1941, a little more than a month prior to reporting aboard Vincennes after spending the first of his prior nine years as a fire controlman. The 5-inch mount where McKinney was assigned was one of the ship’s eight guns that were primarily used to provide anti-aircraft protection. It was not long after sunrise that the Imperial Japanese Mitsubishi G4M2a Model 24 “Betty” bombers from Rabaul appeared on the horizon after their nearly 700-mile flight and began to wreak havoc on the landings.
As the Japanese Betty bombers pressed their low altitude attack at just 25-50 above the surface of the water, some enemy planes were successful in penetrating the onslaught of fire from the ship. Dodging enormous splashes from the rounds that impacted the surface of the water ahead of the aircraft, Vincennes managed to avoid hits from the attackers’ aerial bombs as well as a torpedo. Vincennes’ gunners were accurate, downing eight enemy bombers during the two days while providing protective support of the First Marine Division’s landings.
When Vincennes was first painted by the bright searchlights from the cruisers and destroyers of Japanese Admiral Gunichi Mikawa’s task force on August 9, just before 2:00 AM, main battery gun crews were immediately ordered to fire on the source. A split-second after the blinding muzzle flash from Vincennes 8-inch batteries began to dissipate and crews’ eyes started to readjust to the darkness, the ship was rocked by the sudden impact of enemy projectiles and subsequent explosions as the deadly accuracy of the Imperial Japanese Navy’s gunners took an immediate toll on the American cruiser. “The first Jap hit smashed our sky aft [rear ranged finder] to pieces,” Electrician’s Mate 3/c Milton A. Schneller of Chicago, Illinois described the attack. “Then we took a torpedo right in our guts and shuddered again” the sailor described the onslaught to an Associated Press reporter.
Almost immediately as the enemy shells began to strike the ship, a pair of torpedoes fired from the Japanese cruiser Chōkai struck Vincennes and crippled her with heavy damage and flooding amidships. Fires broke out in the ship’s hangers as the four Curtis SOC scout planes along with the aviation fuel stores giving the enemy gunners a perfectly illuminated target. “Another direct hit and all lights went out. Shells and torpedoes, meanwhile, were coming fast. Number one fire room was hit directly after (to the rear) of us,” Schneller recalled the enemy onslaught, months later.
As salvo after salvo of enemy fire pounded the American cruiser, Vincennes’ gunners did manage to score a hit on the cruiser Kinugasa damaging her rudder machinery. “We kept getting hit. Men up on the sky control (located high up on the ship’s superstructure) kept dropping. They were scattered around the decks,” Schneller described the horror in the October 12, 1942 article. “One of the officers went to take some of the men from [to] a sick bay, but there wasn’t any sic bay left. It had got a direct hit.” A third torpedo fired from the cruiser Yūbari struck Vincennes and dealt her the blow that spelled her end
In under 20 minutes, Vincennes had taken more than 100 hits and three torpedoes as the Japanese task force ceased their attack and turned northwest, back towards New Guinea having decimated the two allied naval groups protected the Guadalcanal approaches. Vincennes was dead in the water, listing and engulfed in flames. Carnage was everywhere. Recounting the attack six decades later, one surviving veteran remembered the decks being slick with blood and strewn with debris and body parts from his shipmates. The pilothouse where the ship’s commanding officer, Captain Frederick Riefkohl was positioned before the attack was obliterated by naval gunfire though he survived the destruction.
The ship was without power as Captain Riefkohl issued the order to abandon ship. Many men struggled to make their way to a point where they could safely leave the ship. Sailors attempted to open hatches and scuttles to allow trapped men to escape the burning and sinking ship. Some entered below decks spaces and were successful in locating wounded men bringing them to the ship’s exterior, helping them into the water.
The mighty Vincennes’ guns now silent, the veteran of the Doolittle Raid, Coral Sea, Midway and Guadalcanal battles, was burning out of control and sinking and most of her crew were adrift among the floating wreckage and oil slicks.
