Vietnam medic to get highest military medal for ‘worst 48 hours of my life’
Helicopters hovered over a dry rice paddy on a hot, sunny morning in Vietnam, dropping the men of Charlie Company into fire from enemy troops.
Two choppers were shot down. A soldier from a downed crew, using his rifle as a crutch, collapsed 100 yards from where the company had set up a perimeter.
A 23-year-old U.S. Army medic ran across the field to reach him under fire from an advancing line of North Vietnamese.
Bullets bounced off the ground at his feet as Pfc. James C. McCloughan hoisted the injured soldier onto his shoulders. He then weaved and dodged to avoid the crossfire, carrying the soldier to safety, McCloughan said.
It was the first of many times that McCloughan of South Haven would risk his life to recover a wounded comrade in the following 48 hours, during what would become known as the Battle of Tam Ky, May 13-15, 1969.
McCloughan is credited with saving the lives of at least 10 men in his company, despite being wounded on three occasions.
President Donald Trump will award McCloughan, now 71, the Medal of Honor at the White House on Monday for “conspicuous gallantry,” recognizing his “distinguished actions” during the battle 48 years ago in which an estimated 2,000 enemy forces vastly outnumbered the Americans.
He joins more than 3,500 members of the U.S. Armed Forces who have received the award since it was created during the Civil War. Seventy-one medal recipients are still living.
McCloughan has invited 100 friends and family members to witness the ceremony, including 10 men who fought in the battle – three of whom he saved. Others are connected to his 38 years of teaching and coaching sports at South Haven High School.
“The whole thing is surreal, as you can imagine. You pinch yourself every once in a while,” McCloughan said this week.
“This is a Charlie Tiger award,” he added, referring to the Charlie Company of the 3rd Battalion, 21st Infantry Regiment, 196th Light Infantry Brigade, Americal Division.
“We went in with 89 of us and walked out with 32 still standing. Twelve were killed, one missing in action, and at least 31 or 32 wounded.”
It turned out to be a minor victory in a war the United States lost, evacuating the country in 1975 as the North Vietnamese communists took over. But the memories continue to resonate for McCloughan and other battle survivors.
‘Doc’ answers pleas for aid
McCloughan, known as “Doc” to his men, only recently considered for the Medal of Honor. His platoon leader, Lt. Randall J. Clark of Dresden, Maine, said that about eight years ago he revived an award application that he originally submitted to Army headquarters in 1970 to honor McCloughan with the Distinguished Service Cross – the second-highest valor award.
Back then, superiors downgraded the award two levels, and McCloughan received the Bronze Star for valor. He was discharged from the Army in 1970 with the rank of Specialist 5.
Last October, Defense Secretary Ash Carter recommended McCloughan receive not the Distinguished Service Cross, but the Medal of Honor – the highest honor bestowed by the U.S. military.
Clark had bolstered the new application with five eyewitnesses who wrote letters describing the conditions of the battle and McCloughan’s bravery amid the fighting. “By contacting all these guys and having all the stories come out, that’s where the ball started to roll,” he said.
The following narrative is based on summaries of the letters and interviews with three battle participants.
The platoon embarked on a mission on the afternoon of May 13 to scout an area near the base of Nui Yon Hill when they were ambushed, sustaining heavy casualties.
Peering over a trench, McCloughan saw two American soldiers without their weapons who were trapped near a bush. He ran low into the crossfire and checked them for wounds.
As he led them back to the trench, he heard a cry for help from another soldier, whom he carried to cover on his shoulders under hostile fire.
Despite orders from two sergeants to stay back, McCloughan returned to the rice paddy three other times to answer pleas for help. Between trips, he treated the wounded and prepared them for evacuation behind the perimeter.
Sgt. Joe Middendorf was one of the machine gunners who shot at the enemy to give McCloughan cover when he went into the “kill zone.”
“To run out there in the heavy arms fire that we were receiving was truly amazing. He didn’t care how much fire was coming at him,” said Middendorf, who now lives in Hazelwood, Missouri.
‘He instilled hope’
When his captain saw McCloughan covered in blood from shrapnel wounds, he ordered him to get on the next helicopter. McCloughan refused.
