South Haven vet: Medal ‘all about love’
Arlington, Virginia — The veterans all agreed that recognition for their company’s former combat medic is long overdue.
Five “battle brothers” gathered Saturday morning at a hotel near the Pentagon to tell the story of the 48-hour battle near Tam Ky, Vietnam, in mid-May 1969, when 89 troops from Charlie Company held off assault after assault from 1,500 to 2,000 enemy forces.
They came here to honor and thank Pfc. James “Doc” McCloughan, the medic from South Haven credited with saving the lives of at least 10 members of his company, by pulling or carrying them from the field of battle under heavy fire and then treating their wounds. He stayed in the field, despite being wounded three separate times.
For his role, McCloughan on Monday will receive the military’s most prestigeous award, the Medal of Honor, at the White House. He will be inducted into the Pentagon’s Hall of Heroes on Tuesday.
“This medal is all about love,” said McCloughan, who served with the 3rd Battalion, 21st Infantry Regiment, 196th Infantry Brigade, Americal Division.
“We were down to 89 men in our company, but we stuck together, and we fought for each other’s lives with our backs to the wall.”
Their commanders had sent no observers ahead, so no one knew the firepower they would face.
“We didn’t sleep for 48 hours We were getting fired on all night, all day,” said Mike Martino, now 68 and living in northeastern Pennsylvania.
Martino recalled McCloughan bringing in a soldier with a “sucking chest wound” and working on him as Martino sorted through the gear of the wounded men.
They were dangerously low on supplies by the second day and needed to recover what they could from the wounded men’s bags before they were evacuated. A helicopter that came to resupply their ammunition retreated under heavy fire.
“None of us should be alive. When that helicopter pulled out, the word that came around to us was, ‘Save one round for yourself.’ Because we didn’t think we’d make it through,” Martino said.
Bill Arnold, a 20-year-old rifleman with the third platoon, severely injured his knee when his helicopter was shot down and he fell into the rice paddy.
He fell behind the other men when retreating to the Americans’ defensive perimeter, finally collapsing and pulling himself along the dusty ground with his rifle. He looked up to see McCloughan running toward him across the field.
He remembers thinking, “Who is dumb enough to be coming out here when we’re getting fired at?”
McCloughan reached him and said, “Hang on for a bumpy ride.”
He then lifted Arnold onto his shoulders and carried him back inside the perimeter under crossfire. He later put Arnold on a medical evacuation helicopter, and Arnold returned to the states.
Now 69 and living in Bellefontaine, Ohio, Arnold turned to McCloughan on Saturday and stretched out his hand.
“If I never told you, thank you,” Arnold said to his friend.
Machine-gunner Kent Nielsen was critically injured when he was shot through the right shoulder.
McCloughan brought him in from the “kill zone” and kept him alive overnight, periodically giving him shots of morphine to keep him from going into shock.
He and McCloughan reconnected around 2010. Nielsen, now 71, lives in Amelia Island, Florida.
“I didn’t think there was ever any chance I’d ever see any of the company again, much less the medic who saved my life. At the time, I couldn’t stop thanking him for what he’d done,” Nielsen said in an interview.
“I’m proud as hell to see him get this award.”
The men said they’d told the story of the battle to no one – or very few – until recently.
“Until Jim contacted me, I had put most of this on a shelf,” Nielsen said.
After a company reunion several years ago, McCloughan helped Martino link up with a counselor through the Department of Veterans Affairs, Martino said.
“It hit me so hard, thinking about all the men we lost. It all came flooding back,” Martino said. “Doc took care of us and still does to this day.”
The company had lost 12 men in the battle, saw one captured and another 44 were wounded or injured, McCloughan said.
“We walked out morning of May 15 as blood brothers,” McCloughan said. “The love we had for one another had conquered the enemy. They moved on, and we were still standing.”