In his log of the attack, Riefkohl subsequently wrote: “The magnificent Vincennes, which we were all so proud of, and which I had the honor to command since 23 April 1941, rolled over and then sank at about 0250, 9 August 1942, about 2½ miles east of Savo Island … Solomons Group, in some 500 fathoms of water.”
Admiral Mikawa’s attack yielded incredible results as his task force dealt the U.S. Navy their worst surface battle loss in its history. The Navy’s losses that night were substantial as the USS Quincy and USS Astoria were also sunk while the Chicago and two destroyers were heavily damaged and left out of action. The cruiser HMAS Canberra was so heavily damaged that she had to be scuttled leaving the total allied casualties that night to be nearly 1,200 men missing or killed in action and four cruisers lost.
With Vincennes resting in the depths of what would become known as “Iron Bottom Sound,” her crew were adrift and struggling to survive in the darkness. “We were in the water. There was a guy close to me,” Francis M. Williamson of Petersburg, Virginia mentioned in the aforementioned news story. “He had almost his whole body shot away. Once he said very quietly, ‘I can’t last more than fifteen or twenty minutes more. I got a hundred dollars in my pocket here if it’ll do you fellows any good.’ But nobody took it,” said Williams.
Later that morning, two American destroyers began to pick up the survivors but had to temporarily break from the rescue in order to pursue a periscope sighting and to drop depth charges. Another survivor, Hager described harrowing situation as the men were huddled together in the water with some in a life raft and others in the water, hanging on to the sides. When a destroyer arrived at the scene early that morning, fear among the men ensued as Hager informed them of the enemy’s propensity of machine-gunning survivors. As the ship drew near, the sound of small arms and .50 caliber machine gun fire was heard by the men in the raft. Just before they jumped into the water to escape being shredded in they thought would be a hail of bullets, one of the survivors realized the ship was American. A crewman aboard the ship yelled that the water was churning with sharks and the gunners aboard the ship were protecting the survivors. “They said the sharks were after a wounded offices and they machine-gunned them to save him.” Hager described an earlier encounter that occurred during the darker hours of the morning. “I don’t know whether it was a shark or not,” he said, “but while I was out there in the water, I saw a white streak heading for me and I did some fast swimming to get back to the raft.” Questions remained for Hager concerning other survivors in the water near him as he concluded his encounter, “I never saw the two men who swam with me after that.”
Once the wounded and water-logged men were aboard the rescue ships and the dead floating In the waters surrounding Savo Island were accounted for, the human losses became more apparent as musters were taken to determine the numbers. With 322 of the nearly 800 officers and enlisted missing or killed in action, notifications would not reach the families for some time. Official reports of the crew status were submitted to the Navy on September 3, 1942 as the survivors were sent back to Pearl Harbor. Triaging the wounded, some of whom were severely burned, meant that some men would be spending months in hospitals on Oahu while others would be shipped back to the mainland for recuperation and further disposition. Some of the survivors took advantage of the 30-days of rest and recuperation (R&R) due them following the loss of their ship while others were more eager to return to the fight, opting for immediate new assignments.
In the following weeks, teams of military personnel were dispatched to more than homes around the country bearing news of loss. One such official visit occurred at 640 Sadler Avenue in Los Angeles at the home of John Harris McKinney, Jr. where his wife, Rubye Lee and four-year-old son, John Harris McKinney III resided. Perhaps even more heart breaking than receiving a KIA notification, Mrs. McKinney was informed that her husband was missing in action.
While it is not known which five-inch mount Gunner John H. McKinney, Jr. was assigned to, all eight of the anti-aircraft guns were highly vulnerable to enemy fire due to them being fully exposed. Unlike the main batteries which were armor-protected and the gun crews were beneath the armor-plated decks, McKinney and his crew were exposed to the elements with a nominal bulwark scatter shield that was meant to provide a barrier to reduce exposure to splintering decks and structure. The location of the five-inch mounts placed them at amidships in the shadows of the two stacks or in other words, at the enemy aiming point. It is highly-likely that McKinney was killed at the outset of the Japanese attack as many of the early shots were landed in this area.