“I was close enough to the hill to see little ant-like figures coming off of it. I knew there were lots and lots of them there,” McCloughan said. “They were going to need me.”
About the same time the next day, the company was ordered to move out toward the hill again. The first platoon encountered an ambush by the North Vietnamese Army, which opened fire with grenades, mortars and automatic weapons.
The first platoon’s medic, 22-year-old Pfc. Daniel Shea, rescued four wounded soldiers and was helping a fifth when he was fatally shot by enemy fire.
McCloughan recovered Shea’s body and took over as the company’s only remaining medic. Shea, of Norwalk, Connecticut, was posthumously awarded the Medal of Honor.
McCloughan stashed his bag near a tree and pulled out the medical gear. He encountered everything from burns to gunshot wounds to blast injuries, treating an estimated 40 to 45 men over two days, he said.
“He instilled hope in people. ‘Don’t give up.’ ‘Stick with me,’” Clark recalled. “Especially when you’re hit bad – boy, you need that hope to stay alive long enough to get on that chopper and get the hell out of there.”
During the ambush, McCloughan tossed an air-burst grenade at a North Vietnamese soldier who was about to shoot an American whose weapon had jammed.
He went out to aid another soldier, Pfc. Luigi Vaccaro, who was laying on his back in the rice paddy with a stomach wound.
While bandaging Vaccaro, McCloughan was shot in the forearm by an AK-47 bullet. Undeterred, he carried Vaccaro in his arms back to the relative safety of his makeshift aid station, later stitching up his own wound.
McCloughan also returned to the field to help Pfc. Kent Nielsen, who had been shot through the shoulder. A rocket-propelled grenade exploded while the medic was at Nielsen’s side. He used his body to shield Nielsen from the shower of shrapnel.
McCloughan answered two more calls for a medic in the field, rescuing both men. Throughout the night, he poured his drinking water on Vaccaro’s stomach to keep his organs from drying out, while giving Nielsen shots of morphine, he said.
When supplies dwindled, McCloughan volunteered to lay in an exposed area after dark with a blinking light to let the resupply helicopter know where to drop its load.
“I got to thinking: Wait, if they actually try to kick that out of the helicopter, that ammo is going to land on me,” McCloughan said.
The chopper never arrived, driven away by enemy fire.
‘Enemy finally retreated’
Air support ultimately helped push back the advancing North Vietnamese. An AC-47 aircraft known as a Spooky dropped flares overnight that helped light up the enemy’s position in the dark.
In the early morning, McCloughan knocked out a rocket-propelled grenade position, helping to hold off the enemy forces on the front line.
“They were so close to us you could hear them talking,” Middendorf said. “The enemy finally retreated. We beat them back.”
At daybreak, McCloughan helped arrange the dead and wounded for evacuation. Other reinforcements arrived.
The battle had raged for two days and two nights, unlike most skirmishes in Vietnam that lasted a couple hours at most.
“It was the longest battle I was in,” Middendorf said. “I was in many of them, but this was the worst. It was horrific. … I was surprised any of us came out of there.”
The operation aimed to rout the Northern Vietnamese Army around the village of Tam Ky, and it did, according to the book “Death Valley” by Keith William Nolan.
“I should have died at least five times when I went into the kill zone. Or been captured. I got close enough that if I hadn’t been so well-protected by a few really good machine-gunners, I wouldn’t be talking to you,” McCloughan said.
“I can’t believe I’m getting an award for the worst 48 hours of my life.”
James “Doc” McCloughan
Hometown: South Haven
Family: Wife Chérie; sons, Jamie and Matt; daughter, Kami; and stepdaughter, Kara
Education: Bachelor’s degree from Olivet College (1968) and master’s degree from Western Michigan University (1972)
Career: Taught sociology and psychology at South Haven High School, where he also coached football, wrestling and baseball, retiring in 2008 after 38 years
Military service: U.S. Army, 1968 to 1970, serving in Vietnam March 1969 to March 1970, assigned as a combat medic to Company C, 3rd Battalion, 21st Infantry Regiment, 196th Light Infantry Brigade, Americal Division