James E. McInerney Jr., a retired Air Force major general who was a combat pilot during the Vietnam War and who received the Air Force Cross for taking out enemy defensive weaponry in a 1967 raid on a strategic bridge near Hanoi, died Oct. 14 at a hospital in Washington. He was 84.
The cause was cardiopulmonary arrest, said his son, Jake McInerney.
Gen. McInerney was one of five airmen to receive the Air Force Cross — that service’s highest decoration for valor after the Medal of Honor — in the Aug. 11, 1967, attack on a bridge formerly called the Paul Doumer Bridge, which was a vital supply and troop conduit for enemy forces.
According to Airman magazine, an official publication of the Air Force, there had not been so many high combat decorations awarded for a single mission since a 1943 raid on the Ploesti oil fields of Romania during World War II.
In an eight-day period in May 1967, then-Lt. Col. McInerney also received three Silver Star commendations for air combat. He was commander of the so-called “Wild Weasel” air squadron whose purpose was to damage or destroy antiaircraft weaponry and surface-to-air missile launching sites. He was cited for his tactical use of evasive air tactics to elude enemy missiles.
As a “Wild Weasel” pilot, his job included serving as “bait,” or as a decoy, to help other airmen find enemy positions. This stratagem enabled the Wild Weasel aircraft to damage or destroy enemy defenses and to divert attention away from other U.S. forces. On 101 combat flights in Vietnam, Gen. McInerney never lost an airplane from his squadron.
He was “the greatest combat leader I have ever witnessed,” retired Air Force Gen. Joseph W. Ralston, a former vice chairman of the Joint Chiefs of Staff and Supreme Allied Commander for NATO, said in an interview.
James Eugene McInerney Jr. was born Aug. 3, 1930, in Springfield, Mass. His father was a career Army officer stationed at the Springfield Armory. He grew up at military bases across the country, including Washington. He graduated from the U.S. Military Academy at West Point, N.Y., in 1952, one of four McInerney brothers to do so.
In college, he was captain of the West Point boxing team and was Eastern intercollegiate light heavyweight boxing champion in 1951 and 1952. He had a chance to try out for the U.S. Olympic boxing team in 1952, according to news accounts, but he passed it up to attend flight training school.
Among Gen. McInerney’s early Air Force assignments was Korea, where as a junior pilot he shot down a Russian MiG-15 aircraft in 1955. The truce ending the Korean War had been in effect since 1953, but relations were tense, and there were periodic flare-ups between the two sides.
Flying escort with a reconnaissance aircraft, Gen. McInerney shot down one of three Chinese-piloted MiG-15s, which took “hostile and aggressive” action against the reconnaissance plane, said his brother, retired Air Force Lt. Gen. Tom McInerney.
Gen. James McInerney received a master’s degree in aeronautical engineering from Princeton University in the early 1960s and master’s degree in public administration from George Washington University a decade later. He served in England and Germany before going to Southeast Asia in 1967.
He had only recently arrived at his base in Thailand when his commanding officer relayed some bad news: His brother Richard, a captain in an Army special forces unit, had been killed in ground combat in Vietnam.
Although he was never brought down by enemy fire, Gen. McInerney was forced to eject from his plane over the jungle in Laos when returning from a night mission over Vietnam. His parachute got stuck in a tree, where he remained hanging throughout the night. The next day, he was rescued by a helicopter.
After Vietnam, Gen. McInerney served at the National War College and the Pentagon and in Turkey and Germany. He retired from the Air Force in 1980 as deputy chief of staff for programs and analysis.
He settled in Annandale, Va., and worked as a legislative specialist with the McDonnell Douglas aircraft corporation and later became a vice president of the National Defense Industrial Association.
For his work as a fundraiser for the American Air Museum in England, he was designated a commander of the British Empire. He was also a former president of the British American Business Association.
No matter where he was in the world, his son said, Gen. McInerney made it a point to attend a Roman Catholic mass at 7 o’clock every morning.
His wife of 38 years, Mary Catherine Hill McInerney, died in 2011.
Survivors include two children, Anne McInerney of Chevy Chase, Md., and Jake McInerney of Alexandria, Va.; a brother, retired Air Force Lt. Gen. Tom McInerney of Washington; and a sister, Patricia Whitaker of Sanibel, Fla.
In addition to his Air Force Cross and Silver Stars, Gen. McInerney also received seven Distinguished Flying Crosses. He was formally recognized by the Air Force Association as a “Living Legend.”