On October 13, 1942, Gunner McKinney, formerly listed as missing in action, his name was published in the Los Angeles Times among those who were killed in action. Mrs. John H. McKinney would be presented with a Purple Heart Medal bearing an engraving on the reverse of the pendant. At the end of the war, McKinney’s widow would have also received any decorations that he was due which would have included the World War II Victory Medal.
In the fall of 2020, The Veteran’s Collection was contacted by a man regarding a medal that he had in his possession. The man, having exhausted his efforts to reunite the medal with the recipient’s family, desired to place it care of a person or organization where it would be preserved in an honoring manner. Due to the significant number of our published articles focused upon artifacts related the three Navy cruisers named Vincennes, the man who contacted us believed that the medal that he held would find a place of honor among our USS Vincennes collection.
Following a handful of email and phone conversations with the man we understand that the medal cane to be in his possession from his former business partner but the details of how the partner obtained it were not known.
Viewing the photos of the medal that were sent to us combined with sound measure of caution, we began to explore every possible avenue of research to ensure that the medal was not reported stolen or missing. Researching the veteran was also necessary to ascertain the nature of his service and to ensure that the veteran was indeed aboard the ship and awarded the medal.
With due diligence performed over the course of several weeks researching genealogy and family history, notices or discussions of theft and consulting a Purple Heart Medal expert, we reached an agreement with the contact for modest compensation. Within a few days the purple heart medal was shipped.
Once we received and opened the carefully packaged decoration, a sense of pain and loss filled the surrounding air. There was a sense of the unfathomable moment when McKinney’s widow beheld the medal for the first time, knowing that her husband and the father of her young son would never come home. The finality that came with this medal that is awarded in recognition of veteran’s combat wound or loss punctuated the moment when Mrs. McKinney was first notified that her husband was missing. Having this in our collection added a somber dimension which is a principle reason that we have never previously pursued posthumous decorations.
John Harris McKinney, Jr. was born on April 10, 1912 in Dalhart, Texas to John and Audie Bell. McKinney graduated from Mercedes High School in 1930 and enrolled into an Reserve Officer Training Corps program in San Antonio. John enlisted into the U.S. Navy late in 1932 and completed recruit training and Naval Training Station San Diego, California. Apprentice Seaman McKinney was assigned to the Northampton-class heavy cruiser USS Augusta (CA-31) on May 21, 1933. On January 26, 1936, McKinney was detached from the Augusta and reported aboard the repair ship, USS Vestal (AR-4) on March 12, 1937. The gap between ship assignments may have been spent on a shore command and during this time, he married the former Rubye Lee Hedrick in San Pedro, California on July 8, 1936. After completing his first term, McKinney, now rated as a fire controlman third class, reenlisted on June 20, 1936. McKinney’s career path and advancement was accelerated despite the peacetime Navy’s limited manning. John and Rubye welcomed their son, John Harris McKinney, III on December 5, 1937. Detached from Vestal on November 14, 1939, Fire Controlman first class McKinney was sent to advanced fire control school in Washington D.C., Long Island City and at Schenectady, New York. Following his completion of schools, McKinney was commissioned as a warrant officer (W-1), Gunner. With ten years of service, Gunner McKinney was halfway to retirement and a pension.
On February 12, 1941, Gunner McKinney reported aboard CA-44, USS Vincennes, and was assigned to one of the ship’s eight 5-inch gun mounts.
In consulting our copy of David A. Schwind’s outstanding authoritative work, Sacrifice Remembered: Posthumous Awards of the Purple Heart Medal in the Second World War to analyze the specifics of the Gunner McKinney medal, we noted the style of the engraving and the design of the planchette. Through our research we noted that McKinney’s posthumous decoration is a Navy Type-1 Purple Heart Medal. The hand engraving includes the veteran’s rank, full name and service branch along with artistic flourishes is an example of early wartime style, characterized by Scwhind as Type-1c.
The medal itself is in good overall condition showing signs of wear on the raised edges and surfaces of the George Washington bust and some along the edges. On the planchette obverse, the plastic surround shows slight contraction from the edges and nominal surface scratches. The enamel in the laurels and the coat of arms located at the top of the planchette (beneath the suspension) is intact. The reverse of the planchette shows a fair amount of gold erosion surrounding the engraving as well as on the raised edges of the lettering, shield and laurels. The ribbon drape is heavily soiled and worn and unfortunately, the gilt sterling silver brooch was missing.
Another of the more important aspects missing from McKinney’s Purple Heart Medal is the small purple Navy type-1 presentation box. Judging by the condition of what arrived, it would be a safe assessment to suggest that the original presentation box deteriorated or was discarded decades ago. Regardless of the condition and the missing elements, the medal, according to Mr. Schwind, is a bit of a scarcity and highly desired among collectors due to it being an early Navy medal and an early engraving awarded to a warrant officer.
Seeking further consultation led to a colleague offering us the correct, type-1 brooch, ribbon and suspension ring to effectively restore McKinney’s medal. The replacement brooch, ribbon and suspension ring were had been removed from another type-1 Navy Purple Heart Medal and were in fantastic condition. By simply removing the existing suspension ring and replacing it with the new piece, the Gunner McKinney medal was made whole.
After the war, Gunner McKinney’s widow, Rubye Lee (Hedrick) McKinney married another Navy man, Harry E. Wageman on November 7, 1946. At some point thereafter, the former WWII Sea Bee veteran adopted John and Rubye’s son, John H. McKinney, Jr., changing his name to John McKinney Wageman. Seven days after his 43rd birthday, John McKinney Wageman, a geophysicist working in the petroleum exploration industry in Houston Texas, succumbed to metastatic brain cancer, exacerbated by bilateral pneumonia. Gunner McKinney’s son outlived him by thirteen years and left behind a widow, Molly R. (Matlock) Wageman and the couple apparently had no children.
It is astonishing that families let go of the reminders of their military heritage and history. Unfortunately, it is quite common to see military uniforms, certificates, records and even decorations and medals discarded in the trash, donated or sold, once the veteran has passed away. It is unknown what path Gunner McKinney’s Purple Heart Medal was set upon leaving us to assume that upon John McKinney Wagemen’s passing in 1980 or that of his mother in January 2000, the medal could have gone in any number of directions. Regardless, the Purple Heart Medal did not proper care or storage judging by the condition when we received it.
A few weeks ago, the Ohio Valley Military Society held its annual Show of Shows in Louisville, Kentucky. Unable to attend the show, we reached out to a few of our colleagues in the area who were attending to see if they could be on the lookout for the proper presentation box among the hundreds of tables of militaria. Within a few hours of making our request, a suitable box was found and shipped a few days later. With the medal placed in the box (along with the original ribbon and suspension), McKinney’s Purple Heart Medal has been returned to the state it was in nearly 80 years ago.
Gunner John Harris McKinney has been at rest with his shipmates at what today is known as Iron Bottom Sound nearly 3,500-feet beneath the surface. In January 2015, the Paul Allen-fund Research Vessel Petrel located and photographed the wreck of USS Vincennes (CA-44) and documented how she came to rest on the sea floor. One of the most poignant images captured by the Petrel crew showed one of Vincennes’ 5-inch guns still trained as if her crew were ready to send another round toward the enemy.
With his final resting site known and his Gunner McKinney’s Purple Heart Medal restored, the Veteran’s Collection will be determining the final disposition of the decoration to ensure that it will be honored, properly cared for and viewable in perpetuity.